Duty before Happiness

On Tuesday Jen@conversion diary wrote a very interesting and insightful post on Duty before Holiness. (You should go and read it, I'll wait.) She discusses the temptation to do something great and interesting for God to the neglect of our true duty and vocation.

I have referred to the concept of duty before as faithfully doing what is in front of you that needs doing. Elizabeth Elliot says, as advice to overwhelmed mothers, "Do the next thing." This usually involves something mundane and unexciting, like making sure the house is picked up, holding the crying baby, or going to bed at a decent hour rather than staying up enjoying "me time" and then being too tired the next day to do one's duty as well as could be done. (Why yes, I am preaching to the choir here. How observant of you.) Remembering one's duty is a safeguard against taking on things that we are not supposed to do, because those things conflict with what is clearly our primary duty.

Now, I would venture that not all of us are as ambitious as Jen. We may not be tempted to abandon our duty in pursuit of greater holiness. But we abandon our duty all the same. Sometimes it's in pursuit of comfort. Or happiness. Or because we resent the work we need to do. Often it's because we don't believe that what we are doing has any intrinsic worth. A dear friend of mine asked this weekend, "How can cleaning up an endlessly messy house be any thing other than frustrating and tiresome?" (Or something close, I don't remember her exact words.)

Or when we do do our duty, we resent it. We indulge in angry and bitter thoughts as we go about our tasks, and we live for the moment when we can get away from it all.

Then we wonder why we are unhappy; why every break leaves us, not refreshed, but craving more breaks, resenting even more the duty in front of us. We neglect the house in order to "rest and recover" from a late night of web surfing. We nap at work in order to recover from a late night out. We turn in shoddy workmanship at school because we wanted to hang out with friends instead of study. And we find ourselves frustrated, and stressed, and depressed.

It's because we are neglecting our duties. It's because we don't believe that doing our duty matters. Especially us mothers. Everything around us screams, "You are wasting your time and your life!" Some don't know what this feels like and that's wonderful. But most mothers know what I'm talking about.

What was the point of my education when all I'm doing is wiping butts day after day?

Anyone could clean a house. Yet why do I find it so difficult to keep it clean?

I'm too smart to pick up after people who speak in grunts all day long.

I should be spending my time and energy doing something about the injustices of the world, rather than reading story books to a few privileged children.

Jen hits at the crux of the issue with this sentence.

I've found rest and peace in the knowledge that what God wants first and foremost is that I simply, lovingly fulfill the basic duties he's set in front of me as a wife and a mother.

The key to being happy in our roles is to trust that what we are doing matters. But that means understanding life from a perspective that isn't found much in modern culture. It's the idea that relationships matter more than accomplishments. That serving others is an act of love. That people are more important than things or tasks. At the end of our lives what will matter is how well we loved God and each other.

Jen also had this to say.
Too often I've insisted on forcing through my plans for holiness at the expense of my duties -- and almost every time all those big plans end up fizzling in front of me, leaving me in a worse place than where I started. Yet on the occasions that I've managed to be obedient to my duties first, it's been stunning to see how God has opened one unlikely door after another to allow me to fulfill those desires within the constraints of my vocation.
In my experience it is the same with whatever I am seeking; happiness, peace, fulfillment, contentment. The path toward those good things lies through embracing and submitting myself joyfully to the duties I have before me and doing it with all my heart. The more I squirm and try to wriggle around them, the more miserable I become.

Faithfulness is the path through, and gratitude, I think, is the path to finding joy in those things that we have previously resented. If we can make a beginning in these two things, with the grace of God, the rest will follow.

to clarify: I'm not advocating working and serving to the point of neglecting one's own needs and health. I'm talking about balance, but that's for another post. Most often we are out of balance in the opposite direction I think.


