That’s the default attitude for human beings going through difficult, unavoidable situations, whether we’re Christians or not. It might not be a job we feel trapped in. Our unwelcome duty may be taking care of an infirm or ill relative, where he or she is ungrateful and everyone else in the family leaves all the heavy lifting-- maybe literally-- to you. Or maybe the difficult duty you face is keeping a struggling marriage together for the sake of the children. Or you’ve taken on a task for an organization you belong to and now that you’ve got it, nobody else will step up so you can resign in good conscience. Or maybe, just maybe, the struggle and suffering you’re undergoing has to do with bearing with ridicule and disadvantage because you belong to Jesus Christ.
In all these situations, we have a natural inclination to believe that God should give us credit for how terrible our duty makes us feel. In fact, we assume that if we felt joy and love in our duty, it wouldn’t be Duty at all. Sometimes the object of all our self-sacrifice will even say: “You don’t really love me, you’re only doing this for me out of duty!” We feel that Duty by nature is something done because we have to, not because we want to or take any pleasure in it. I mean, if somehow we enjoyed our duty, wouldn’t that be selfish of us? (I’m speaking according to conventional wisdom). That means the more reluctant we are to do our duty, the greater the merit there is in it..
But is this what the Bible says about Duty and Joy? What is God’s will concerning them both? This morning we’ll examine a few brief passages that shed light on this subject, and by the help of the Holy Spirit may they aid us as we love and serve God and our neighbor in this present age.
We read these verses in the order they appear in the Bible, but I’ll start with the reading from Proverbs 8 first. The context here might be called “The Song of Wisdom” or “Wisdom’s Manifesto.” In Proverbs Wisdom is personified as a woman, but when you look at the qualities and attributes she demonstrates, you realize that this describes none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity. And doesn’t St. Paul call Christ “the Wisdom of God” in I Corinthians? In our Proverbs passage we see the eternal Son of God, God’s eternal Wisdom, laboring at the Father’s side in the work of creation. We see this truth confirmed in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where it says that “by him all things were created,” and in St. John’s Gospel, where it is written that “without Him [that is, Jesus Christ] nothing was made that has been made.” Jesus our Lord in dutiful submission to the will of His Father labored as the craftsman at the Father’s side, making everything that is. And what does Christ the Wisdom of God say? Speaking in the guise of Lady Wisdom He says:
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.
God the Son did His duty to the Father, and in His duty He took delight and joy!
Now, it might be objected: The work of creation was not Duty for the Son. But not so fast. What is duty? It is what is due to or owed someone. The Scriptures make it clear in various places that God the Father is owed all obedience, honor, and submission, and from eternity God the Son pays His Father His due. He does His duty, and He does it joyfully.
We, brothers and sisters, are now children of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, saved by His precious blood. We follow in His footsteps in rendering all obedience, honor, and loving submission to God our Father, and like Him, we are called to do it with joy.
But another objection might be raised: Yes, but it’s one thing to render joyful duty to God. What about to other people? That’s where we face all the trouble and hardship that we want credit for! That’s where duty stops having anything to do with joy and love! Isn’t it?
But consider the story of Jacob and Rachel in Genesis. “I”ll work for you seven years, Uncle Laban, in return for your younger daughter Rachel,” promises Jacob. And so “Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.” Jacob was doing his duty all that time. He promised his service to his Uncle Laban, and he owed it to him according to his promise. He felt that Rachel deserved any amount of service, and he rendered it. Now, Laban did not do his duty towards Jacob; we all know the trick he pulled substituting Leah for Rachel on the wedding night. Even so, for Jacob, duty and love were so intertwined for the sake of Rachel and it was hard to tell the difference between the two.
So it should be with us as Christians. There should be no distinction between duty and love and the joy that flows from both. Even as we fall short of the goal, we should strive and long for the time when we could so love all those we serve so deeply that the time and difficulties would seem like nothing.
Yes, all right, we can object, but it was Rachel that Jacob was doing his loving duty for. What if he’d known he was actually serving seven years for Leah with her weak eyes and not-so-lovely form? In our own lives, we might ask what joy can there be in working for that mean boss or taking care of that ungrateful relative or bearing patiently with that belittling parent or spouse? We cannot possibly pretend we like being put down and called names and worked to death for someone who thinks we’re only around to serve their purposes.
Christian friends, God does not call us to pretend to like it, let alone to actually like it. Nevertheless, it is His will that we should find joy in doing our duty, wherever it may lie.
