Monday, December 12, 2005

"Doing Your Duty"

Professor Bainbridge just directed the attention of readers of his blog to this article. This is his description: "My friend Harvard law professor William Stuntz turns his considerable talents to theology with a touching meditation on suffering. Highly recommended." I agree with that assessment. I'd like quote the whole thing, but I'll only cite a small fragment of it and hope that if it interests you, you'll follow the link.
Obligation. Responsibility. Duty. Perseverance. Happiness. Which word doesn’t belong?

Readers may think: Come on, ask a harder question. “Duty” and "perseverance" have all but disappeared from ordinary speech, while "obligation" and "responsibility" are usually seen as unpleasant medicines that, sometimes, one must take. If the point of life is to pursue happiness — the American creed, enshrined in our Declaration of Independence — then living well means minimizing the first four of those words and maximizing the fifth.

That is definitely our culture's conventional wisdom. Sadly, this piece of "wisdom" is almost as conventional in Christian circles, especially among evangelicals. But it’s not wise, and definitely not Christian. The Bible teaches that the road to that fifth noun runs through the first four. More precisely, it teaches that while happiness may not be your lot in this life, you can have something much better: contentment, even joy. Want a satisfying life? Live up to your obligations — or, as generations past would have put it more elegantly, do your duty.

Paragraphs later, he concludes:
More and more, I think the key to living well is figuring out which things one gets by seeking them, and which things one gets only by seeking other, better things. Doing good work is in the first category. Happiness, contentment, peace of mind, a good family life, the respect of one's peers, often (surprisingly so) professional advancement — these things are all in the second: all are byproducts of seeking something, or Someone, else. Our culture gets that backward. Most of us, most of the time, strive to do our jobs well only insofar as it gets us some reward. No one does his best work that way. Meanwhile, we treat the good things of this life as if they were lovers to be wooed and pursued. But these lovers are teases: always just out of reach, just one changed circumstance away. Life lived pursuing happiness is life lived always pursuing, never getting the thing pursued. Seek God, and you'll find him — along with a lot else. Seek everything else you want, and you may get some but not nearly enough; you'll end by raging against the light's dying, long before the light has actually died. When Dylan Thomas describes it, the rage sounds noble. It isn't. Trust me: I know that land well. I've lived there.

Too often, we in the church cultivate the world's virtues, instead of the very different ones our God has in mind for us. The world says: Do what you want. We tend to respond: Ask God for what you want. The response is too modest. Better to say: Do right, and you may find that you want what you do. Christians call that blessed state "contentment." One finds it through perseverance — another poorly understood Christian word that sounds like bad-tasting medicine but in truth is a drink of cool water in a parched land. Don't pray that your circumstances would better suit your desires. Instead, pray that your desires would better suit your circumstances — that you would do your job, do right by those with whom you deal, keep going when quitting seems easier, not out of habit or necessity but out of love and gratitude.

Our culture — Christians no less than anyone else — sees duty and obligation as undesirable limits on human freedom, things to be avoided where possible and grudgingly accepted where not. In truth, duty and obligation lie at the core of every well-lived life. When embraced willingly, they are not a burden on freedom but an exercise of it. Not obstacles to happiness but the road toward it. I don't want to name and claim anything, because I would claim all the wrong things. Better to take the worst this devil-filled world can muster, and do my duty.