That feeling of obligation could be good for you (or bad)

Last week at the Cell Leader training, I only made one comment but I heard a lot about it later. Alison was talking about people who feel obligated and I decided to bring out a long-taught response: “I do not want to travel with people who merely feel obligated. If they don’t have the passion to be a cell leader (or to participate in other ways), they should spare us their begrudging ‘sacrifice.’ No one is obligated to serve the Lord. No one is coerced into receiving from the Lord what they have been given.” It was something like that — only maybe it sounded crabbier or more reactive.

However I communicated it, I still think my point is crucial, and it is often missed in the rush to not be inconvenienced by Jesus. It is not the only point to make when people are talking about their sense of obligation and how unsatisfying and troubling it seems. But it is important.

1) Burned out

Sometimes, people say they are “burned out” on serving and are only doing their duty out of obligation. Ex-cell leaders form an affinity group and have similar stories to tell about why they don’t want to do that again. They seem to be functioning fine otherwise, but when it comes to cell leading (or some other need the church has) they get burned out. We’ve talked about  this quite  bit this year.

A main reason burn out happens has less to do with the difficulties of being a cell leader and more about the difficulties of growing up in faith. (Don’t be defensive, yet; there are two more points!). Many people experience faith in Jesus like a permanent adolescent or younger. They have a somewhat legalistic attachment to doing the right thing for the right people by which they get their sense of being OK with the church and Jesus. After a while, this just doesn’t work. So they say they are burned out on being a cell leader (and sort of blame “cell leading” as a cruel taskmaster). Cell leading may have little to do with what they are experiencing; in fact, the vulnerability of leading may be just the thing that is calling out the growth they need.

2) Stuck

Another way to get obligated is by never saying “No” or feeling guilty for doing so. Some cell leaders “happened into” cell leading when the need arose and they were kind enough or inspired enough to offer their service. They may have decided to “give it a try” since we prize risk so much. Or they thought it was a temporary service and someone better would arise in a short time. Or they just decided to do something they weren’t that good at because no one else was stepping up and they wanted to see the church succeed.

You may be stuck in such a situation right now, or you might have been stuck in such a situation for a long time, then finally got out, and now you are “once bitten twice shy.” Some people get so obligated that they would not even “take a break” lest someone think they are uncommitted or not very Christian! It is too bad Christianity ever got reduced to fulfilling obligations, but many people who grew up in the church quickly discerned the boundaries of what would keep them off the radar and needing to meet the standards of threatening people. They tend to get stuck doing the right thing they aren’t right for.

3) Free

When Paul talks about his role in the church he says this, “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast about, for this obligation has been entrusted to me. How terrible it would be for me if I didn’t preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). He is compelled, a necessity has been laid on him, he is a slave to it and that slavery is his badge of honor. This mentality only faintly resonates in consumer culture where we think we are entitled to our freedom by right, not by gift, and are resigned to a constant pursuit of what we want or what we choose.

As far as the obligation of being a cell leader, Paul might appreciate the freedom he has to obligate himself without fear of of some unknown personal consequences. He finds joy in his service. But note that he only says “Yes” to what the Spirit gives him — like being the apostle to the Gentiles. He would never get burned out or stuck by doing something he had not been given to do. He always grabs what is grabbing him. But it is also true that he risks all sorts of obligations on the way to his fullness. When he leaves Ephesus he tells them, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there” (Acts 20:22). He never avoids the obligations of his passion.

So what is the solution?

When you find yourself obligated and it does not feel good, what do you do? Turn off? Take a break and hide out? Keep serving lest you violate the Bible? I don’t think those are good enough. Here are my suggestions for what to do when you are discouraged about feeling obligated in the church. I hope they feel better than the previous list, since we need your passion, not just your obligation, to flourish as a church, and you need to express your God-inspired passion to flourish as you.

1) Grow up

It is OK to change. You are not obligated to the God you could understand when you were fifteen or younger. It might feel like you are betraying your parents or the church of your youth (especially if they were not too grown up themselves); it is important to do so if you are outgrowing them. Mere obligation will not hack it.

2) Say “No”

Jesus likes honesty. He even tells a parable about two sons, one of whom says he will go work but doesn’t do it — says “Yes,” but does “No.” Taking up a space where passion is required when you are just stuck fulfilling an obligation you did not refuse is like that child. This does not mean we should never do anything about which we are unsure, or that we should not feel passionate about being obedient. But it does means our “Yes” should be “Yes,” not a “Yes, so no one will accuse me of saying no.” Being deceptive is not a good foundation on which to serve. Find a replacement, or just stop and let reality be reality.

3) Say “Yes”

Life in Christ is not much of a science, is it? People try to give us the “best practices” for being an upright follower of Jesus and they prove not to be the best for me as an individual, or best in my unique circumstance. We have to discern things with God and with one another. We end up saying “Yes” to things we might regret and “No” to things that later prove important. We are always risking and repenting. If we take on obligations we can’t handle, we don’t need to fear; God will save us and someone else in the body is probably being readied to take over. If we miss taking on obligations that belonged to us, we don’t need to despair; from God’s eternal perspective, we are never too old to come to the party. Saying “Yes” is one of the most honorable things a believer does. It is so uncontrolling and hopeful!

So let’s have discernment, but not judge ourselves or others. If we listen to God and one another, we will probably end up pretty close to where we ought to be as a member of the body of Christ. The Spirit moves us to grow into our fullness. In the course of that movement there will be a lot of opportunities to say “No” or “Yes.” Even if we are wrong about how we react, our poor reactions will just provide more instruction for our future — even when we lose, we can’t lose with Jesus. In Christ, our main obligation is living and the Lord guarantees the fullness of that if we keep going.

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