Romans 5 deals with our duty to accept suffering with a joyful heart. This suffering would be especially what we might undergo for the sake of Jesus Christ, but the passage doesn’t limit it to that. Verse 2 says, “[W]e rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” All right, that’s understandable. But Paul goes on to say, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings.” Why? Are we supposed to be like those Medieval monks who scourged themselves, thinking they were gaining merit with God by self-cruelty? No, we rejoice in our sufferings because of the results we can expect from them. Jacob surely rejoiced in his seven years of labor because they were (supposed to) result in Rachel. For us, suffering patiently and even joyfully borne results in perseverance: we learn to keep on keeping on. That produces strong character: We become people who can bear up under hard testing. And as we develop that kind of character, our hope in God grows all the more. By hope we aren’t talking about mere wishful thinking, but to a confidence that looks ahead and knows that the promises God makes to us in Jesus Christ He will keep. We know it because He’s already keeping His promise of love to us even now, pouring it into our hearts through His Spirit. And refreshed by His love we can rejoice in whatever that rotten job or difficult relationship or physical ordeal throws at us, because our hope in God will never disappoint us.
In the same way, in our passage from Colossians chapter 1, Paul by the Spirit prays that the Colossians and all believers may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. Why? So we may live a life worthy and pleasing to the Lord. So we can bear fruit in every good work, and grow in the knowledge of God.
Sometimes we think, “Oh, that would be so easy if I didn’t have all the hassles of daily life to contend with!” But it’s the other way around. Bearing fruit for God happens in the midst of the real trials of this earthly life, as we encounter trouble and suffering and hard, boring, ungrateful labor. And so Paul prays that we may be strengthened with all of God’s mighty power so we might have great endurance and patience.
What is this endurance and patience? Is it gritting our teeth and just getting through it? No, in all we endure God desires that we should joyfully give thanks to Him. Why? Because it is through our hard labor and trials that His glorious might is revealed in us. Because in them we are more and more driven to trust Him and not our own abilities. Because He’s teaching us to seek our satisfaction not in the joys and pleasures of this earth, but in the inheritance of the saints He has laid up for us in the kingdom of light. This inheritance is eternal blissful fellowship with Him, and it’s not something we can earn; it’s already ours through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 6 brings the issue home. Now, slavery is never God’s ideal for how one human being should relate to another. Nevertheless, it existed as an integral part of 1st century Greco-Roman society, just as tedious, low-paying jobs exist in ours. This passage does not advise us on getting better employment, any more than it deals with how a slave might try to become free. What it does command is that as long as we are under a given boss or master, we should respect and obey him sincerely, just as we would respect, fear, and obey Jesus Christ. Not going about moaning, “I’m miserable; O Lord, reward me for my misery!” but doing the will of God from our hearts. Again, Paul says, “serve wholeheartedly.” Not much room there for keeping a tally of our injuries and expecting God to pay us back for them, is there?
But wait a minute. Look, here in verse 8, it says the Lord will reward us. Yes, He will. But not for how much we hated the whole experience, whatever it was. Our reward will be for our faithfulness in the situation, for our service to Him no matter how terrible our boss might be, for our wholeheartedness and joy in the Lord as we imitate Jesus Christ-- who did not shirk the dirtiest, most offensive, and most demeaning job of all: going to the cross to pay the price for our sins.
So in all the hard labors and trials of our life, let us indeed
. . . fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Jesus willingly went through suffering for the joy of winning you and me as His redeemed people. You belong to Him now; remember that and be comforted whenever you encounter trouble and opposition. He has brought you out of sin and death and He certainly can give you joy in the midst of whatever hard labor you may go through.
But what about getting credit for our suffering? If by that we expect God to reward us for having a bleak, miserable, unloving, and joyless attitude towards our work and relationships, sorry, we’re out of luck. The Son of God rejoiced over us at creation and joyfully went through hell to present us as His workmanship before the Father. We are now children of God, beloved by Christ who died and rose for us. Since this is true of Him and true of us, we owe it to Him to take joy in our duty, and we also owe Him the duty of joy, just as He rendered joyful duty and dutiful joy to His Father in heaven.
And isn’t this what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves? If we were perfect people in this very imperfect world, we would be so filled with love for our neighbor that the worst kind of service for the most difficult person would be like Jacob serving to get Rachel. And as a very imperfect human being I’m tempted to tell you (and myself) that of course God does not expect that of us. But I’d be wrong. He does expect that of us, for He expects us to grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, who joyfully suffered that we might live.
But take heart, brothers and sisters! He expects it of us through the peace, wisdom, and strength of Christ, not through our own. God loves you: Ask Him to help you love your neighbor. God rejoices over you in Christ; pray in all things that He will bring you more and more to rejoice in Him. And pray with all His saints that He will bring us through suffering at last to His kingdom of light, where duty is joy and joy is duty, to the praise of His glorious name. Amen.