  1. Duty is such an unfashionable word, and now that I think of it I'm not sure I know exactly which words we've begun using in its place. Values? Ethics? What the word "duty" provides that these other words don't is clarity: your duties are those things that are non-negotiable, that you must perform to the best of your ability regardless of what else is going on. Without that word, we can even end up embroiled in ethical debates about whether our commitment to our families is selfish, how it should be balanced with commitment to the world. Not everything we do as mothers is a duty, but the word shines an exceptionally clear light on the absolute nature of the things that ARE our duty. To attend to our duty is never selfish, and to neglect our duty is never justified, regardless of how worthy the project we neglect it for.

  2. My husband once said something profound that's stayed with me: "Holiness is accepting every moment where God has placed you." It probably works to say, " . . . and the step that comes next."

  3. Anonymous7:24 PM

    Actually I disagree w/ this article- sort of. It has good points but what I have seen time and time again is- it's about balance. If a woman takes everything as her duty and feels guilty for any small pleasure or what may seem like self indulgence, then she is miserable and so is her family. NO MATTER how hard she may try to believe it's God's will. However, if there is a balance where she realizes- hey- God intends for me to take care of myself too- not just others- then she has her cup full and it can spill out to others. Of course this all depends on the personality type, but for the self-sacrificing mothers I know, a girls-night-out here and there or a hobby that is done when it doesn't interfere w/ the other duties does WONDERS for the mother's spiritual/emotional health and thus, the family's. If mama ain't happy, no one ain't happy...

  4. Actually anonymous, I agree with you. See my final paragraph.

    As far as it concerns myself and many of the other people I see, the error is not on the side of working too hard to do one's duty.

    One of the things I think most of as I write this is what Roz said so simply, that we need to accept the circumstance we find ourselves in and do our best, as opposed to struggling against them in a misguided effort to find true happiness.

    In no way does that imply that we must never enjoy ourselves or take care of ourselves. We have a duty to ourselves as well as our families, to take care of our emotional, physical and spiritual health.

  5. Anonymous5:39 PM

    So, maybe i shouldn't be reading your blog when I should be doing school with the kids? ;) Guilty!

    Although the balance, that's hard too. Busy doing stuff for others but not with forgetting myself.

  6. I firmly believe that an important element of happiness is the ability to find it in our basic duties. We cannot and should not go through our lives only being able to be happy doing certain things, not mater how great those may be. And yes, I agree. Our basic duties are in fact far greater than we realize. You look after your house and you children. I set aside large portions of my day to sit down and get to know the street people here in Berkeley. These are seemingly small things, that resonate in eternity. How else will the next generation be ready for eternity if their is no one loving them now? Who else will love those whom nobody loves if I don't take the time to actually talk with them, not about how they need to stop drinking or smoking, but about things that demonstrate real respect like how their day is going, or what are they reading? It is the delusion of the those with privilege to assume that there is any difference in importance between the so called small tasks and those we think of as great. Even when it comes to the great tasks, like eradicating poverty, fighting oppression...etc, all the high minded ideals in the world mean nothing without real love. You can talk about eradicating hunger, but if you are not willing to sit down and brake bread with a hungry person right in front of you, you have missed the point. It isn't about the masses. It isn't about reworking the whole system. That system is made of individuals. If you can't love them one at a time, you can never love the whole. God himself has no problem with going after and taking a very personal approach to each and every human. We should do the same with everyone in our sphere of responsibility, whether it be our children at home, or the Vietnam vet on the street corner.

  7. thanks for this....and happy Easter!

  8. gwendolyn haggray6:03 AM

    What a God sent message. This was minding changing and heart regulating. I have found a new outlook and my mother was listening as I read this blog to her and she stated Gwen I am going to do what the Lord wants me to do. I have been very blessed early this morning by reading your testimony, and I feel refreshed and I know I can go on to see what the end will be. Amen. Evangelist Gwendolyn, Zion Cathedral Curch of God in Christ, Freeport, NY. g_haggray@yahoo.com

  9. Thank-you Gwendolyn for encouraging me with sharing that. Bless you. :)


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