The Danger of Duty

In a recent dialog with a friend we were discussing the subtle ways that duty is expressed in life, primarily in the ways in which people relate to God.

On one hand there is the biblical interpretation that says those who would follow after God must bear their cross and deny themselves (Luke 9:23), meaning for some that even if you don’t want to do the right thing, you should do it anyway as a form of duty, or because it is the right thing to do. It will feel like cutting off an arm or gouging out an eye (Matt 5:30). In other words, duty is the path to Heaven.

But is it?

I’m not going to go into Piper’s ideas on Christian Hedonism as I find them quite lacking for many reasons. But while the scriptural texts can develop a case for duty on the surface, on a deeper level they seem to develop a case against it. Namely, that if a person is performing duty or any perfunctory religious ceremony as a way of relating to God then they have already missed the boat.  God tests the heart (motivations behind what we do) (Jer 11:20).

In fact, many texts tell us that we can do the right thing (duty) the wrong way and it is horribly wrong.

  • The Pharisee praying but doing so in pride. (Luke 18:11)
  • Those who perform religious acts in pride and yet God rejects them (Isaiah 66:3)
  • Those who give reluctantly out of duty not because they are generous in heart (2 Cor 9:7)

…and in the end Jesus will tell many people who filled their lives with doing all kinds of religious duty, thinking they were relating to God, he will simply say, “I never knew you.” (Matt 7:21)


Duty is how the older brother relates to God (Matt 15:29) and in the end never enters the celebration at the fathers house.

For me, I’ve come to the conclusion that if we are operating out of duty, then we are already missing God.  I don’t deny the obligations of the truth or that life requires us to do things we may not want to do. We can do things we wouldn’t prefer doing but it is a knife edge as to whether the act produces good or creates a monster, and it balances on a tiny nuance.

That tiny nuance which makes all the difference in the world–is whether that act stems from love–the best possible motive of all. Not love as an emotion of favorability, but love as a humble act of the will.

  • It’s the difference between a parent who despises changing a diaper and does so reluctantly and a parent who does it in a loving way and makes the process beautiful.
  • It’s the difference between the employee who works because he/she is afraid of losing his/her job and the employee who despite the oppressive environment still brings to bear all of his/her gifts and talents because they love the integrity of who they are more than a paycheck.
  • It’s the difference between relating to your spouse out of obligation or relating to them out of desire and love.
  • It is the difference between the two ways all people everywhere have ever tried to relate to God: religion or relationship.

I believe we actually possess the ability to choose that motive. It all hinges on whether ones religion is based on “self-preservation” (i.e. trying to avoid Hell), or if it is based on loving God.

If we love God we will keep his commandments.(1 John 5:3) But the moment we ever believe that keeping his commandments is the means to keep us from Hell, then we’ve made God a means to an end, and not an end in himself.

No wonder duty feels so much like Hell, because it is the evidence of a hell bound disposition.

  • it will make your job hell.
  • it will make your marriage hell.
  • it will make your relationships hell.

The disposition of Heaven is then loving something more than preserving ourselves, and that isn’t duty, its freedom.