I can remember being in first grade, I would raise my hand and ask my teacher, Miss Anderson, “Can I go to the bathroom?” She would correct me, “May I go to the bathroom?” So I would repeat, “May I go to the bathroom?” And Miss Anderson would say, “OK, but hurry back”. And off I would go.
So in first grade I learned that there is a difference between “Can” and “May” and that when you ask to go to the bathroom you are supposed to say, “May”. For many, many years it never seemed important to me that I would get it right. And it didn’t seem too important to anyone else either. Nearly everyone says “can” all of the time.
It wasn’t until I had kids that I began to understand the difference between “can” and “may”. I became aware that “can” has to do with ability, whereas “may” is a question of permission. As a parent I wanted my children to learn the difference. I wanted them to know that just because you have the ability to do something doesn’t mean that you have permission to do it. Over and over again I would have a child come and ask, “Can I go over Tony’s house?” I would say, “If you are asking for my permission then the question is ‘May I go over Tony’s house?” I want my children to realize that they are asking for my permission.
I have no idea if my children ever really got the message. It seems subtle but the difference is critical. Many Christians don’t understand the difference when it comes to dealing with God. They understand that God has given us free-will that is the ability to choose. Somehow they have mistaken that for permission. You see God has given us the ability to sin but He has not given us His permission to sin. There is a big distinction. My children have the ability to do something, but that doesn’t give them my permission. If they were to do something without my permission there would likely be negative consequences. The same is true with God. Just because we can do something (free-will) does not mean that we should do it (permission).
So the question is “can” or “may”. Our lives need to be lived in accordance with God’s will. We need to approach every activity and every decision by asking God, “May I…?” Those who simply ask, “Can I…?” Will likely end up experiencing the negative consequences that God has established for those who disobey.
I still struggle with “can” or “will”. I try to phrase my questions to use “may” when I am asking permission. It is difficult when I am at work and I ask my boss, “May I take tomorrow off?” I sound like I am in first grade again. But I say “may” anyway because the distinction is important. It may not seem important at work but when it comes to dealing with God it has eternal consequences.