Christian Counseling: Thinking About Relational Obligations

 "What do I owe to my times, to my country, to my neighbors, to my friends?--Such are the questions which a virtuous man ought often to ask himself." These words were penned in the late 18th century by John Caspar Lavater, a Swiss theologian and poet.

Eventually, we all come to address questions about relational obligations to various people, governments and to God. Frequently, I have heard people say they are in a relationship purely out of obligation to keep a legal, moral or spiritual law, so not to feel guilty, to fulfill a non-heartfelt duty or commitment and, in a round about way, even to be favorably noticed and approved by others. Of course, it is true we don't simply live or decide what to do or not by feelings alone. God takes our vows very seriously, despite how we may come to feel over time. We are required to keep the laws of God even though we live under His grace. However, there is an exception to that and we also need to understand the difference between what is a legal or spiritual obligation and one that is customary or expected.

We should not keep the laws of God because we "have to," but because we love God. We keep them even if we don't full understand them because we trust God who makes only good and helpful laws. This attitude affects our motivation and makes meeting our duties easier and helps ensure our hearts are in alignment with our behavior. Besides, does God take pleasure in right behavior when the heart is in a different place? Does God encourage us to fulfill His laws and ignore the feelings of the heart? Absolutely not to both questions! We are obliged to gift give, such as tithing, but only in this spirit--"Each one must do just as he purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7). 

Think of the consequences of being relationally obligated to a law or a custom, especially one a person doesn't agree with or with a person one does not like--the possible build up of resentment, bitterness, anxiety and/or some depression, along with feelings of being trapped and unhappy. Over the long haul, these poisonous feelings are not just something one feels, but becomes. They change our body chemistry and our personality and, therefore, our overall health. It is a grievous truth that most pastor's and missionary's adult children have struggled with, and many continue to do so, church going and their relationship with God. They felt obligated and controlled by parental demands to be in church whenever the doors were open and to faithfully learn Christianese, even if they didn't personally believe what they were saying. Many of those struggling came to associate God and church with powerful and lasting negative feelings. Some of them seem forever ruined.

God would rather we live a cold  life (to Him and His laws), if we are not hot, but only lukewarm (Revelation 3:15,16). To those who live without a good and healthy heart attachment to obligations is a dead serious issue because of health concerns and because it has a tendency to produce Pharisees. Never should a person simply keep the law and ignore their emotions. Instead they need to evaluate their emotions and the positive and personal negative effects of keeping an obligation and work through what they can with the help of trusted others. Common sense has a place at the table of obligations.

Second, all of us need to discern between a moral or legal obligation and one that is customary or expected. Where in Scripture does it tell us we must never dance, gamble, or drink alcohol, always take primary care of our aged parents, never once forsake assembling with Christians on the Sabbath, always forgive every offense whether or not the offender has confessed and repented, never say or do anything that hurts another person, always thank God for every single thing that happens in the world even the sinful and evil, submit to all governmental laws? On and on we could go with other examples. These are contemporary beliefs, customs and expectations, not Biblical mandates. These are man's interpretations and derived theological concepts, but maturity and spiritual discernment should lead the way and inform our decision-making.  

Some will follow the above beliefs as if they are God's laws and, unfortunately, teach others also. The consequence is misery and false guilt, if those self-created laws are not kept. The consequence is self-righteousness and a modeling of religious practices that seem burdensome and a turn off to those considering the Christian life, even preventing others from entering the kingdom of God (Matthew 23:13). The consequence is self-imprisonment and moving back to living under the law. Paul questioned the Galatians in 3:2,3, "...did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" 

Former President Ronald Reagan said that the loss of freedom is only one generation away. That the fight to keep our freedom is always a present reality. He said this in reference to the ever present existence of some of our country's leaders who want to grab power and change laws that restrict or take away individual rights and freedoms. Yet, it can easily be applied to the ever present existence of some of our spiritual leaders who sanction and present customs as laws that subtly lead us, the sheep, to the slaughter house. Dare to think for yourself! 


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