Doing one’s duty—“something that one is expected or required to do by moral or legal obligation”—is a positive thing. Most would feel that fulfilling duty is far superior to shirking it, and I agree with that. But have you ever experienced the hollowness of someone doing something for you out of a sense of duty?
Perhaps someone felt an obligation toward you, so they performed an act of kindness. The person completes the duty and walks away satisfied, checking the obligation off his or her to-do list. Although you feel some gratitude for the kindness, there’s also an empty feeling because things done from duty are often done without relationship or affection.
As Christians we are called to strive far beyond duty. Christians are called to love.
Love always encompasses duty, but duties can be performed without love. With duty alone, one has a checklist. That checklist contains everything that must be done “morally and legally to fulfill obligations.” Dutiful acts are often praiseworthy, such as ministering to an aging relative or caring for young children. But unfortunately, if done strictly from a sense of duty, these acts can be performed without truly giving of oneself. First John 3:16 states that Jesus is calling me to lay down my life for others just as He laid down His life for me. Merely fulfilling a duty will never fulfill that call.
Love has no checklist. While love always encompasses duty, it is not focused on it. Love focuses on relationship.
When one looks at the list in 1 Corinthians 13, which describes what love does, it is almost entirely relationally focused. Love is patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast, does not parade itself, is not puffed up, and so on. All of these things are attitudes more than actions. Actions should flow from an attitude of love and should be evidence of love. When actions are the focus, sometimes good deeds are accomplished, but more often than not the highest duty of love is left undone.
One of the scariest things about duty is it tends to appease the conscience. When I fulfill what I believe to be my obligation, I walk away satisfied that I have done what is needful. But oftentimes the things that truly matter have been left undone. Jesus warned the Pharisees about focusing on the smallest duties, such as tithing mint and cumin, but ignoring love for God and their fellow man. Jesus did not criticize their careful and dutiful tithing but said, “[You] have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not leave the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).
In the daily grind of home education, it is easy to let duty overwhelm relationships. An old saying states that “Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.”
Math must never become more important than my relationship with my numbers-disinclined child. Woe to the homeschooling mom who wins the battle of getting a child to do his schoolwork “completely, neatly, and on time” but loses her relationship with that child in the process. She may have won the battle, but she has lost what is most important.
A couple of years ago, I was in a position where I needed to force one of my children to do something she really didn’t want to do—a common situation for parents and their homeschooling students when it comes to school subjects or deadlines. Instead of battling with the child and risking damage to the relationship, sometimes the best thing to do is get a third party involved. In my case, a professional I’ll call “Miss Smith” was working with us, and she got to be the bad guy. I encouraged and comforted my daughter but told her we had to do these painful things because “Miss Smith says so.” It was wonderful that I got to be “Mom the comforter” and “Mom the encourager” instead of “Mom the bad guy” as I daily helped my daughter do the duties Miss Smith prescribed. Not only did my daughter and I maintain our relationship through her struggle, we actually drew closer together through it.
I had a friend in college whose workaholic father had provided his family a very comfortable, even lavish lifestyle. My friend would say, “My father gave us everything but himself.” The son’s heart longed for a loving relationship with his father, but his dad felt that his duty toward his son was fulfilled through providing. My friend was full of pain and disappointment. He longed for love but was only given duty. He responded with rebellion, and he learned to manipulate his father in unhealthy ways to get the material things he wanted. My friend’s life was being slowly shipwrecked as a result.
Children know when they are loved and when they are merely cared for out of duty. Children raised in orphanages who are clothed, fed, and sheltered but never held or loved often have deep behavioral, emotional, and social problems as they grow up. I know a family where the mom did not seem emotionally capable of connecting with her children. She fed them and worked for them but never gave them the tender affection one longs for from a mother. Her daughters all feel bitter toward their mom, even though she did what she believed was her duty toward them. Again, this mom gave her children everything but herself.
I was recently the recipient of someone’s sense of duty. This is someone I love very much, so I was able to experience firsthand the painful difference between love and duty. My heart was so excited to see her. I longed to have good conversations and catch up on life. I cherish our relationship and was happy to have an opportunity to build that relationship face-to-face rather than by phone or written correspondence.
But as I spent time with this person, it quickly became apparent that she did not share my enthusiasm for time together. Our conversation was stilted because she asked few questions. She minimized the time spent with me, and I realized she considered time with me an obligation rather than a joy. It was incredibly disappointing and painful, but it allowed me to see firsthand the heart of God and how His heart breaks when I become focused on fulfilling my spiritual duties rather than having a relationship not only with those He has given me to love, but also with Him.
Duty devoid of love is especially damaging in my spiritual life. God longs to know me, and He wants me to know Him. He loves to spend time with me. It must break God’s heart when I consider Him an obligation. He must weep when I read my Bible and pray not so I can know Him better but in order to feel I’ve done my Christian duties for the day and my conscience can be at rest.
Amos 5:21–23 describes God’s response to Israel when they were worshipping God outwardly but their hearts were idolatrous:
I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.
I am naturally a duty-oriented person. I have definitely been guilty of allowing my to-do list to become more important than my relationships with my family and with God. How often do I serve out of a sense of duty rather than from love? Is the box filled with toys for Operation Christmas Child sent with love or from a sense of Christian duty? Is the meal fixed for the mom with a new baby made with love? Is the time spent serving at the food pantry invested with love for those who need help, or am I merely checking off squares on my “good Christian” list? Am I more concerned with my child’s heart or with getting the school agenda done for the day? Am I truly having morning devotions, or am I going through the motions without any passion for knowing God?
Although doing an act of service from duty is better than not doing an act of service at all, my prayer is that I will never be satisfied with merely doing my duty. I want to seek God and pray and humble myself until all things are done in love.
Romans 13:8 states, “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.“ According to that verse, my only real duty, and the only thing I owe to my fellow men is to love them. Without love, I can never pay that debt no matter how many good deeds I perform.
Cindy Puhek is learning to follow Jesus in Colorado Springs. She has been married to Peter for more than two decades and is well into her second decade of homeschooling her six children who range in age from toddler to high schooler. Cindy holds a master's degree in chemistry and has written dozens of articles to encourage others in their homeschooling journeys.
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