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, than 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.
Because I’m a professor, I make my living teaching and writing about things I know from having read the right books. The pleasure of doing one’s duty — and, strangely, it is a pleasure — is something I know from experience.
A little detour is in order. I have a congenital back problem that flared up when I was seventeen; doctors fused the lowest two vertebrae and my body felt normal for a long time afterward. Several years ago, when I was forty one I started to change a flat tire, and something happened. Ever since, I’ve felt pain at the base of my back and in the top half of my right leg. Two more fusions later, the pain is as bad as ever. On high-pain days, it is worse than the worst my mind could imagine even a short time ago. On all days it hangs heavy in the air, follows me about like an unwelcome guest who doesn’t know when to leave the party.
My Christian friends all pray that the guest would go away. For a long time, that was my prayer too. How could it not be? Yet something happened in my spirit after a few hundred of those prayers, not so different from the popping in the base of my back when I tried to change that tire. My spirit popped: I couldn’t bear to keep asking God a question the answer to which would always be “no.” Every piece of medical information I’ve seen or heard tells me that my symptoms are here to stay — my back might get a little better or might get worse, but it will never again feel normal. Not in this life.
But Christians worship a God who promises the opposite of an easy life: “in this world, you will have trouble.” Our God provided the ram who took Isaac’s place, a sign that the punishment I deserve will fall — has fallen — on other, stronger shoulders. But our God did not spare Joseph slavery and prison when his jealous brothers sought to get rid of him. He did not spare Job. And he did not spare the faithful described in Hebrews 11: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.” Plainly, God can remove suffering. Equally plainly, he often chooses not to.
Now stop and think about those prayers that so many dear friends have prayed for me, along with the ones I prayed for myself. I suspect there is an unstated premise to all those petitions: that God exists to suit my needs. This is not the religion of the Bible. It is more nearly the religion of Dylan Thomas, who famously told his dying father: “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Old age should burn and rave at close of day. / Rage, rage at the dying of the light.”
Clueless college student that I was, I once loved that poem. Not anymore. Thomas unwittingly paints a fine picture of hell. It sounds noble: the struggle against nature and fate. But know this: if you rage at death, death still comes. Shake your fist at pain, and the pain remains. A life spent raging at one’s circumstances is, in the end, a life spent raging. If Thomas’s father had done as his son asked, death would have conquered not only his dying but also his living.
This should give Christians pause, for we do something similar with the disappointments in our own lives. Think: What do you do when your circumstances displease you?
Early twenty-first-century citizens of the rich world are the most favored class of people in human history. We seem to have the ability to alter our circumstances. Jobs and incomes, spouses and friends, churches and professional networks: in our strangely abundant world these things are, or appear, more like choices than gifts. If they don’t please you, choose new ones. Our temptation is to treat blessings not as happy surprises but as earned entitlements. God’s role is to serve as a divine accountant, reimbursing whatever expenses we rack up as we seek the happiness that he owes us. When you’ve tried everything else and your circumstances are still not up to snuff, call the Big Guy and tell him what you need. On this view, Christian faith is like a teenager’s credit card: Mom and Dad always pay the bill. Name it and claim it; he’ll give it to you. After all, he aims to please.
But he doesn’t. That isn’t the way he works.
Our tendency is to think that God should change the circumstances — take away the suffering. But the Father knows better. He redeems from the inside out. Satan uses bad circumstances to produce bad hearts. God makes good hearts, and uses them to transform circumstances — not to make them more pleasant, but to do something infinitely harder: to make them better.
How does that work? What virtue is called for? Scripture labels it “perseverance.” I once thought that noun meant roughly this: pray persistently for pain relief. Now, I think it means something very different: live persistently in the midst of the pain. Do my duty. This is not just stiff-upper-lip, make-the-best-of-a-bad-lot stuff. Instead, it is to do my job: teach my classes, write my articles, raise and educate my children. Not because I must. Actually, I could do as Job’s friends advised: blame myself, blame God, curse us both, and die a bitter death. No, doing one’s duty lies precisely in doing the right thing when one need not. Fulfilling obligations when they aren’t obligatory. Do that, day after day, in the midst of your painful circumstances, and you will discover an amazing truth. Duty is transformative.
Over time, one of two things happens to us all. Our desires become obligations, or our obligations become desires. The first is the norm in our upside-down world, but the second is much the better path.
My desires haven’t altogether changed; I still want my pain to go away. But I no longer want it quite so desperately as I once did. Other wants have changed too. For much of my working life, my most desperate desire was to avoid failure and embarrassment. My heart’s most fervent prayer was: “Please don’t let me mess up too badly.” When that prayer failed, I had a backup: “If I do, help me cover it up so no one will notice.” I don’t pray those sad prayers now. One benefit of living with agony is that professional failure seems a smaller thing than it once did. So does professional success. I take more joy in my work now than I did when my back was healthy.
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. 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 up raging against the light’s dying, long before the light has actually died.
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. Better to say: Do right, and you may find that you want what you do. Christians call that blessed state “contentment.”
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.
Dr. William J. Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law School, passed away in 2011 after teaching for over a decade at both Harvard Law and the University of Virginia Law School and fighting a three year battle with colon cancer. This article was written and contributed to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Faculty Ministry in 2006. Stuntz's books, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice and The Political Heart of Criminal Procedure: Essays on Themes of William J. Stuntz were published posthumously and are both now available in paperback. Follow these links to read more about the impact of Professor Stuntz on his students and colleagues as well as legal professionals. This interview with Dr. Stuntz may bring further personal insight into his faith. May we all continue to do our duty and honor God well.