Sixty years ago Francis Crick and James Watson announced to the world that they had discovered DNA. Its relatively simple biological structure explains how the human body operates. I’ve discovered a behavioral DNA. It explains how everyone acts all the time. And it can be explained in today’s language and literature.
Crick and Watson discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid – DNA. It’s based on four nucleotides (adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine). Our behavioral DNA is based on four actions we take everyday – ought, is, can, will. Anyone can discover it. For instance, a few years back I spoke to a group of scientists in Beijing. Most were not Christians. I began with the story of Watson and Crick. I then asked if a behavioral DNA might also exist. The group was intrigued, so I gave them a case study. It goes like this: A development team is struggling with a colleague whose work performance is falling short. As a result, jobs are in jeopardy. Everyone is feeling stress. I asked the scientists to form small groups and record everything they’d feel, think, say, and do.
They wrote down dozens of responses. Recording them on a whiteboard, everyone felt their reactions fell into four categories. Feelings like disappointed fit in the first column. Everyone imagines how life ought to be and is disappointed when it doesn’t work out. Words like angry fell into a second category – recognizing the way it is. There was a third column. Words like review and fix indicate what can be done. Phrases like “set new standards of performance” fit a fourth category, a hope for what will be. The group discovered our behavioral DNA – ought-is-can-will. It was an “aha” moment. The discussion took off and went late into the night. Ought-is-can-will resonated. It seemed to explain everything.
C. S. Lewis wrote that he believed in Christianity as he believed the sun had risen – not only because he saw it; but by it, he saw all things. We live in an age when fewer and fewer folks feel the gospel explains much of anything. Sociologist James Davison Hunter is one of many scholars describing today’s church as, “spiritual speaking, in exile.” The church is an outsider in the Monday-Saturday world. It’s a self-inflicted exile. Too many churches measure success by what Dallas Willard called the “ABCs” – attendance, buildings, and cash. While a packed sanctuary might be a good thing, it can gloss over the fact that the faith isn’t being taken seriously by an increasing percentage of the population. Exile is the result of the church largely ignoring this troubling trend.
This is why the Babylonian exile of 2,500 years ago might be the best precedent for understanding our times and knowing what to do. The first thing the sons of Judah set out to do was learn the language and literature of Babylon (Daniel 1:4). They couldn’t relate to the Babylonians if they were unfamiliar with their language and literature.
When I came to faith, I struggled with “Christianese” – how most Christians only had language suitable for Sunday. That’s why I developed ought-is-can-will. It resonates. It’s accessible to all. And it’s the gospel – creation-fall-redemption-restoration.
By studying today’s language and the literature, I discovered ought-is-can-will as a translation of creation-fall-redemption-restoration. I don’t use it to be hip, cool, clever, or relevant. I use it because the gospel is not believable to an increasing percentage of the population. Augustine wrote: Nullus quipped credit aliquid, nisi prius cogitaverit esse credendum – “no one indeed believes anything, unless he previously knew it to be believable.” Our situation today is similar to what the sons of Judah faced in Babylon. The city trumpeted its 1197 temples. Only One God was not believable. In Europe and America, saying Jesus is The Only Way is simply not believable.
What is the language and literature of today? Neuroscience, including DNA, is the literature of the 21st century. Ought-is-can-will is the language. I have seen how people resonate with ought-is-can-will as our behavioral DNA. I’ve even seen people delight in discovering it through my little case study. Augustine also said the soul delights in what it learns indirectly. I take the indirect approach – case studies, for example – so that people will, Lord willing, delight in ought-is-can-will. Many do. Several years ago, an executive told me how ought-is-can-will seemed to explain everything. “Where does ought-is-can-will come from?” I walked up to the whiteboard and wrote:
Ought Is Can Will
On a line below, I wrote:
Creation Fall Redemption Restoration
I then asked if there could possibly be a correlation between the two. He stared at the board and muttered, “Well I’ll be damned…” I told him that’s not my department. This man, formerly an agnostic, takes mission trips today. He’s drawn to the gospel that resonates everyday with everything he feels, thinks, says, and does. It’s a gospel that draws on the language and literature of today’s world.
DNA is the literature of the 21st century. Ought-is-can-will is the language. If you believe today’s church is in exile, and the Babylonian exile is the best precedent for our times, you can see why reframing the gospel as ought-is-can-will might be the best way to go.
Creator, destroyer, Saviour, Restorer.
Repairer of the paths. Rebuilder of the walls.
Nehemiah + Daniel + Joseph. Torah/OT/gospels/Acts+Letters
Living Word. Be-Attitudes
“I am, I can, I ought, I will” was the motto for the Parents National Education Union (PNEU), a network of schools created by turn-of-the-century Anglican educator Charlotte Mason. The phrase is generally attributed to St. Augustine. Read more at
What I am most particular grateful for concerning your work is not necessarily the specific words that you have chosen to re-phrase God’s truth, but rather your perseverance and persuasiveness to reframe the world by it.
Thank you, Gerard. That’s very kind of you.
I have been using your language for a couple of years now in a church plant. For the past 6 months,each Sunday morning, I have been more intentional and attempted to teach through metaphor and employ the DNA framework that you teach.
While we are far away from any successes, I already hear people speaking differently and utilizing Ought/Is/Can/Will as a template for all of life. Those are exciting moments.
On a recent Sunday morning, I considered ‘Entertainment’ through this template and had an open discussion after I ‘taught’ for a while. Everyone was engaged and asking thoughtful questions. I even had two of our teenagers come up to me afterward – that’s a first in 15 years of preaching! Thanks so much for your work.
love this…my buddy Mike Lloyd explained this to me a couple years ago and the lightbulb went on for me too…i love how this helps explain the Gospel in a clear and relatable way
Creation, Corruption(Destruction, Deception), Redemption, Restoration.
Are can and will only productive if creation is taking place or redemption precedes restoration. If corruption, destruction or deception are existent can and will are destructive.