Let me start by saying I love Boy Scouts. I was fortunate to earn the rank of Eagle many, many years ago and more recently, I’ve had the joy (and pain) of serving as a cub scout den leader for an energetic bunch of boys (my son included) for three years and counting. While the Boy Scouts have had ups and downs in the past few years, they, along with the Girl Scouts, are among a handful of organizations, I’m glad to be able to say, who still acknowledge the God-breathed differences between male and female. In addition, unlike so many of the overscheduled and overstructured activities for kids today, scouting actually lets boys be boys. Like I said, I love Boy Scouts. Now for those that may not be familiar, one of the foundations of scouting is the Scout Oath which all scouts must learn and recite. Whether a brand new Tiger Cub in 1st grade or a seasoned Boy Scout in high school, most of your meetings begin by reciting (from memory) the Scout Oath. The Scout Oath begins, as it has since the first BSA Handbook in 1911, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God…”
The idea of duty, and in particular duty to God, has been interwoven into the fabric of scouting since its origin. Nevertheless, Boy Scouts, remarkably, doesn’t attempt to define what actually constitutes one’s duty to God. Instead, scouts are encouraged to discuss with their parents or faith leader what duty to God means. Thinking back to my own time as a cub and boy scout I don’t recall any specific discussions about my duty to God but 25 years later I still remember the Oath. So what exactly then is one’s duty to God? Merriam-Webster defines duty as “a moral or legal obligation” and Dictionary.com defines duty as “something that one is expected or required to do...”
So we could say that duty is something that one is expected or required to do out of a moral or legal obligation. Hmm, that sounds reasonable in the context of assigning household chores to my kids, or a military leader assigning responsibilities for defending one’s country, but can that understanding of duty define our relationship with God? Having lived a lot of years of the Christian life on the hamster wheel of ‘try hard, try hard, fail’, ‘try hard try hard fail’; I have come to believe that duty alone should not define our relationship with God.
But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what God’s word has to say. Surprisingly, there are not many instances of the word duty in scripture, and all but two of them are found in the Old Testament. The most notable passage in the Old Testament is found in Ecclesiastes when Solomon, nearing the end of that book of the Bible, says, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13 NIV) Whoa. Strong, resounding words from the wisest (sinful) man who ever lived. Could I be wrong about duty as defining our relationship with God? I needed to look further.
In the New Testament, there is really only one reference to duty as an obligation towards God and it’s found in a passage in Chapter 17 of the Book of Luke. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus has some harsh words for the disciples about sin and the seriousness of leading others into sin. The disciples, understanding the weight of Jesus’ words, ask Jesus to, “Increase our faith!” They had seen the many miracles Jesus performed and were hoping for a bit of (ZAP!) instantaneous spiritual growth. Instead of describing for them how to increase their faith or doubling down with an additional weighty directive, in verses 7-10 Jesus instead offers the disciples a somewhat confusing parable about a servant and how the servant’s duty is to do what he is told to do. Many biblical commentators interpret this passage to mean, at least in part, that obedience is our duty. Sound familiar?
So what do we do with this? Certainly, we are called to obey Jesus’ commands. Remember what Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (NIV) However, it seems that too often the American church allows duty to be a viewed as a reasonable end point for one’s spiritual journey with God. Actually, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that too often Christians (particularly men) within the American church settle on duty as a reasonable and acceptable foundation for their relationship with God. Sadly, far too many guys today think duty is the only way they relate to God. An intellectual acknowledgment of the existence of our Creator has wrongfully taken the place of an intimate, personal relationship with one’s heavenly Father. Don’t think so? Take a look at the average worship service on any given Sunday morning and see how engaged the men are in worship. You might ask, “why would someone go to church if there is no personal relationship with Jesus?” One word – duty. Countless men (and women) go to church on Sunday morning simply because they believe it is “something that one is expected or required to do.”
The problem with this, of course, is that duty can only get you so far. For starters, it can never make you right with God. Thus, if all you have a is a sense of duty to God, and no relationship, each time you blow it you’re prone to go to shame, self-doubt and self-loathing – “Man, I [insert your sin of choice] again! I really do suck! why would God ever want to use me, bless me, love me?”
I suppose it’s not so much that the Boy Scouts or the American church are offering something wrong with regard to duty but rather that they are offering something incomplete. The Christian life rooted in duty alone can be a horribly burdensome road. I know, as I was stuck on duty as the foundation of my relationship with God for far too long on my walk with God. During that time Jesus’ promise in Matthew 11:30 that “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” seemed laughable. Really? That certainly didn’t seem available to me.
And this is where I bristle at the “duty to God” language in the Scout Oath. While I won’t go so far as to suggest changing an oath that has survived more than one hundred years, I find myself wanting to remind my son and the boys in my den that experiencing God through the lens of duty only is like watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy on a thirteen-inch, standard definition, black and white TV (“Umm, what’s a black and white TV, Dad??”). In contrast, experiencing God through the lens of a personal, intimate relationship is like watching the Battle at Helm’s Deep in IMAX 3D with a bottomless tub of buttered popcorn and your best friend in the recliner next to you.
Following Jesus was never meant to be some long, boring slog through life. Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that [you] may have life and have it abundantly.” (ESV) The abundant life cannot fit through the keyhole of duty alone.
Perhaps you’re asking, “What do I do if I’m stuck on duty?” If you’re asking that question, you’ve already taken the first step – acknowledging where you’re at and that it’s not where you want to be. One of the most beautiful things about our heavenly Father is that he is always, and I mean ALWAYS, willing to meet you wherever you are. He is the ultimate boy scout – always prepared.
So, how is your relationship with Jesus today? Have you talked to Him lately? Ever? If the idea of having an actual, intimate relationship with the creator of the universe seems laughable to you, start there. Seriously. Tell Him how crazy you think it is that he would be interested in you…….BUT then give Him a chance to respond. He’s dying for you to reach out to Him……..better put, He died so you could reach out to Him. And He will respond, for He promises us in Matthew 7:8, “For everyone [yes, everyone means EVERYONE] who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
One thought on “Is Duty a Four Letter Word?”
Amen, well said brother!