In preaching, teaching and writing, our good intentions are often defeated by an avoidable poor choice of words. Sometimes these inapt wordings gain popularity among Christians and become proverbial. Without thinking, we repeat them for the amens.
One example is the popular habit of speaking of duty and love as though they’re two competing and incompatible dynamics in the Christian life.
I can’t be the only one who has heard this, over and over, and wondered, over and over, what Bible people are reading. Consider Jesus’ state of mind and heart as He approached the cross.
looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame (Heb 12:2)
And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:35–36)
There is clearly love here. And there is clearly duty. Jesus isn’t “happy” to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He was aware of the coming beating, mockery, and death (Mark 10:33-34). He wanted to go through with it (Gal 2:20), and he didn’t want to go through with it (“not what I will”).
So, if we ask, “Was it love or was it duty?” The question appears to be nonsense.
What are we trying to say?
When I hear “love, not duty” language, my internal judgments are sometimes uncharitable. But if I take off my Pharisee hat, I can see that there is something to appreciate. Usually, what we’re trying to say is that genuine Christian living isn’t driven by a resentful sense of obligation or by thoughtless habit.
Well, amen to that!
Christian living is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). The Christian way is to “through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13). Our goal as teachers and pastors is “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5).
Clearly we’re not talking about, “Well, I’ll serve You, God… if I have to… I guess.”
So, by all means, let’s call ourselves and others—emphatically and often—to the mindset that has been the heartbeat of proper relationship to God for ages upon ages.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. (Deut 6:4–6)
Who of us could say it better than Samuel?
Only fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you. (1 Samuel 12:24)
So if the proper mindset is love and faith, what does duty have to do with it?
“Duty” is a beautiful word, and by collapsing it into other ideas, like “resentful sense of obligation” and “thoughtless habit” we’re robbing ourselves of an important piece of deeply Christian thought and motivation.
In the passages above, three phrases point us in the right direction.
- 1 Timothy 1:5 “a good conscience”
- 1 Samuel 12:24 “for consider what great things he has done for us”
- Mark 14:16 “not what I will, but what you will.”
This is the language of obligation—of responsibility, a sense that something is owed.
Dictionary definitions of “duty” are a mixed bag, but even the worst of them include some reference to the essence of what duty is.
- Cambridge: “something that you have to do because it is part of your job, or something that you feel is the right thing to do”
- Merriam-Webster: “1… conduct due to parents and superiors : RESPECT… 3a: a moral or legal obligation”
- Britannica: “2: something that you must do because it is morally right or because the law requires it”
- Oxford: “something that you feel you have to do because it is your moral or legal responsibility”
We do well to ponder what overlaps in these and other definitions, then consider some illuminating portions of Scripture (emphasis added).
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, (Dt 10:12)
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecc 12:13–14)
Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. (Ac 6:3)
For they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to do them a service also in material things. (NASB 2020, Rom 15:27)
What we find in these passages is love, fear, pleasure, and obligation all playing vital parts in the motivations of God’s people. They co-exist, balancing and completing each other. They are clearly not “you can choose one or choose the other” alternatives. The incompatibility many express between love and duty is imaginary and unbiblical.
Love and duty: a beautiful partnership
Love carries with it a desire to benefit another at some cost to ourselves. Often, love goes so far as to form a committed relationship of some kind. Parents love their children, husbands their wives, believers their co-members of the body of Christ.
And whenever there is commitment, there is a decision to take on responsibility. There is a choice to become indebted. There is a willing, joyful, embracing of—wait for it—duty.
A distinction we must make in our thinking and teaching on love and duty is that duty does not have to be a “resentful” sense of obligation. It can be a delighted sense of obligation: “For they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them.” It can even be a sober or, in a way, fearful sense of obligation: “Fear God… this is the whole duty of man…God will bring every deed into judgment.”
Fear can be self-centered and superficial. “I just don’t want to get caught,” we think. “I better comply or there will be consequences,” we reason. But fear can be driven by faith—a sober sense of indebtedness and responsibility because of the enormous price that was paid for our redemption (more on that in an earlier post).
A second distinction we must make is that carrying out duties—in the sense of repetitive chores—doesn’t have to be superficial and mechanical. If a loved one is home on his deathbed in the final stages of cancer, there’s a difference between how a hospice nurse cleans and feeds him vs. how a family member cleans and feeds him. They’re both performing a repetitive, often unpleasant duty. They both do the work when they don’t at all “feel like it.” Neither are likely to do the work happily. One of them might do it joyfully, even with the tears—nothing mechanical or mindless about it!
The truth is that the nurse can have a joyful sense of duty as well.
Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord and not for people (Col 3:23)
Bertrand Russell wrote, “Love can flourish only as long as it is free and spontaneous; it tends to be killed by the thought of duty.”
This seems to fit what we observe, but the problem isn’t duty—it’s our tendency to think and feel wrongly about duty. The truth: Love leads to commitments that create duties, and the carrying out of those duties is an expression of the love that birthed them. He was wrong in one other way. Love itself is a duty.
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the Law. (Rom 13:8)
(Related: What Is the Meaning of Life? Stewardship)
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.