Duty or Delight: What Should Motivate Our Obedience and Service?

Duty or Delight: What Should Motivate Our Obedience and Service?

Duty or Delight: What Should Motivate Our Obedience and Service?

Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity, therefore in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and dire poverty, you will serve the enemies the Lord sends against you. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you. (Deuteronomy 24:47-48).

This text is one of the favourites of Christian Hedonists. Here, we see that God does not just want us to serve him; he is also particular about how we do it. His dissatisfaction with Israel here was not merely that they did not serve him but that they did not serve him with joy and gladness. As John Piper, retired pastor and theologian, said, “God is so bent on having people pursue joy in him that if they try to serve him without that joy, they will serve their enemies.”[1]

But how does this call to delight in God and to be joyful in him fit in with our sense of duty towards him? Are joy and delight the only attitude that must characterise all our service and obedience to the exclusion of duty and discipline? What then do we do when we have diminished feelings of happiness or joy (or none at all)? Are we then justified in refusing to serve God or obey him, waiting until we have “got our smile back” or do we just keep at it out of a sense of duty to God?

In essence, is duty-motivated obedience worse than disobedience caused by the absence of the right feelings?

What follows are some reflections on these important questions.

Delight is the ideal

Loving God

The two greatest commandments, according to Jesus, are that we love the triune God with our whole being and love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40).

Though there is a tendency to define this love as merely keeping God’s commandments (John 14:15, 1 John 5:3), a necessary corrective to those who think love is vague and contentless, there is no denying that there is an emotional element to it. This love is supposed to ooze out of our entire being – heart, soul, and mind.

Albert Barnes commented on the first part (“with all your heart”) thus: “The meaning of this is, thou shalt love him with all thy faculties or powers. Thou shalt love him supremely, more than all other beings and things, and with all the ardor possible. To love him with all the heart is to fix the affections supremely on him, more strongly than on anything else, and to be willing to give up all that we hold dear at his command.”[2]

The point here is that loving God includes ardour (enthusiasm, passion). It also involves delighting in him as the supreme object of our affections (see also Matthew 13:44-50).

Obedience and delight

In Psalms 119, we find the ideal way we should relate to God’s law. One of the important themes that recur in this chapter is that the Psalmist delights in the law of God (verses 16, 24, 35, 47, 70, 77, 143, 174). Another theme is his love for the law of God (verses 119, 159, 163).

Love and delight are both emotional (affectionate) terms. Therefore, we can conclude that the Psalmist does not approach God’s statutes with just a sense of duty; his delight and love for God resulted in his delight and love for God’s commandments, which are reflections of his moral perfection.

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Longing for God’s presence  

“O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalms 63:1). “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalms 42:1-2).

We find in David someone who was passionately longing to know God and be in his presence. This was not someone going to church because he had to; rather, the entirety of his being was longing for communion with God.

But this longing and desire were not unique to David. According to A.W Tozer, “The continuous and unembarrassed interchange of love and thought between God and the soul of the redeemed man is the throbbing heart of New Testament religion.”[3] Consequently, “we are called to an everlasting preoccupation with God.”[4]

Finding joy in God’s presence

But what was David looking for in God’s presence? In Psalms 16:11, he told us that it is in God’s presence that there is “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore.” And he hoped to enjoy them even beyond the grave. As Tremper Longman III, a bible scholar, comments, “for the Christian reader, Psalms 16 provides a basis for both our confidence that God’s blessings begin in this life as well as our sure hope that our life in God’s presence does not end with our death.”[5]

Serving God with delight

And then we come to where we began. In Deuteronomy 28:47, God chastised his people for not serving him with joy and gladness of heart.

“Our service to the Lord must be filled with joy and gladness because of the abundance of all things,” said Joe Rigney, a theologian.  “Not joyfulness in the abstract, but joyfulness because God lavishes us with blessing like the sky lavishes snow in a Minnesota winter. Otherwise, God promises judgment against our ungrateful and joyless service.”[6]

Paul exemplified this delightful and joyful approach to God’s service in his epistles. He went to the churches with joy in his heart (Romans 15:32) to contribute to their joy (2 Corinthians 1:24) and them to his (Philippians 2:2).

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Duty as a valid motivation

Duty and obligation

Though joy is a recurring theme in Paul’s letters, he did not shy away from noting that the work of ministry was his duty, a duty he took with the utmost seriousness.

As he wrote to the Romans, “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome” (Romans 1:14).

He made the same point to the Corinthians: “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of; for necessity is laid upon me; for woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). Paul was a gospel minister, called and commissioned by God; therefore, it was his duty and obligation to preach the gospel.

Both Paul (2 Timothy 4:1-5) and Peter (1 Peter 5:1-4) also used a sense of duty and obligation, as part of other motivations (including reward), to encourage church leaders to do their work.

We find something similar in Jeremiah. When he was persecuted for his prophetic ministry, he voiced his complaints to God. He claimed that God had deceived him, making him a laughingstock, a reproach and derision (Jeremiah 20:7-8).

But even though he was not feeling the deep sense of joy, delight, and gladness that should accomplish service to God, he continued nevertheless. “But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”

According to John Gill, Jeremiah was saying: “I was obliged to speak in the name of the Lord again, and deliver whatever message he was pleased to send me.”[7] Or as Adam Clarke sees it, “he was obliged to deliver it, in order to get rid of the tortures which he felt from suppressing the solemn message which God had given”[8]

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Discipline and the training for godliness

The Christian duty to study the Scriptures, pray, and witness, among others, has often been referred to as spiritual discipline. Though many don’t think the term is cool, it wasn’t strange to the NT writers.

