Should we do good, serve God and love others as a duty because we owe it to God? Or should we only do it if we can do it gladly, authentically and ungrudgingly, out of genuine love and gratitude?
Should we pray, read the Bible, attend church, share our faith, give to the poor, feed the hungry and all the rest whether we feel like it or not, out of obedience to divine command? Or should we do only as we feel called or led, following our passion and our heart rather than the law?
There are two main schools of thought on this, and I’m not sure either of them is quite right on its own. I’m calling them the ‘duty’ and the ‘grace’ schools.
The duty school
The duty school says that we should do all of these things regardless of whether we feel like it or feel called to it. We should do it because we are commanded to, and we owe it to God our creator and redeemer to obey without protest, whatever the cost. ‘Authenticity’ is a false idol in this view; it matters not whether we feel we’re being ‘true to ourselves’ but only whether we’re being true to God’s word.
In this view, we may not feel like it but feelings will eventually follow obedience. We may feel no love for a particular person, but as we obediently act lovingly towards them, the feelings of love may come over time. We may have no desire to perform some deed of Christian duty, but as we do it we will grow in gladness and joy. We may feel no gratitude to God, but as we faithfully express gratitude for God’s provision we will eventually start to feel it.
So the duty school is perfectly happy with the words ‘should’ and ‘ought’, because there are some things which are simply our Christian duty and obligation – end of. And the duty school can of course quote endless Bible passages to support its view.
The grace school
The grace (or really grace-only) school by contrast dismisses the duty school as an old-covenant, legalistic, letter-of-the-law way of doing things. Instead, the keystones are God’s grace, Christ’s freedom and our honest authenticity to who we really are. Obeying out of duty is (in this view) a compulsive and childish behaviour based on the need to win parental approval.
So according to grace-only, we obey God and serve others out of honest gratitude and love, or we don’t serve at all. We love because we’re overflowing with Christ’s love, not because we’re told to love; and if we’re not overflowing, then we don’t love until we are. We serve freely and out of freedom; if there’s a whiff of guilt or compulsion, or of seeking to appease or win favour, then we’re better off not serving at all.
In this view the words ‘should’ and ‘ought’ are dirty words; they are burdensome and guilt-inducing, leading not to freedom but only to burnout and breakdown.
Grace-schoolers can of course also back up their position biblically. ‘If I give all I have to the poor… yet have not love, I gain nothing’. This verse suggests that merely doing good dutifully – even great good – is of no benefit if it is done out of compulsion rather than freely out of love. Or again, ‘It was for freedom that Christ has set us free’ – we are no longer bound by codes and laws, by have-tos and shoulds.
Uniting the two schools
So which school has got it right? Both and neither, I think. There’s a truth on both sides of the coin, but the whole truth comes only in a marriage of the two, in which both are slightly changed.
So I think there is a truth that certain things are right and good and necessary, whether we feel like them or not. I think there is a truth that in many cases feelings will follow if in faith we start to act in ways that we know to be right – and that if they don’t, that’s not the be-all and end-all. And I think that we do sometimes need to set aside our ‘authenticity’ for the sake of others.
Yet I also believe very strongly that the heart of Christian living is love and joy and freedom and genuine gratitude – things which cannot be imposed or commanded or worked up, but which have to come in their own time and under the right circumstances. I believe that Christ wants us to be free friends, not compelled servants.
And I believe that guilt and fear and compulsion and appeasement are not good motives for Christian service, and that sometimes it may be better to desist from such service for a time rather than to continue in these life-sapping ways. I do believe that ‘should’ and ‘ought’ are generally unhelpful words.
I also do believe that it’s important to know who we are and to live out of the truth of that. In the apostle Paul’s body metaphor, if we’re an ear we do not need to feel guilt that we’re not a hand. We’re not all evangelists, or pastors, or teachers, or worship leaders, and that’s okay.
Above all, I believe in grace. But that doesn’t mean we don’t bother or try, that we sit back and make no effort. On the contrary, it means that we do try but that it’s okay to get things wrong, to mess things up, to fail – and then have another go, and another. It means we don’t have to be perfect all at once. It’s one thing at a time, one day at a time, with lots of setbacks and lapses. We have a lifetime’s journeying to complete, and we need to learn to be human before we can even start to become saints.
So duty on its own can be (though isn’t necessarily) merely legalistic or compulsive. But grace-alone can be merely lazy, a theological excuse for not doing anything that we don’t feel like. Like the liberal love vs evangelical truth dichotomy, the better way is in the marriage of the two sides.
Faithfulness vs obedience
Rather than the word ‘duty’ or ‘obedience’ then, I’d prefer the word ‘faithfulness’.
Obedience implies a master-servant relationship, or an overly authoritarian parent-child relationship. Faithfulness however suggests a more equal and free relationship, that of friends or even lovers.
Furthermore, faithfulness suggests a degree of personal sacrifice and effort (even obedience), but on the basis of love rather than mere law-keeping duty.
I love the biblical line ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’. This is often read by the grace-only school as meaning that God doesn’t need dutiful obedience; it’s rather all about our hearts. But I read it differently. As I see it, it’s not abolishing obedience or duty, but rather changing the character, nature and basis of obedience and duty. Our ‘duty’ is love, which cannot be compelled. It is mercy, which has to be offered freely – but which may cost us dearly.
The greatest command then is a huge paradox, something I think we’ve often missed. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and your neighbour as yourself’. Love is the most important thing in the universe, and it is our greatest duty. Love can be and is required; yet at the same time it cannot be compelled, coerced or even commanded in any normal sense. Love can only be asked for, and offered – or withheld.
And that, I think, is the nub of Christian faith.