My perception of the Christian community today is that we are largely imperative driven. We major on the ‘ought to’ and ‘how to’ with little regard for that which makes us ‘want to.’ But the Bible does not do this. Considering its overall message, it teaches us that our obedience to the moral imperatives of the Bible should be a response of gratitude more than of duty. Not that duty is wrong. It’s just that God wants us to delight to do that which is our duty to do. And that which makes us delight to obey and serve God is gratitude for his grace shown to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
– Jerry Bridges, Introduction to The Good News We Almost Forgot by Kevin DeYoung
It has been said countless times before that our obedience to God, our love for him and for other people — who are created in his image — and our very heart of worship should be rooted in gratitude. I will do no more to iterate it here, other than to say that it is true: for God so loved the world, he sacrificed himself when we deserved the punishment and has promised forgiveness to us now and forever.
This definitely sounds like something to be thankful for. I would caution, however, that God deserves more than our mere gratitude, as though plain acknowledgement and saying, “I appreciate it, God,” were enough.
Even the language we’ve used — “God deserves more than our mere gratitude” — seems to leads to problems. Because we know we owe God for saving us, for stepping into the breach, filling the void we could never fill, obedience and worship can become an obligation. Something that starts out as thankfulness becomes a mechanical response to indebtedness, becomes a chore of compulsion. Something we do even though we do not want to do it.
What I want to say is that this is not such a bad thing. We are right to put great emphasis on living in gratitude, but I think we try to use that as a substitute — instead of a complement — for duty.
Why should we care about duty? Because, frankly, we will not always be grateful. As much as we should be eternally and infinitely rejoicing in the perfect gift of Jesus and his saving grace, we aren’t. Even when I acknowledge the gift and appreciate what it means for me — at least, as best as I can — there are times when I don’t want to be loving, don’t want to be obedient, don’t want to worship.
These feelings, sometimes brought on by frustration, but more often by plain human tiredness, are used as a poor justification to not do what we know we should. You’re not feeling particularly gracious today, so you’re going to be a little less patient with the annoying person at work. You did an awful lot of thanksgiving yesterday, so you’re going to honk at other cars in traffic today. You’re exhausted from a long day (maybe even a long day of good Christian work), so you’re going to skip the worship service you know you should go to.
This is why gratitude, for all its excellence and appropriateness, is not enough. We also have a duty.
Gratitude should be our natural, permanent state. We should always feel grateful. But feeling a certain way is not our duty. Our duty is to live out the actions of gratitude whether we are grateful or not. If we only focus on gratitude, a feeling that changes moment to moment, we leave ourselves open to altering our response to God moment to moment, too. When we see the Christian life as one also of duty, we feel a stronger pull and a greater responsibility to keep living in love, obedience and worship regardless of the way we are feeling right then.
This is not a call to be fake. If you’re not feeling grateful, you cannot force it (though, acting friendly has been known to inspire actual friendships, and the same may be true for gratitude). Nor is it a call to legalism. Submission and praise offered exclusively out of duty risks eventual bitterness and resentment.
So neither gratitude nor duty stands alone. Gratitude should be our motivation, but duty must be there to catch us when our flame gets cool.
Gratitude is the recognition that God deserves our every thought and breath. Duty is the recognition that God deserves them whether we are in the mood or not.