A few years ago, I was part of a community group that was multiplying, and I don’t mean through new people coming to join us. It seemed that every three months or so there was somebody else who had a new baby. Our community group wanted to help all those mothers by providing baby meals. I can attest from experience that this is a wonderful thing, something I appreciated so much in my turn that I felt I needed to give back by doing the same for others. Now, I’m not a terrible cook, but it is definitely not my forte, nor is time management, really. Put these two together, and you have late mediocre meals delivered by a very stressed person (and I hate to say how my stress can affect my family, particularly during those years) to starving and sleep-deprived young families. After a while of this, my husband put his foot down. No more delivering baby meals.
But, I thought, I was given baby meals by others–isn’t it my duty to give them in return?
Last week, I wrote about the duty debate that often goes through my head whenever I’m asked to volunteer for something worthy. I wonder if it’s something I should do, and I try to answer that question by asking myself whether I’ve prayed about it and feel led by God to do it, whether I would be using my gifts if I did it, and whether I have time to do it in light of my biggest priorities.
The next questions that go through my head are Shouldn’t I do this out of duty even if I don’t want to do it? Is duty a good reason to do anything? I’ve heard pastors say that doing something out of duty is bad without really giving a reason why, so I thought I’d dig into Scripture to see if I could learn something about duty.
I found that the word for duty is related to the word used for ought, a word that Jesus uses at times to tell us what to do. The definition of both words include “owe, obligation, debt, duty, ought, and should” (Strong’s). For example, not that I really want to get into this subject too much, but Paul says in I Corinthians 7:3 that a husband and wife must fulfill their duty to each other, talking about their, ahem, conjugal duties. For something a little more like my example above, after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, He tells them, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn. 13:14). There is a difference between taking on or doing a duty and doing something out of duty. There are some duties we need to fulfill. Mothers have the duty to take care of their children, and I’d better do that whether I want to or whether I’d rather hide in the closet.
However, there are some tasks we don’t need to take on as our duty. We have choice in many matters. Even in the example of washing feet, most Christians don’t take this verse literally–we take it to mean that we should serve each other in humility and love as Christ did for us. How we serve is where we need wisdom. When we do take on a duty, the way we do it is important. I Peter 5:2 says (talking to elders), “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness.” If we take on the role of elder, we shouldn’t do it out of compulsion but with eagerness. If we don’t feel eager, it’s possible that we need to ask God for the right emotions, but without them, we might need to steer clear of taking on that duty in the first place.
Another verse that was helpful to me is Romans 13:8, which says, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Maybe our love will cause us to do something we would normally not want to do, but we would then be doing it out of love and not out of duty. This is the most important part, for “if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (I Cor. 13:3). It is true that love will perform tasks that look a lot like they are being done out of duty. Christ showed a lot of emotions against going to the cross at the Garden of Gethsemane, but He “loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5:2). Only you and God will know your true motivation for doing a task.
After all these thoughts this week and last, I wonder if I can answer my question now. Should I have continued doing baby meals? I didn’t pray much about doing this task; I can’t say I’m particularly gifted by God in the area; I was causing problems in my priority of family; and I might have had some love in doing it, but I think I was doing it more out of compulsion to guilt than eagerness out of love.
My last question in my duty debate is If I choose not to do this, should I feel guilty about it? I hope the answer to this is clear by now. If I pray and feel God is making it clear that I need to do something out of love even though it’s outside of my giftedness and even though I have little time or emotion for it, then I should feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit when I don’t follow His leading. But if I haven’t felt led by Him and all the rest of these are against it, no, I can’t let guilt hold any sway over me, and I shouldn’t commit to it or anything else out of duty.
How about you? As I asked last week, I’d love to hear how others handle this debate!