What is duty? Although we may speak of a puppy “doing his duty,” duty isn’t otherwise a word we hear much about these days. Perhaps it is because we live in an age where we are more concerned with what makes us happy than with what is right and benefits others. Yet this way of thinking and living is diametrically opposed to how God tells us to conduct ourselves, and it introduces a host of unintended problems.
“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ” (Luke 17:10 NIV)
Many of the problems our culture today–as well as that of much of the rest of the world–faces, stem from a strong current individual drive for self-fulfillment and maximization of pleasure, over a single-minded commitment to one’s duty toward God and the other people in our lives. Yet, if God is deemed to be a figment of man’s literary creativity and is therefore excluded from the picture (as He so often is these days), man’s duty toward his fellow-man becomes increasingly difficult to justify, especially when marriage gets difficult.
This is why we have so much wrong behavior. According to the CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr049.pdf), in 1995 over 50% of women’s first marriages ended in divorce, and in 2002 over one third of men’s first marriages ended in divorce. Other sources posit that 50% of first marriages, 67% of second marriages, and 74% of third marriages end in divorce (divorce pad.com). This is unfortunate, but why is it particularly disconcerting?
Apart from our culture’s obvious disobedience to God’s mandate of remaining faithful to your spouse (“…rejoice with the wife of your youth,” Proverbs 5:18 and others), divorce, separation, or abandonment introduces a host of secondary problems within the family structure which filter out to society at large. Most of these can easily be anticipated, were we not to engage in wishful thinking about human nature. A culture seeped in sexuality and a seemingly single-minded pursuit of pleasure finds it difficult to say, “no” to an ever-diminishing number of prohibited behaviors; cohabitation and remarriage introduce new partners to temptations and provided opportunities for abuses first marriages protect children from.
Divorce and separation furthermore impact not only the abandoned wife’s financial circumstances; in almost all cases they also drastically alter the children’s prospects and future well-being. Marriages exist at all socioeconomic levels; not everyone is wealthy, and many families struggle. Yet regardless of where they are at financially, an intact family unit provides financial benefits that divorce and separation remove. In most cases, besides the departure of one parent, the family home also has to be abandoned, and instead of the wife’s income providing for “extras” as it may have before, it becomes essential for basic survival, eliminating two essential components in the upbringing of children–sufficient parental oversight and any financial cushion the family may have accrued.
The remaining spouse (usually the wife) is also emotionally impacted and finds herself bearing an unaccustomed mental and financial strain. She may be tempted to drown her sorrows in substance abuse, making her even more unavailable to her children and further diminishing family resources. Not least, the lack of insufficient parental oversight and trauma of fractured family and relocation threaten to make the children themselves more vulnerable to negative influences.
Can a child survive this? Some do, through the grace of Christ, yet most limp along. The sacrifice is huge, both in terms of their emotional well-being and in what that impacted well-being could have otherwise achieved for themselves and their future families as well as for society at large. Instead of satisfactorily transitioning from a stable home to an education that positions them to function as effective and even successful members of their community and society at large, their opportunities are truncated.
Apart from the emotional upheavals of a departing parent and diminished economic circumstances, college frequently becomes wishful thinking. Even under more favorable circumstances it is already an impossibility to many, simply because FAFSA’s Estimated Family Contribution is frequently unrealistic and the bottom line a college requires the family to pay is even higher. So what becomes of a child’s hope without the father’s contribution?
Yet, you might argue–there are many less advantaged children, why is this any different? Perhaps it isn’t, but what if these are your children? Will you do this to them, simply because you chose yourself first, your pleasure and desires over their needs and well-being, selfishness and sin over your duty to God and them?
Ultimately, there is a reckoning, a day of answering for our sinful selfish behavior. Yet even before that day, we frequently have opportunity to look back in this life to see either the blessings our dutiful and selfless choices have made possible for our family, or the destruction and curses our thoughtless selfishness has condemned them to. Imagine the grief of an old man looking back at his life, knowing that he is beyond much personal pleasure, yet having the bitterness of knowing full well that it was his choices that caused his family harm.
Duty is a choice between right and wrong, righteousness and sinfulness, what I want right now versus what God wants me to do. The Bible records many instances of everyone doing whatever pleases them without any regard for whether it is right or good, yet God warns us against living like that, “You shall not at all do as we are doing here today—every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes.” (Deuteronomy 12:8) To the contrary, He encourages us to stop choosing wrong, and begin choosing what it right, “…For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness.” (Romans 6:19)
Ultimately, duty is a choice of the will. It is doing what is good, not because it gives pleasure, but because it is the right thing to do.
Impress our duty upon us, and help us faithfully do it. Amen.