The Joy of Christian Duty

We Christian Hedonists have a complicated relationship with duty. On the one hand, with our emphasis on the centrality of affections and desire in glorifying God, we are at war with duty-driven approaches to the Christian life that regard the affections as optional add-ons. To do a righteous act purely from a sense of obligation — because it is the right thing to do — is not morally superior to performing the same act with a deep sense of desire and gladness. Desire does not ruin the moral worth of good actions. Indeed, the right kind of desire establishes the true moral worth of our actions.

On the other hand, we Christian Hedonists, far from setting duty and desire at odds, instead bring them together by insisting that we are obligated to delight in God. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). We are called and commanded to desire God, to treasure God, to want God, to find our highest joy in God.

So again, we have a complicated relationship with duty. And as such, it’s worth taking a few moments to consider this relationship more carefully. The question is this: Is there a good, wise, and Christian Hedonistic way of celebrating the value of duty in the Christian life?

What Is Duty Anyway?

To answer this question, let’s first untangle a potential ambiguity. What do we mean by duty? On the one hand, duty might simply be a synonym for obligation. Anytime we use the word ought, we are dealing with duty. In this sense, duty and delight, far from being at odds, coincide. We ought to delight in God. We ought to love him with all of our heart. Included in all of our obligations is the duty to find our highest satisfaction in God. Thus, if we equate duty and obligation, then Christian Hedonists clearly value duty. That’s why we talk about “the dangerous duty of delight.”

“Duty refers to fulfilling one’s obligations in the face of obstacles.”

But duty often has a more particular and narrower meaning. Often, duty refers not merely to obligations, but to obligations that we find difficult to fulfill for one reason or another. In this sense, duty refers to fulfilling one’s obligations in the face of obstacles. When obligation meets impediments, then we talk about duty. Put another way, duty (in this narrower sense) is when the want to and the ought to don’t match.

That’s why duty has so often been praised as a virtue. To do the right thing in the face of the various obstacles that hinder us, to persevere in willing the good even when it’s hard, even when we lack the spontaneous delight that would make doing the right thing enjoyable — these have led many to praise duty as not merely virtuous, but as the pinnacle of virtue. The moral effort involved in overcoming impediments seems to give duty a beauty and luster and value that unimpeded, spontaneous goodness seems to lack.

What do we, as Christian Hedonists, make of this seeming superiority of arduous moral effort that overcomes all obstacles to doing good?

Impediments of Various Kinds

First, let’s understand what we mean by impediments. It seems to me that impediments might be either natural or moral, and either internal or external. Natural, external impediments are the high mountains and long distances we endure to fulfill our obligations. The time it takes, the monotonous repetition of our obligations, the heavy loads we must carry, and the inconveniences we undergo — all of these lie outside of us and are simply features of living in a finite (and fallen) world.

Natural, internal impediments are those bound up with our finitude and embodiment. Any impediment flowing from bodily weakness and natural aversion to pain and suffering would be included here. Sometimes duties are heavy, not because the obligation is so heavy, but because we are so weak. To do the right thing when we are tired or hungry or sick, or when the consequences of doing the right thing will be pain, discomfort, and even the possibility of death — this is what it means to do our duty in the face of natural, internal impediments.

Moral, external impediments include the evil that we must overcome in others. Loving my neighbor who is kind and pleasant is easy. Loving my neighbor who is quarrelsome, bitter, envious, and ungrateful is harder. Their ingratitude and bitterness are impediments that I overcome to fulfill my obligation. The same is true of the mockery, scorn, and rejection by others that sometimes occur when we do the right thing and maintain our integrity. So also with the obstacles posed by dark spiritual powers, which seek to undermine our obedience (though frequently the obstacles they erect take the form of the other kinds of impediments).

“Even the simplest of obligations can feel impossible in the face of our own pride, anger, sloth, and fear.”

Finally, we have the moral impediments that lie within us. Our besetting sins and disruptive passions — these are the impediments that we most frequently have to overcome. Even the simplest of obligations can feel impossible in the face of our own pride, anger, sloth, and fear. Or we might consider how our desires for other good things turn our obligation to love others into arduous exertions. The love of money (and all the desires it could fulfill) kept the rich young ruler from doing the one thing Christ called him to do. That inordinate love was his greatest impediment, and he went away sad (Mark 10:22).

