Authenticity vs obedience?

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.


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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25 Responses to Authenticity vs obedience?

  1. Chas says:

    In all my 17 years of belief, I have never understood what is meant by the word ‘grace.’

    You have given three alternatives: duty, grace and a combination of the two, but what I experience a fourth, which is to know what God wants me to do, and do that. It is done out of my love for God, and it is consistent with ‘If you love me, you will obey my commands.’ It puts God first, but does not ignore the love for other people, since this obedience invariably reduces the suffering of someone else in some way, though I often do not know what has really happened until I think over what has gone on. This means that, during any incident, I have to respond with whatever comes to me first, but it ensures that I am not going from any preplanned agenda of my own. As far as I am aware, I have not been misled in any way. If any reader wishes to follow this route, then ask God to let you know what He wants you to do and have the boldness to do that. However, I should warn you that you will be tested in obedience and that might be uncomfortable. The choice is yours.


    • Well, if you’re interested, here’s a working definition of grace from a fellow-reader of this blog:

      “God’s basic attitude towards mankind, characterized by his love, acceptance, forgiveness and redemption of all, and revealed especially in the person and work of Christ.”

      And here’s my slightly longer version:

      “1) God’s complete and unconditional acceptance of, and redemptive provision for, all of us regardless of our merit;
      2) God’s on-going incarnational presence in us, transforming us in Christ into the fully flourishing people we were always meant to be.”

      I admire your fourth alternative to duty/grace – ‘to know what God wants me to do, and do that’. For myself, I’ve never found that workable, as I seem neither capable of knowing with any certainty what God wants me to do specifically (despite much prayer), nor of consistently doing those things which I am confident he wants me to do. So for me, a huge amount of grace is required – in this case, meaning God’s patient bearing with me while I struggle to discern and do his will.


      • Chas says:

        I suspect that you are on your way to find that it is workable!


        • Might have to agree to disagree on this one! 🙂


        • PS it strikes me that your approach is in some ways a version of the duty/grace ‘third way’. You ask God what he wants you to do, and you do it – that’s ‘duty’ in a sense, seeking out God’s will and looking to obey it because you know that’s the right thing to do. And at the same time it’s grace, because it relies on God actually communicating to you what he wants, and empowering you to carry it out.

          I’d be very interested to hear how God’s guidance works for you – how you know what it is that God wants of you in specific situations. Some of my charismatic friends do report this kind of very direct, clear guidance, but it’s never been my experience. I suspect that it comes partly down to personality, and that each of us experiences God in different ways.


          • Chas says:

            It is not easy to explain. In the early days, I just ‘knew’ what God wanted me to do and He gave me confirmation as a physical sensation in the chest. More recently, I know without needing the confirmation most times, although it is still there if required.


            • Thanks – that’s interesting. I think you’re fortunate (or blessed) – I don’t know of many people who can report that experience. I certainly can’t – for me it’s more a case of informed guesswork, with very rare flashes of insight or senses of prompting.

              Might you be prepared to give any recent examples of the kinds of things you sense God prompting you to do? No worries if not.


            • Chas says:

              I would definitely put it in the ‘blessed’ category.


            • Chas says:

              The most noteworthy event recently in regard to churches occurred about 18 days ago. I got a ‘message’ regarding the passage in which Elijah was running from the threats made by Jezebel and he arrived at the mountain of Horeb. When I had originally read it, I read it as if Elijah had gone into a cave at the top of the mountain to spend the night, but when I re-read it, I found that the cave was at or near the foot of the mountain, so when God told Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain, to obey God, he would have had to go out of the cave and then climb the mountain. His disobedience had previously been, to me, one example of people in the Bible disobeying God. I then received the message that I was to go on Sunday to a nearby church, to which I had never been before, and give a message to someone, based on this passage of scripture. However, I was not told who this was for. So, on the Sunday I went to the church, at the time God showed me to go. The preaching was in progress, so I waited for it to finish. Meanwhile, I noticed somebody I knew from my previous church, but the message wasn’t for them. After the preaching finished I was told to speak to this person I knew, but I had to wait for several minutes to speak to her. When I did so, we spoke for a few minutes and then she said she needed to speak to someone else, but pointed out her daughter, whom I had not seen and would not have recognised. She was the one the message was for. Firstly I had to tell her that everybody has always been separated from God and that believing in Jesus as the son of God brings us out of that separation into the Presence of God, which is what we experience as the Holy Spirit. Then I told her about the passage about Elijah pretty much as above, noting that not only had he disobeyed God, but that there were two stages and she would need to do both of them, signifying an initial easy stage and then a difficult stage. She accepted this at once because during the preaching God had somehow had her understand that she was going to receive something from Him. (The bonus was that God had me give the same message to her mother).


