At the beginning of last school year my daughter made a friend who has had an especially hard childhood. As the year wore on, she learned and told us more of his story. My wife, both of my daughters, and I all began to feel equal measures of compassion for him in his suffering and anger at the injustice he has experienced. Toward the end of the school year and through the summer we began to connect with him regularly as a family and to help him in various ways. As the new school year starts, this process of connecting and helping is only increasing, to the joy of us all.
Recently, he was at our house to help celebrate my daughter’s birthday. He arrived around noon, after the group had eaten breakfast. He had not eaten anything all day. We asked him what he would like to eat, and began getting out some of the copious leftovers to heat up. His response was that we didn’t “have to” do this for him. This is often his response when we try to help him with something. He says this (at least in part) because he doesn’t want to be a burden to us, which is understandable: none of us wants to be a burden.
Setting the story of our friend aside for a moment, when we are only doing something because we “have to,” the doing of it really is a burden. We have a competing desire that pulls us in the opposite direction—we’d rather not do it—but our sense of obligation, duty, or “have to” nevertheless moves us to do it.
We prefer to do things simply because we “want to.” A sense of duty or obligation might also hover in the background when we do something simply because we want to, but in those cases duty is not necessarily the thing that gets us to act. For example, I have a duty to take care of my kids in various ways, but when I do this it generally doesn’t feel like a burden since I love them and want to do it. I still have a duty to them, but that’s not what motivates me most of the time. (Of course, sometimes my duty does motivate me in this, especially when I’m tired and don’t really feel like doing what they need.)
I think this distinction between the motives of “have to” and “want to” is quite profound and is at the root of the following claim that the Apostle Paul makes in his New Testament letter to Philemon (8-9): “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” The Apostle wrote his letter to try to persuade Philemon to welcome back and be reconciled with his runaway slave, Onesimus. At that time, both Philemon and Onesimus were Christians.
In the quotation above, the Apostle says he is “bold enough in Christ to command” Philemon to do his duty, i.e., to forgive and be reconciled with Onesimus because Christ requires his followers to do so. But, he says, “I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” In other words, he would rather that Philemon forgive and be reconciled with Onesimus because he loves him, as his brother in Christ.
Here, the Apostle is pointing to two possible motives Philemon might have in welcoming Onesimus back: duty or love, “have to” or “want to”. Paul’s preference is for love and “want to,” likely because of Jesus’s further teaching that love for neighbors is the Christian’s highest calling, apart from loving God (Matthew 22:34-40).
As Christians serving others, our preference should be the same as the Apostle’s: though acting from duty is sometimes important and inevitable, we ought to strive to be motivated by love for God or love for neighbors. (Of course, it is not always easy to achieve this since we generally can’t just choose our motives; rather, they flow from our character, which takes time to shape and is not entirely under our control. More about that another time.)
In light of this reflection, what I wish I had said to my daughter’s friend is that we were not offering to feed him because we felt we had to; rather, we were doing it simply because we wanted to, because we care about him, because we love him. Despite not having the presence of mind to say this in the moment (unlike my wife, who communicates it to him regularly), I find comfort knowing that, if all goes well, I will have many more opportunities to tell him and show him that this is true.