Driven by Duty, Transformed by Love

If we look beneath the commercial facade of Valentine’s Day, we can find a healthy value at its core, but it’s a value that needs to be reclaimed. Many resent the holiday’s obligatory nature and its focus on the idealized, fairytale love that gets glamourized by media, Hallmark, and Hollywood. The core value needs to be based on agape, the love of the soul. A love that grows out of our duty and a sincere concern for the welfare of humanity.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a classic movie, but there’s a theme carried through the movie that is rarely discussed—the role of duty. George Bailey’s life is driven by duty throughout the movie, but it is the movie’s climax where George is transformed by the love he finds in his relationships with others. Life has meaning and carries with it important duties. If we live a life without responsibilities, we would be living a life without relationships.

We are capable to cultivate love through duty. We can speak words with loving intent or engage in small acts based on loving-kindness. Our choices become a key factor in our ability to meet our own and others’ needs for love. When we recognize this capacity, love becomes a skill and a strength, an orientation to life rather than a fleeting emotion. This kind of love is a force for change. When we act from a foundation of love, we naturally move to help others.

Love always encompasses duty, but duties can be performed without love. With duty alone, one has a checklist with tasks that fulfill obligations. Dutiful acts can be praiseworthy, such as caring for an aging relative or young child. Unfortunately, if done strictly from a sense of duty, these acts can be performed without giving of oneself. While love encompasses duty, it is not focused on it. Love focuses on relationship. Love has no checklist.

Doing one’s duty— “something that one is expected or required to do by moral or legal obligation”—is a positive thing. Most agree that fulfilling duty is better than shirking it. But there is a hollowness in doing something only from a sense of duty. Although there is a feeling of gratitude for any act of kindness, it is an empty feeling when it is done without relationship or affection.

I have a friend whose workaholic father had provided his family a comfortable lifestyle. He recalls that his father gave him everything but himself. His Dad felt that his duty toward his family was fulfilled through providing material things with no need for a personal relationship. I also read an article where a young woman gave up the pursuit of her post college plans to be there for her ailing father. An act she considers her ‘duty’ because her father gave up his ‘freedom’ to raise his children. The article’s tone showed no sense of love or devotion supporting the act to fulfill an ‘expected ‘obligation. It left me wondering that if everything is about duty and fulfilling obligations, does unconditional love exist? Although difficult to sustain, it is imperative that we constantly strive to give and receive unconditional love.

As I have shared in this blog before, I am a fan of the late Harry Chapin. He has a little-known song called “Dance Band on the Titanic” that tells the story of the sinking ship from the imagined perspective of the band’s guitarist, “strumming as the ship goes down.” The “Dance Band” image is an example of driven by duty with love at its core. In accepting the reality of their situation, they brought a thoughtfulness to the reality being borne by every passenger on that dying ship—including their own.  “Nearer My God to Thee” was identified by many as the song being played as the ship went down. Their choice was done out of love of God and neighbor. They applied their God-given musical gifts in a way that could do the most good in the terrifying truth they were facing.

I’m in the dance band on the Titanic

Sing “Nearer, my God, to Thee”

The iceberg’s on the starboard bow

Won’t you dance with me.

An appointed Christians’ duty is to be a friend and advocate to those in need and most vulnerable among us, to be a voice for the voiceless, and the strength of the weak. We are taught that our service starts with those that our society views as the last, lowest, and the least. As we fulfill this mandate, we must welcome them, we must love them. They are a blessing to us.

Father Mike Schmitz has a beautiful quote that carries the essence of this theme a step further, “A life driven by duty, transformed by love, and saved by grace.” Often in the spiritual framework we hear the words “obligation” and “duty” and imagine the monotonous drudgery of religious performance. But for Paul the duty of grace is simple, its love. The faithfulness that grace demands is love. Because of grace we belong to each other and it is our duty to love each other.

The section in Paul’s letter to the Romans Chapter 13, verses 8-10 is titled, Love Fulfills the Law. It begins, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” This section outlines the commandments, which are in essence a list from God of our most important duties, all of which are about love. The first three are – love God, the next seven are – love thy neighbor as yourself. Verse 10 concludes with, “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

In the First letter of John 3:16 states “The way we came to know love was that He laid down His life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” Merely satisfying a duty will never fulfill that call.

God wants us to belong to Him in a loving relationship built on duty and transformed by His love and saving grace.

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