            • Thanks Chas. That’s a pretty amazing story. As a slightly sceptical modern who has spent a lot of time around charismatic circles, I’m aware of stories like this and have never known what to make of them, because they’re so far outside my own personal experience of God – though I have experienced being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’. Your story – and the message you felt you had to present – doesn’t sit comfortably with either my own theology or experience, but of course I accept what you report. God is always bigger than our individual theologies and beliefs.


            • Chas says:



            • It challenges my theology in a lot of ways – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

              #1. I’ve effectively stopped believing in a God who communicates directly and unequivocally in the way you report. Of all the many people I’ve met who’ve claimed to hear from God (yourself excepted), only one seemed to me to have a genuine prophetic gift.

              So my theology is of a God who generally prefers to remain hidden and mysterious, who does not often communicate directly. Your experience challenges this.

              Which also raises the theological question for me – why does God only speak directly to a few people, when so many desire or need to hear him?

              #2. The passage of Scripture your message was based on, and your interpretation of it.

              Firstly, the passage comes from one of the bloodiest sections of the OT, one which depicts God in a way I find very hard to accept.

              Then there’s your interpretation of Elijah having to climb the mountain. I don’t see this in the passage – there’s nothing to say that the cave wasn’t near the top of Mt Horeb. In any case God doesn’t tell Elijah to stand on the top of the mountain – he just says ‘stand on the mountain’, which is unspecific. I’ve always thought (and still do) that he just had to come out of the cave.

              #3. In the message you felt you had to present, you said that we’re all separated from God to start off with. This is a theology I find quite problematic.

              We’re all made in God’s image and I believe the Spirit of God is at work in and through our lives before we ever commit to following Jesus. And I believe that there are many who (through Christ) will be ‘saved’ who never knew the name of Jesus, and were followers of other faiths or none. I believe that God’s desire is that ultimately all will be redeemed, though I think we have the choice to refuse.

              So in all those ways I find your account deeply challenging to my theology! But being challenged can be a good thing.


            • This reply is to the full 6-25-26 sub-thread between Harvey and Chas, down to Chas’ “Theology?” … There’s no “reply” option further down (or along in time) than this:
              I think I can “harmonize” both situations within one “theology”, in prior times having long grappled with the same guidance and “hearing from God” issue.

              After much seeking, I had a dramatic “charismatic” experience which even then I wasn’t sure whether to call “filling” or “baptism” of the H.S., or what. But it seemed to “open” me to the potential to get “guidance” or receive or speak a pertinent, targeted message from or to someone. But only when I was in “worship” group settings or privately “primed” did this seem the case. However, it was at the least uncanny and once or twice VERY cool… as to lining with reality and/or really helping someone. If I chose to be lengthy, I could give a story somewhat akin to Char’s, right down to speaking with a mother when the main “recipient” was her child… something in which I didn’t have verbal “content” but a strong feeling to convey.

              As to “theological” explanation, I strongly believe this type experience and/or “gift” is not restricted to Christians. In the orthodox Christian sense, it has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit, probably… But still, to me, a universal spirit which indeed is “holy” (or whole).


            • Hi Howard, yes, sorry, WordPress seems to cut off the ability to comment on a particular thread when it gets to a certain level.

              I too have had some kind of ‘filling with the Holy Spirit’ experience, and I do strongly feel the presence of God during times of worship. However, I’ve not to my knowledge had any times of directly receiving a communicable word, picture or ‘sense’ from God.

              I have sometimes had the experience of knowing (as far as one can know!) that God has used something I’ve said, sung or written. That’s a great feeling, but it’s slightly different, as I wasn’t aware of it at the time of the speaking or singing.

              I tend to agree with you that this kind of experience or gift isn’t limited to Christians. I think it does (or can) have something to do with the Holy Spirit, but perhaps that comes down to differing theological understandings of who or what the Holy Spirit is and does.



  2. Harvey, I think you absolutely asked the right question, and you answered it very well right down to your final conclusion. I continue enjoying your blog–post after post after post.


