We all have difficult decisions to make at times, and very often we think in terms of what we ought to do. Duty is an important consideration, but it’s not the only thing. It may not even be the best way to think about it.
Some years ago a pastor showed me a quotation from a Bishop who gave this advice: ‘When thinking about what God is calling you to do, choose the pathway over which the shadow of the cross falls.’ (I don’t know exactly who it was who said this.) The basic meaning is: what you should do is follow the way of Jesus, who was willing to suffer and die for his mission, and we too should be prepared to take the difficult road, the pathway over which the shadow of the cross falls.
In a similar vein, I once read about a pastor in Denmark, who was the latest in a long family line of pastors: indeed he sat in the study of the parsonage where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather has all been pastors. He sat there one day contemplating something he knew he should not do. He sat there surrounded by the portraits of those who had gone before him, and their example and a sense of obligation to that ‘goodly heritage’ gave him strength to say ‘No’ to the temptation.
These two anecdotes focus on the idea of duty and obligation. The right thing to do is here envisaged in terms of duty. It’s an ‘ought’. There is something very important here, something we can easily overlook or indeed ignore, persuading ourselves that what we want to do is in fact right and good, when sometimes it is simply self-indulgence. Moral self-deception is a real trap and we need a strong and clear conscience to help us avoid it.
Duty and obligation are realities. But they are not the only realities. There is something quite unbalanced about all I’ve said so far. It seems to make all choices heavy and in some ways unhappy, demanding and unfulfilling. In fact if we make our choices all about duty and obligation, we can very easily end up with the idea that if it hurts it must be good. (Swallow your medicine!) If it involves suffering and pain, it must be the right thing to do. And if I don’t want to do it, I probably ought to!
Conversely, we can come to the idea that is a pathway leads to happiness, fulfilment, and even some physical and social pleasure, comfort or reward, it must be wrong.
What a miserable morality that would be! Yet sometimes that seems to be what Christians have communicated to our young people or to society at large. It seems to be all about what you may not do, what you must forego, as if this is the end in itself. It is not.
It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who formulated the idea of cheap grace and its contrast costly grace, first explained in his classic work The Cost of Discipleship.
Cheap grace is essentially the idea that being a Christian does not make any demands on you. Relying entirely on the grace of God, you can really just enjoy (or indulge) yourself and praise the Lord!
Costly grace demands everything of us: it requires working at the meaning of our discipleship in the complex and difficult, indeed morally ambiguous times in which we live. Hence Bonhoeffer put it that when Jesus calls someone, he calls them to come and die. We need to be prepared to give up everything, if we are going to respond to his call, ‘Follow me.’
I absolutely affirm this perspective: it’s what we have all called ‘radical discipleship’, as an understanding of what it means to be a Christian. It does not mean that our efforts, including any suffering or struggle in which we might engage, make us Christians, or better Christians than others who hold a different view. (And sadly Christians of all sorts of theology are tempted to think we are more Christian than the others …)
Nor do our efforts merit grace. That’s not what Bonhoeffer meant by the cost. Rather, he was pointing out that just as it was for Jesus, really to engage with God’s way of compassion, justice and mercy means that most of us who are well off will need to heed Jesus’ call to give what we have, abandon our pretensions and power plays, and walk with those who are hungry and thirsty for justice.
Well, yes, there is something here of ought and obligation. But again, that is not all there is to it.
Here another beautiful quotation offers a different perspective: Frederick Beuchner once wrote, ‘The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet.’ (Wishing Thinking: A Theological ABC.)
It seems to me very important to say that God does not call us to be perpetually unhappy. God does not want people to be burdened down. Jesus spoke of a ‘yoke’ that is light, not a heavy burden. The fundamental narrative of the Hebrew faith is the story of a God who rescues people from slavery. God is not all about obligation, duty and hard slog.
Rather, as Beuchner puts it, there is something here of our own ‘deep gladness’: this is about fulfilment, a sense of life as happy, rewarding and being at home with ourselves and all around us.
In other words, it is not wrong to want to be happy and to make choices that actually lead to self-fulfilment, happy relationships and a sense of reward in what we are doing.
No, not at all: but that is only one side of what Beuchner mentions. He speaks also of ‘the world’s deep need’. Clearly, what is not good is to be concerned only for our own fulfilment, happiness and sense of reward. I have known many people who seem to think that life owes them a reward, or compensation, for whatever they have experienced—sometimes I think they want to be rewarded just for being born! And every one of those people has lived an unfulfilled life, of insatiable need. Self-centredness is not a way of fulfilment at all.
The other side of Beuchner’s proposal is to consider where what we might want to do in life can intersect with the (or perhaps a) deep need of the world around us. So how can I use the skills I enjoy, the abilities I have which produce rewarding results, in a way that helps others, serves the common good and not just my own bank balance and life style? In some other writing I’ve been doing, I have argued that simply making everyday things, in manufacturing and building, for example, are activities of God’s Spirit in us, just as much as the more refined artistic and musical forms of ‘making’. Our work can be thoroughly moral, in the sense Beuchner is talking about: just where God calls us to be, fulfilling our own deep gladness and the need of the world around us.
Making difficult decisions is always a minefield. If the decision was easy, the answer obvious, we wouldn’t have a problem. But when the issue is really complex, or the situation is one where it seems that no matter what we do someone will be hurt, or where even to do nothing is itself a false option, we need to work through the moral dimensions of both the situation and our own responses, feelings and thoughts. Here is where it is vital to have in place discerning friends or a support group who help us. It is no good waiting till we get into such a situation to begin learning this need, but if that’s where we are at then there is no time like the present to call upon those friends. We need to share the issue, as we see it, and invite their questions and suggestions. Often a friend who is less familiar with the circles we have been going around and around will see things just that little bit differently and help us to find a way through our dilemma.
Advice and support do not remove the need to make difficult decisions, but they help to save us from a lonely despair, or from self-deception, or from the sense that it all depends on us.
The right way forward will, in some important sense, help us most truly to be ourselves, to be the person we best hope to be. It may indeed be costly, but compared with not being that person, other options are even more costly.
And when we find the right way, which has that sense of being true to ourselves and in some way engaging with the real need of people and situations in the world around us, we can at least to some degree be thankful, and hopeful—and in due course rest on it.