Paul compared the Christian life to a race in 1 Corinthians 9 and insisted that just as athletes require discipline and self-control, Christians must embrace both to receive their imperishable wreath.

But Paul was not just laying the law for others. “I discipline my body and keep it under control,” he said. Paul did not see any opposition between delight and the hard work of discipline.

In his letter to Timothy, he compared the service of the Christian minister to that of soldiers, athletes, and farmers (2 Timothy 2:1-7). All of these require diligence, self-control,  and discipline, and the Christian minister is not exempted. 

To take another example, Paul wrote to Timothy of his need to train himself for godliness (1 Timothy 4:7). In essence, Timothy must work hard at it. Godliness does not fall into anyone’s lap, no matter how much and how affectionately they desire it. As Kent and Carey Hughes put it, godliness requires “intense energetic sweat!”  [9]

Reading Scriptures, praying, and witnessing most times require that we cultivate the virtue of discipline, working hard to carve out time to do them. As we all know, desire is not always enough. Time with God might be the most delightful but without the discipline (and a sense of duty) to make time for it, we won’t enjoy it.

Duty and delight

So, what should be the relationship between duty and delight?

First, delight is the ideal and we should therefore strive for it as the norm for our Christian life. Love, delight, longing, and joy should characterise our pursuit of God, communion with him, and obedience and service to him.

A bland Christianity, where there is no joy and delight and where everything rests fully on dutifulness is not ideal. If we are in this situation, we must, in the words of John Piper, “fight for joy.”[10] We must seek to have pious affections and longings like the one demonstrated by the Psalmist (as seen above).

Second, we must understand that bland obedience and service are still better than disobedience and idleness. Though a joyless Christianity is not ideal, it is better to rather obey God’s commandments out of only a sense of duty than to disobey him. Disobedience is not only a sin, it hardens the heart. Dragging oneself on the right path is better than running fast on the wrong path. For example, being generous out of duty (to passages like 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, for example) is better than being tight-fisted.

Third, delightful obedience and service are better than bland obedience and service. This is a repetition of the first point but it bears mentioning again. We can lose delight and joy for various reasons, of which sin is top of the list. But we must not rest content in that situation. Like David, we must pray for God to restore the joy of our salvation (Psalms 51:12) – “to feel the joy of a healthy relationship with God again,” as Tremper Longman III puts it[11]. That joy – inexpressible and filled with glory (1 Peter 1:8) – is everything and we must fight for it.

Fourth, duty can assist us in the pursuit of delight. For example, below are four of the 15 steps Piper recommends to fight for our joy:

  • “Meditate on the Word of God day and night.”
  • “Pray earnestly and continually for open heart-eyes and an inclination for God.”
  • “Learn to preach to yourself rather than listen to yourself.”
  • “Spend time with God-saturated people who help you see God and fight the fight.”

As we said above, all of these require discipline. There are distractions everywhere that will frustrate even the best resolve. Therefore, we must discipline ourselves and dutifully seek the communion with God that will restore our joy. But now we understand that discipline and duty are not ends in themselves (Hebrews 12:11); rather, they have a higher goal – delight.

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It is true that we can’t reduce the Christian religion to mere feelings. As long as we are still in the sinful body, we will be required to obey God and serve him even when we don’t feel like it. That is, we cannot use the state of our feelings and affections as the basis for obedience. Obedience must be constant and consistent irrespective of heart feelings.

Yet, it is also true that God wants us to have positive, delightful, and joyful feelings and affections. While recognising the realities of the above paragraph, we must take joy as the ideal that we should pursue: delighting in the law of God, loving God, longing for his presence, serving him with joy and gladness of heart, and finding the fullness of joy and eternal pleasures in his presence.

O Jesus, joy of loving hearts,
thou fount of life, thou light of men,
from fullest bliss that earth imparts
we turn unfilled to thee again,
we turn unfilled to thee again.

Thy truth unchanged has ever stood,
thou savest those that on thee call;
to them that seek thee, thou art good,
to them that find thee, all in all,
to them that find thee, all in all.

We taste thee, O thou living bread,
and long to feast upon thee still;
we drink of thee, the fountainhead,
and thirst our souls from thee to fill,
and thirst our souls from thee to fill.

Our restless spirits yearn for thee,
where’er our changeful lot is cast,
glad that thy gracious smile we see,
blest that our faith can hold thee fast,
blest that our faith can hold thee fast.

O Jesus, ever with us stay,
make all our moments calm and bright;
chase the dark night of sin away,
shed o’er the world thy holy light,
shed o’er the world thy holy light.


[1] John Piper, Truth Alone Won’t Set You Free: The Necessity of Pursuing Joy in God, Available at: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/when-i-dont-desire-god-part-2/excerpts/truth-alone-wont-set-you-free

[2] Albert Barnes, Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible: Matthew 22:37. Available at: https://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Bible.show/sVerseID/23910/eVerseID/23911/RTD/barnes

[3] A.W Tozer, The Pursuit of God: A 31-Day Experience (Kaduna: Evangel Publishers, 1995), p.9

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tremper Longman III, Psalms (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2014), p.106

[6] Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts (Illinois: Crossway Publishers, 2015), p.233, Scribd.

[7] John Gill, Exposition of the Bible: Jeremiah 20:9. Available at: https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/jeremiah-20-9.html

[8] Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Bible: Jeremiah 20:9. Available at: https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/acc/jeremiah-20.html

[9] Kent Hughes and Carey Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Young Man (Illinois: Crossway Publishers, 2012), p.24, Scribd.

[10] John Piper, How Shall We Fight for Joy? Available at: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-shall-we-fight-for-joy

[11] Tremper Longman, Psalms, p.222

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