Of Duty and Other Dirty Words

Just a question: When did “duty” become a dirty word?

We laugh, admitting that sometimes we tell our children to obey “because I said so” as though it is a silly and unreasonable response–when surely shouldn’t it be considered, coming from parent to child, as a full answer? Whenever the word “ought” was struck from our working vocabulary (for struck it has been) we lost something precious: a big, basic building block from the foundations of faithfulness.

If you still yourself and shut your eyes and I say “duty” do you see taxes or laundry? A soldier? A grim-faced lady trotting off to prayer meeting?

Perhaps we see grueling things or get a nasty taste in our mouths because in our world duties are suspect and passions are championed. Doing something because we are “supposed to” is considered worse than not doing it at all. Shel Silverstein isn’t the only one singing, “Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me . . . Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” I wish it hadn’t been so easy to memorize that as a child because it isn’t true. For me, seeking to follow Jesus, anything can’t be. Some shoulds and shouldn’ts and mustn’ts desperately matter.

Perhaps you don’t see the dilemma. For the Christian, it should be simple: our duties and our passions should lie together. John Piper famously writes in Desiring God (1986) about what would happen if he gave his wife roses and, when thanked, gave “It’s my duty to love you” as a response. He’s right–she wouldn’t like it. Yet that’s a faithful man! Isn’t it true that all of us do things, at times, because they are right and not because we feel it? Perhaps duty and passion ought to go together but duty is there first, like the garden trellis on which we train the vines of our passions as they grow God-ward.

I love my duty very much, except when I don’t. I have a passion for my family. (Today’s duty of cutting Wally’s tiny pinky fingernail was delightful.) But there are times when it’s all dirty toilets and sick kids and spilled orange juice and loud voices repetitively bellowing out of tune. Sometimes it’s five needy people clamoring at once and I’m the sixth (and the neediest). I have a passion for my church. But sometimes events fly thick and fast or attending home group means messing up the kids’ schedule or listening to someone means a lost hour or two. I love Jesus. But there are seasons when waking up and studying my Bible and focusing my mind to pray are the last things I feel like doing.

Do I do my duty anyway? Ought I?

Don’t be so legalistic, we say. But is faithfulness legalism? Legalism is fastidiously holding to the letter of the law in order to gain merit. Faithfulness is obedience–even when we don’t feel like it. I suppose from the outside they appear the same. At least they have the same results. A legalistic mama is pretty consistent. But so is a faithful mama.

Let’s not let the world tell us that duty is self-assigned and we should persevere in it only so long as it suits our changing feelings. I have come to believe that a great deal of faithfulness is simple obedience: the old-fashioned word for that is duty. Can I share with you some things that help me when I seek to do it?

Here’s what’s coming:

Doggedly On: We are helped in our duty by doing it

Keep Calm and Dog On: We are helped in our duty by a quiet heart

Leaning On: We helped in our duty by God




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