  3. Love and duty are different sides of the same coin. Loving other people isn’t about how I feel. Love is an act of will, although often accompanied by pleasant feelings. Certainly, though, doing the ‘right’ thing with a sense of regret or resentment is definitely wrong, and ultimately harmful. But then, love begets obedience, which begets love, which begets obedience. It is a gift and it grows, until one day I find I can do things that I never thought I would be able to do. This is grace – this is doing things ‘not in my own strength’.


    • Thanks Sandy. I agree, love and duty are two sides of the same coin, or can/should be. But all too often it’s hard for us to marry them up together.

      I agree to an extent that obedient service can lead to love, if that obedience comes out of love and gratitude in the first place. But all too often our obedience comes out of compulsion, and can then become a loveless, joyless drudgery – and then we’re heading for burnout and disillusionment.

      I think there are times when we need to rest in God’s grace and realise that obedient service is the product of our loving relationship with God, not the foundation for it. And of course there are other times when we need to stop resting and get on with doing what we need to!


      • doncher says:

        I agree that obedient service is the product of our loving relationship with God and I also agree that it’s not always a case of exercising our will to ‘love’ others.

        From a personal perspective, I would say that, in some areas of my life, exercising my will to love others is genuinely helpful. For example, as a Speech Therapist, sometimes I find myself thinking that I can’t be bothered to put my ‘all’ into showing love for the families that walk through the door. Often, a simple prayer and reconnecting with God is all I need to change my mindset in order to set my will upon loving those families as I am called to, and I usually find it fairly easy for my behaviour to change quite easily as a result.

        However, there are other areas of my life where being told to use my will to ‘love’ is like pouring poison into me, It’s simply the wrong medicine. In my case, an example of this would be in my marriage. I’m aware that I often don’t show love to my husband as I ‘should’. However, I’m also aware that this is largely due to the huge mass of fears and other ‘baggage’ that sadly I’ve dragged with me into my marriage. I’ve tried and tried using my will to behave more lovingly towards my husband and, although I’m not suggesting that’s a bad thing to do, I frequently find that, far from finding my feelings catch up with my actions, the reverse happens – I become even more acutely aware of my fears and anxieties, which adversely affects my subsequent behaviour towards him. I think that probably the only chance I have of changing my behaviour in any permanent, real way is to acknowledge how things are currently and to focus on growing closer in my relationship with God in the hope that the healing i need will gradually come, which will help me to love my husband more.

        Sorry for the long post. I really appreciate what you’ve written about here and hope my response isn’t off-topic.


        • Hi, thank you very much for your comment and please don’t apologise for it being long! What you say isn’t off-topic at all, and even if it were that wouldn’t be a problem.

          I can strongly relate to your experiences here, both of exercising the will to love being helpful in certain situations and of it being counter-productive in others. I think the difference here is perhaps to do with the depth and quality of the relationship. We can usefully choose to act lovingly in a one-off situation towards people we only see occasionally, but when the relationship is close and long-term that requires a different approach.

          For me, secular counselling has been one of the only things that has been able to help with the longer-term, deeper issues (and it’s a long, slow process that it still going on for me, and probably will for the foreseeable future). That’s alongside and within my relationship with God of course, trusting that Christ is working in and through the counselling process.

          Thanks again,


          • doncher says:

            Hi, thanks for your reply and I’m sure you’re right about the difference being to do with the depth and quality of the relationship, and, yes, counselling has been helpful for me, too, although I still often feel frustrated by how little progress I’ve made in some of the deep-rooted stuff. However, I guess the slow process we are aware of in ourselves helps to prevent us (I hope) from giving quick-fix answers to others who are struggling.


            • Thanks – yes, I can identify with that frustration about lack of progress. I’ve been in weekly counselling for maybe 7 years and sometimes I feel I’ve barely moved on at all! But then at other times I get glimpses of how far I’ve come. Some really deep things do just seem to stick around indefinitely – but I think at least being aware of them and their causes we may gradually learn to ‘manage’ them. They may never fully go away, but they may no longer define, direct or dominate us. Hopefully!

              But yes, no quick fixes and no easy answers, sadly.


  4. doncher1 says:

    Hi Harvey, I have an issue relating to this subject that I’d really like to mull over. It’s not something I particularly want to raise on a public blog (don’t worry, it’s not particularly personal -it’s a church-related issue). I wondered whether I’d be able to email you about it, but no worries if you don’t like to give out your email address – I completely understand if you don’t, but just thought I’d ask on the off-chance 🙂


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