In his book Desiring God John Piper uses his marriage as an analogy for how we should love and interact with God. He paints a picture of himself coming home to his wife wielding a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Her face lights up with joy when she sees him, gift in hand, and she exclaims, “Oh Johnny, they’re beautiful; thank you”

This hypothetical John Piper replies, “Don’t mention it; it’s my duty.” (p.93)

Piper then goes on to explain that this scenario is, of course, a bit ridiculous. He should want to do things for his wife because he takes so much joy in seeing her happy. A man shouldn’t be simply bound by duty, he must be so joyfully engaged in their relational love that kindness and good deeds naturally spill over from a gleeful heart. A wife is much more honored when she finds that her husband does kind things for her out of love and joy than when he does things out of a sense of duty.

We should look at our relationship with God the same way. We should not begrudgingly attend church, read our Bibles, and serve in our communities because we feel some overbearing sense of duty. No, we should take so much joy in our eternal relationship with God that good deeds and spiritual disciplines organically flow from our full hearts.

I love the sentiment here and I would earnestly hope that everyone could interact with God in such a joyful way. I have had those moments; I’ve been in the place where my relationship with God brings me so much happiness that I simply can’t contain it and I start looking for people to serve and find a way to assert kindness in every situation possible. Unfortunately, though (and I’m sure Piper would agree with me here), our relationships with God are rarely that simple.

In our relationships with God, as in our marriages, there are certainly brighter days where joy floods into every aspect of our lives. However, on many dark days, the duty that comes from the covenant that we made to pursue God for the rest of our lives is the only thing we have left. It can’t be as simple as “Be happy serving God or he isn’t honored.” If that was the case most of the kind things that I have ever done would be reduced to dishonorable empty gestures.

Sometimes a sense of duty is the only thing that keeps us from abandoning God. Sometimes we go months or years without any sort of reciprocal assurance that God has any interest in our lives, not to mention the lack of assurance that he even exists. What are we supposed to do with our lack of joy then? Should we heap guilt upon ourselves because we aren’t in the same place of happiness as some of the other Christians around us? Should we tear ourselves down and beat ourselves up because we can’t be glad in the single thing that is the source of all eternal gladness?

Duty, yes even begrudging duty, can be a powerful tool in our pursuit of God. Yes, it is better to take joy in the love of God and let that joy be our strength and our propulsion. However, when our spirit has grown faint and our hearts are tired and God just won’t seem to take the time to break through an unbreakable wall of silence… duty will keep us from wandering back into the welcoming arms of lesser gods like comfort and stability and addiction and despair.