In our daily lives, these impediments are almost always mingled. Making a time-consuming meal for a bitter neighbor when you are tired after a full day’s work brings three of the impediments together in one major obstacle (and no doubt presses on our own abiding sinfulness, thus bringing all types of impediments together). So we must not artificially divide the kinds of obstacles that we face.

What, then, do Christian Hedonists say about duty in the narrow sense in the face of these kinds of impediments?

1. Duty exists to be transcended.

The narrow sense of duty is owing to the various natural and moral impediments that we face, and these are owing to our pilgrim condition in a fallen world. Someday, most of these impediments — at least the moral ones and the natural, internal ones — will pass away. It seems possible to me that natural, external impediments may still have a place even in the new heavens and new earth; heaven may have its ardors and exertions, its severities and steep ascents. However, in our glorified condition, our natural limitations will not in any way hinder our joy in doing good; indeed, they will increase our joy.

When that day comes, goodness will flow from us spontaneously, like songs from a lark and water from a fountain. Unhindered delight in doing what we ought will be the crowning bloom on our moral actions.

2. Humans have levels of will.

In the meantime, in our pilgrim condition, we embrace the worth and value of overcoming impediments in our efforts to do good. That worth and value will be embraced rightly if we recognize the different levels of “willing” that we are capable of as humans.

We see these two levels in Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane: “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). “Not my will” — this means that, at some level, the race set before Jesus was an unpleasant one, filled with various impediments: a long distance up Calvary’s road, a heavy cross upon his back, the natural weaknesses of a beaten body, the hatred, scorn, and mockery of wicked men, his abandonment by his friends, and the surety of an excruciating death. Jesus beheld all of these impediments to his calling to love his people and, at one level, said, “I don’t want to.”

But only at one level. At another, deeper level, his human will embraced the divine will. “Yours be done.” Despite all of the impediments in his way, Christ still fundamentally desired to do the will of his Father. And thus he did what he ought in the face of the external and internal obstacles in his way.

What can we say about this deeper willing and desiring that Christ displayed? First, it was animated by joy: “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Second, his experience of joy while enduring the cross differed markedly from his experience after his ascent to God’s right hand. The sufferings were neither pleasant nor enjoyable; they were horrific and painful. Nevertheless, we all know that there is a kind of satisfaction in doing one’s duty in the face of obstacles and in the midst of great pain, by looking forward to the reward (Hebrews 11:6, 26).

3. Even duties can become joys.

The two levels of our willing enable us to speak truly about the value of the narrow sense of duty. At one level, the want to and ought to don’t match; thus, we can talk about duty. But at another, deeper (or higher) level, they do match, because we actually persevere in doing the good, despite the lack of want to at the first level. Our desire or commitment to doing what’s right overcomes all external hindrances and internal reluctances.

This desire is what enables us to “count it all joy . . . when [we] meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). The fact that we have to “count it” joy highlights the gap that we are exploring. We don’t have to count pleasant experiences as joy; they just are joy because we enjoy them at both levels. It is the trials, the unpleasant moments, the impediments that must be counted as joy because we know what the testing is producing for us — steadfastness, maturity, and completeness (James 1:3–4).

4. Some impediments require repentance.

Recognizing the different types of obstacles that the narrow sense of duty overcomes enables us to evaluate them rightly. When facing natural impediments or the moral evil in others, we need not feel guilt for the struggle. We can lament our bodily weaknesses and grieve over the evil done to us by other people, but we need feel no moral responsibility or conviction for having to overcome such obstacles.

When facing our own inner, moral obstacles, however, such as the passions that hinder our pursuit of godliness, we must both lament and repent for our remaining sinfulness. In such cases, we do our duty with a humble brokenheartedness because the gap between the ought to and the want to is owing to our own abiding corruption.

5. Doing our duty strengthens our will.

We labor to strengthen the deeper level of willing by cultivating habitual holy affections at this level. Seeking to do our duty in the broader sense (i.e., fulfilling our obligation to delight in God above all things) is what strengthens our ability to do our duty in the narrower sense (when the want to and ought to don’t align at every level). We want the fundamental inclinations of our will to be enduring, stable, and strong enough to overcome the temporary disruptions of our passions in the face of external impediments.

So, we Christian Hedonists do not disparage duty. Instead, we put it in its proper place. It is a crutch in our pilgrim condition, a deep and abiding resolve to overcome the various obstacles that keep us from fully rejoicing in doing good with joy unhindered. In this sense, doing our duty in the face of impediments is a crucial expression of our deep and enduring satisfaction in all that God is for us in Christ.