The Christian Soul: Obligation

I mentioned before that there has been, woven throughout our discussion on Christian Spirituality, a progression. And now we reach a turning point in that progression. Having concluded the Christian life is essentially a work of God taking place on the inside of us, we now turn inward.

I would like to pluck one truth from our previous discussion, polish it and set it in place. This truth has to do with the fact that Christian service flows from the deep work of God in our lives. Or, as Jesus puts it, “If you remain in me, you will bear much fruit.”

Note that Jesus did not say, “If you remain in me, you might bear much fruit,” or, “You will have the potential to bear much fruit, provided you apply yourself.” He said “You will bear much fruit.” Christian service not only flows from the deep work of God in our lives, but as a result, does so naturally and, one might argue, inevitably.

Christian service flows from the deep work of God in our lives, and does so naturally and, one might argue, inevitably.

This agrees with what we read elsewhere in Scripture concerning the church and its members, who have been given “the manifestation of the Spirit . . . for the common good.” This manifestation of the Spirit is called spiritual gifts, and a gift is something that has been given freely that it might be freely given.

So we see this idea in Scripture that Christian service is a natural part of who we are, flowing from the inside. It is not something forced upon us from the outside. It is, one might say, a product of inspiration; it is not a product of obligation.

And this raises the question of what motivates us in the Christian life. Do we do what we do for Jesus because it is what we should do, or do we do it for a reason that lies much deeper? Are we motivated by a quality born from a change God has wrought in our hearts, or are we motivated by sheer obligation?

Are we motivated to do what we do for Jesus by a quality born from the change God has wrought in our hearts, or do we do so out of sheer obligation?

If you are saying to yourself right now,  “Ee-gad! I am motivated by sheer obligation, but I should be motivated by something else!” then you, like many of us, are motivated by obligation — even to the point of feeling obligated to be motivated by something other than obligation!

But rest assured: The point of me raising this question is not to point out the error of your motivation. It is rather to ask whether obligation should be a part of our lives at all. Whether it fits, so to speak, in the Christian life.

I believe it does not. There are many things that can and should motivate us as children of God, but obligation is not one of them. There are several reasons for this, the first being what Scripture has to say about it, which we have just touched upon.

The question is not whether we should have a different motivation than obligation but whether obligation should be a part of the Christian life at all.

But let me expand upon this point and suggest that the reason service flows from the deep work of God in our lives, and not from a place of obligation, is because our motivation is part of the thing God is transforming.

When Paul set forth to defend his ministry and boast about his achievements in his second letter to the Corinthian church, he remarked he must be “out of his mind” for doing so. We see why he felt this way because elsewhere, when stating that “he labored even more than [the other apostles]”, he is quick to point out that it was “not I, but the grace of God with me.” What Paul is saying is that it was not simply his ability or his virtue that had been transformed by the grace of God: It was his motivation as well.

And this makes sense if you think about it. Obligation seems noble on the surface. At the same time, I would hate to think Jesus did what he did out of sheer obligation. If Jesus told me He went to the Cross for me not because he wanted to, but because he had to, because it was his “Christian” duty, I would be left confused, to say the very least.

Obligation seems noble on the surface. At the same time, I would hate to think Jesus went to the Cross for me simply because it was His “Christian” obligation.

And the goal of the Christian life is that we become like Him, not only in deeds but to the very core of who we are, so that what motivates Jesus, motivates us.

The good news is that this is a work of God. We did not choose God; He chose us. From the day we received Him, He has been producing His perfect work in us. “Has been producing” means that in part, this work is accomplished, and it is also ongoing.

What this means for our discussion about Christian service is that what motivates Jesus motivates us already. The fruit of God’s deep work in us has already begun.

The logical conclusion here is that our only responsibility in the Christian life is to do what comes from the deep well of divine inspiration, stemming from the work of God in our lives. We have permission, in other words, to do not what we feel we ought to do, but only what we are led to do.

The logical conclusion here is that our only responsibility in the Christina life is to do what comes from the deep well of divine inspiration, to do not what we ought to do but what we are led to do.

Such a thought may be too much for the modern church, where so much of what we do stems from Christian obligation. Not a day in church life goes by where one is not challenged to “get involved.” At times these pleas are light-hearted and inviting; at other times, they are a bit heavy-handed. My favorite is, “In light of Jesus’ great sacrifice, the least you can do is (insert whatever ministry is being endorsed presently).”

But the least we can do is not “getting involved.” It is offering ourselves up as living sacrifices, allowing the Spirit by God the Father’s direction to put to death in us the things that separate us from Him. This, according to Scripture, is our spiritual act of worship. And it is not an act of service but an act of transformation.

The problem for the modern-day church is that the Christian life is fundamentally spiritual, but it sees the Christian life as purely practical. In other words, the modern church has reduced the Christian life to purely a life of service. It views the Christian life as one big act of service and the church as an army of volunteers. Therefore, the highest priority is putting the church to work.

This would be all fine and well if the Christian life were in fact all about service, no more and no less. But it is not. The church is not an army of volunteers; it is a body. That is, it is a living organism composed of unique members, each with specialized functions, ordained and designed by God. It is from this perspective that Christian service should be viewed.

But if I may go just one step further, the modern church fails to see this because it fails to see the church’s main objective here on Earth, which is not — I hate to say — to reach the lost. Rather, it is to become a fully mature body, attaining the full knowledge of God, so that through it, God Himself may reach the lost.

I will resist the urge to unpack this idea completely, but suffice it to say: The moment we as a church make it our job, and not God’s, to reach the lost, we cease to be the body according to God’s design and become a marketing effort according to our own design. And a marketing effort does not need unique members; it needs workers. It does not need people  operating in their prophetic gift, or called to intercede quietly. It needs workers in the church foyer intercepting newcomers as they arrive and before they leave for their cars in the parking lot.

The moment we as a church make it our job, and not God’s, to reach the lost, we cease to be the body according to God’s design and become a marketing effort according to our own design.

But if everyone ceased to engage in Christian service out of a place of obligation, where would that leave the church? Honestly I am not sure. The modern-day church may find itself in great difficulty. But I am pretty sure God’s church would be just fine.

However, I digress.  Our main concern here is not how church is run but how the Christian soul functions.

Several posts back, we mentioned the Christian life is essentially an ongoing supernatural encounter with God. Christian service, I would now like to propose, is simply an extension of that supernatural encounter: What we do for God is fueled and empowered by the deep, supernatural work of God in us.

Just as the Christian life is essentially an ongoing supernatural encounter with God, so true Christian service is a supernatural extension of the work of God.

At least, this is where it finds its true expression, and where we find our true freedom.

If you are up to your eyeballs in Christian obligation, I encourage you this coming year to give yourself permission to let go of all you do out of a place of obligation. For some of us, obligation is all we know, so this can be terrifying. But trust God. Who knows? Under all those layers of ought-to’s and have-to’s and least-we-can-do’s, you may just find who you really are, whom God has destined you to be.


Photo by Dominic Dreier on Unsplash

5 thoughts on “The Christian Soul: Obligation

  1. Happy New Year!

    Love this post. I’m always trying to say, we give from over flow, abundance. We love because He first loved us and now there is an excess that just spills out. My cup runneth over. Duty, obligation,is all about scarcity, a chore.

  2. I love this! And have always felt in my heart that a desire to serve would come about from the Holy Spirit’s work in my heart… yet, my grandmother (a good Christian from Scotland) believed so strongly in obligation that I had a difficult time putting my thoughts into words regarding this… but you have done it beautifully for me! Thank you, thank you. Great post!

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