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The place of Christian duty?

For a while I have felt conflicted about the role of duty in the Christian life. I have often heard it said (sometimes from my own mouth) that we’re not called to x/y [insert act of Christian discipleship in here] out of cold duty, but out of joyous desire. The more I think about it, the more I doubt that duty and desire are mutually exclusive opposites.

The first reason for thinking so is the sheer number of times the God of the Bible commands us to obey him, giving no other reason for doing so other than dutiful obedience. He is the Creator and we are his Creatures, and that is reason enough to obey what he says. This is reflected in the structure woven into the structure of society; see for example “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” [Eph 6:1].

The second reason for thinking so is the way in which obedience and love are married so often in Christ’s teaching, for example: “If you love me, keep my commands” [John 14:15]. The way in which the Romantic movement in the West vacuum-packed the emotions away from the intellect, and labelled the former ‘the heart’ and the latter ‘the mind’ has not helped us with this. We make two mistakes. First, we assume that love is an emotion. Second, we assume that obedience is a cold decision. We conclude then that the two can have little to do with one another. In actual fact neither has a patent on emotion or intellectualism; Jesus is joining the two together in our dictionaries so that we might not drive a wedge between them again. There may be such a thing as cold duty, but obedience need not be so. Cold duty is an ugly mutation of obedience. When all is healthy, obedience and duty are loving.

Could it be the case that, when it comes to the Creator of the Universe, duty and desire converge in a rather wonderful manner? When He writes or speaks a law into being, it is for our good. If therefore, we were 100% interested in self-protection and personal blessing we would experience an innate drive to keep his laws; we would want to. When someone is thirsty and goes to great lengths to find a drink, we don’t use language of them obeying a law, and yet they are. They are obeying a deep, innate law which compels them to slake their thirst. At one and the same time, they must (have a duty to) find a drink and they desire to find a drink. As they were panting and looking for a vending machine, if we were to ask them whether they needed to or wanted to drink, they wouldn’t understand the distinction, for both are true. Their obedience of ‘the thirst law’ springs from a duty and a desire. And so it should be in our relationship with God.

Consider 1 Peter 2:2-3: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk… – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” When a newborn child reaches for more milk she is not obeying a law external to her, for she cannot yet understand language. She is obeying a deeper law of innate hunger, driven by duty and desire. And the experience is self-reinforcing in that the more she drinks, the more she finds that it is good, and so the more she drinks. So it should be with us and our Lord: the more we drink from the milk of the Bible, the more we find that it is good, and so the more we read it. We find ourselves obeying a deep innate law within us. Is it cold duty? No. It’s a duty married with a desire. We love the Lord and so we obey his commandments. Dutiful desire.

What of when we don’t experience such innate desire to obey God’s laws? What of when we feel a desire for that which will not ultimately (or even in the short/ medium-term) bless us? What of when we feel a (sometimes innate) pull towards what the Bible calls sin? How may this be explained?

I have often been struck by one of the words for sin found in Scripture: ‘lawlessness.’ The Greek word reads as follows: a-nomia. It is the word from which our word ‘anomaly’ is derived. This is a powerful picture of sin. In a world where obedience to God’s good commands is good for us, sin is anomalous and makes no sense. When plotted on a graph it doesn’t fit with what we’d expect to see. In this sense, sin is a form of madness and non-sensical behaviour. So when you and I don’t experience such innate desire to obey God’s laws we are feeling something which makes no sense and is not logical; we are feeling something anomalous to the pattern of creation. Surely the only remedy is to come again to our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ in who’s forgiving and transformational presence, nonsensical, disordered, anomalous sinners are returned to their senses and their right mind [Mark 5:15; Luke 8:35].



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