We treat the idea of duty with some suspicion these days. We fear that doing things ‘out of duty’ means acting in a way that isn’t genuine and therefore is less meaningful. But is that the whole story?
Duty: the dangers
In the Old Testament God rebukes those whose actions aren’t truly motivated by love for him. In Isaiah 29:13 we read “…these people approach me with their mouths to honour me with lip-service—yet their hearts are far from me, and their worship consists of man-made rules learned by rote…”
Israel was performing sacrifices and mouthing Scripture because they felt they had to, and God was deeply dissatisfied with that superficial form of relating to him.
In 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul urges the church regarding their giving: “each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not reluctantly or out of compulsion, since God loves a cheerful giver”. At its worst, duty can be an expression of this reluctance and sense of compulsion, rather than a free, cheerful, joyful trust in God. Paul is clear that our motives matter to God.
But it’s worth noting that Paul does not avoid the dangers of compulsion and reluctance by leaving them to do whatever they feel like. He persuades them of the urgency of the situation and the example Christ has set us and, indeed, of the example the poverty-stricken churches in Macedonia have given. He then encourages the Corinthians to do what they have decided is right.
So, it’s true that following a sense of duty can involve going through the motions; acting in a way that doesn’t come from the heart. But if we reject the value of a sense of duty altogether… do we risk losing out on something?
Duty: a defence
Although there can be dangers in acting purely out of hollow duty, there is much to be said for doing something because it’s the right thing to do. Rather than wait until I feel like doing it, or until it comes naturally and I’m authentically in the moment, there are times when to be loving towards God and others will require doing the exact opposite of what I feel like. The very fact that God’s word urges and exhorts us to love our enemy, pay our taxes, not give up meeting together, share with one another etc. gives weight to the reality that we do these things because they are good and God calls us to them through the gospel. Jesus’ death means we get to do them because we are loved, rather than we have to do them in order to be loved— but we are stilled called to do them and be urgent in doing them.
Often we can think the idea of spiritual gifts is all about me getting to express myself, rather than serving other people’s needs. We can focus just on 1 Corinthians 12 and get caught up in ‘spiritual gift identification questionnaires’ rather than reading on to chapter 13 where it’s all about love and chapter 14 where the greatest expression of this Spirit-filled love is proclaiming God’s word to one another. Here are some diagnostic questions I find helpful in working out if I’m serving for myself or for others:
- Am I demanding to serve in the way that I feel gifted, rather than offering to serve in the way the church needs me to?
- Is my level of effort in serving dependent on how interesting and enjoyable I find the activity rather than how needed it is by others? (i.e. am I invested only in things I think are fun and fulfilling, but am disengaged and unreliable when they’re not?)
In 2 Timothy 4, having reminded him of the power and authority of the Scriptures, Paul gives Timothy a solemn charge in the presence of God and Christ Jesus who is going to judge the living and then dead, whose return is near and kingdom is coming. In view of that weighty reality, Paul charges Timothy to preach the word “in season and out of season” (v. 2). This is indeed a solemn calling and duty that exists for Timothy whether it’s convenient or not. In fact, Paul explains in verse 3 that people will not be able to tolerate sound doctrine and it won’t be that much fun to tell people what they cannot stand to hear. The conclusion in verse 5 is “but as for you, exercise self-control in everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry”. Paul doesn’t just state that Timothy has a duty to preach the word and leave it at that; he seeks to persuade him by these solemn spiritual realities that this duty is a privilege to perform!
It’s all about love
In the end, the misunderstanding of the place of duty comes from a misunderstanding of love. The Bible is clear: our motive for everything should be love—for God and his people. The problem is when we think love means merely a feeling or a sensation or an experience, in which case doing something out of duty and because it’s right is always incompatible with love.
But love is more than a feeling, and the idea of Christians waiting until that moment they are filled with a pure feeling of affection and overwhelming warmth for someone before they act to do good for them is ridiculous. So many times I hear Christians making decisions about where to serve, what church to be part of, how to relate to others, on the basis of their feelings—as if this makes it more authentic and therefore good. Very often they are not guided by what is right and good but by feelings and desires that Ephesians 4:22 describes as deceitful.
We are servants of the Lord Jesus and slaves of our glorious Master. To love him is to desire his glory and to strive to do his will and fulfil our duty as servants and slaves.
Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. The night before he died, Jesus’ heart was filled with such sorrow at the thought of what lay ahead of him that his soul was overwhelmed to the point of death. Jesus cried out three times to his loving Father, the God who can do the impossible, that the cup might pass from him. It is clear that on the one hand, Jesus did not want to die. He did not want to experience the fullness of God’s wrath; he did not want to drink to the dregs the hellish fury of his Father at our sin and rebellion.
Yet his love for God, and his love for us, and his righteous desire to do what pleases and glorifies his Father, lead him to those powerful words: “yet not my will but yours”. In this way, he was willing to sacrifice himself. Jesus chose to go to the cross, not to fulfil his desires, but to do what was right and good.
A sense of duty can be a cover-up for wrongly-motivated actions. But it can also be an authentic driver of works of faith. How can we discern the difference? It’s a matter of love. Is my sense of duty combined with a love for God and others or is it covering up a lack of it?
Like soldiers who fight for victory and stand firm out of loyalty to their commanding officer; like athletes who push through pain and run with endurance for the prize; like farmers who exercise discipline in rising early and working hard for the harvest… may our love for God be seen in our sacrificial willingness to do what is good, what is right, what is a blessing to others.