Desire or Duty?

In a recent conversation with a fellow pastor we discussed the relationship of duty to obedience. He stated that a Christian should not do anything just because it is required to do so. A Christian should obey because he wants to do it. My assertion is that Christians must often do things because we have to, even, and especially, when we don’t want to. For example, church attendance is an obligation for every Christian. Yet, many Sunday mornings we do not want to go to church. What do we do? Do we not go to church because our heart isn’t in it? Or do we go to church and hope our desires catch up with our actions?

Now, my comrade in ministry was making an important point. He stressed that obedience should not be begrudging or resentful. Obedience should be with joy. And I am not suggesting it is good and proper to come to church grumbling and complaining the entire time. Cranky obedience has its own problems. My wife likes to eat at some restaurants that I do not. Because I love my wife I will take her out to eat at some of these restaurants. However, my attitude at the restaurant is as important as my presence with her. If I am unhappy, complaining, fussing at the waitress and generally miserable then my begrudging actions are not loving or pleasing to Ruth.

Likewise, obedience to the Lord or service for Him that is filled with complaint and resentment is not an act of love to God or pleasing to Him. God is pleased by obedience that acts contrary to the desires of the flesh with willingness, joy and without complaint. This kind of obedience shows that my will and my desires are less important than God’s will. Flesh-denying obedience declares that I love God so much I will submit myself to Him. Self-sacrificing love exalts God precisely because it acts contrary to my natural desires. Gracious obedience when I do not feel like it shows that God is most important.

Nor should we avoid obedience just be cause it is a habitual ritual. Disciplining yourself to study and pray at a certain time each day is a good thing. Reading your Bible out of habit is not a bad thing. A habit is not bad when it promotes proper actions and a healthy relationship with God. We should not be content with our obedience being mere ritual. Yet, ritual is never empty when it flows out of a deep relationship. My wife and I have a number of routines in our relationship that are repeated over and over again. These rituals have meaning to us because of the relationship. The intentional repetition of these actions works to strengthen the relationship and increase our love for one another.

Likewise, the rituals of the Christian life- church attendance, Bible reading, prayer, giving, good works and service- can be the expressions of a deep relationship with God and the promotion of deeper love for God. God is not opposed to ritual. He gave many rituals to His people. He gave a bewildering array of rituals to the Israelites. He gave rituals to be repeatedly daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. God also gave rituals to the church. He gave the weekly gathering and the Lord’s Supper as rituals to be repeated over and over again. God gave these rituals specifically to strengthen our relationship with Him.

So if you don’t feel like reading your Bible, going to church or singing praise to the Lord, then do it anyway. Obey because God is working in your spirit to give you the desire and ability to please Him. Your flesh may not have gotten with the program yet, but do it anyway. If you go into obedience with the right desire- the desire to please God- then your obedience will be pleasing to God and good for you.

In conclusion, consider a fable learned from another pastor. “Early one morning my alarm went off. Immediately a conversation began in my head. Mr. Ought-to said, ‘We ought to get up and read the Bible.’ Mr. Want-to closed his eyes and rolled over, mumbling, ‘Don’t wanna.’ Mr. Ought-to argued his case, but Want-to was unmoved. He wanted to go back to sleep. Finally, I listened to Mr. Ought-to and got out of bed. In the kitchen I drank a cup of coffee and read my Bible as I ought. A little while later I was surprised to find that somewhere along the way Mr. Want-to had gotten out of bed and joined us in the Word. I discovered that I now wanted to do what I ought.”