I didn’t wash many dishes in our first years of marriage, but I felt quite proud of every one of them. I could scrub one pot in a week and bask in the glory of my goodness. For some reason, my wife didn’t feel the same awe at my occasional fits of kindness. For some reason, I didn’t understand why.
These days, I do dishes. I don’t keep track of how many, and I no longer feel the same way about them. They need to be done—it’s only fair. Even though I’m doing more, I feel less proud of it. This summer, I read a story by George MacDonald that helped me understand why:
“However strange it may well seem, to do one’s duty will make any one conceited who only does it sometimes. Those who do it always would as soon think of being conceited of eating their dinner as of doing their duty. What honest boy would pride himself on not picking pockets? A thief who was trying to reform would. To be conceited of doing one’s duty is then a sign of how little one does it, and how little one sees what a contemptible thing it is not to do it….Until our duty becomes to us common as breathing, we are poor creatures.”
In far too many areas of my life, I’m still the poor creature he speaks of. I can say from my own experience that I have impoverished myself by assuming that others should serve me, but I can also say that I have enriched myself when I have learned to be a better servant. This applies to housework, certainly, as it does to all good work. It’s easy to congratulate myself for every little kind or helpful gesture I manage to muster, overlooking the many opportunities I miss—but duty doesn’t work that way. If I have a duty to love and serve the people around me, then I don’t have the privilege of picking when or how based on my own comfort or how I happen to feel. And I do have that duty, because God has loved me when I didn’t deserve it and commanded me to do the same for others. This is no burden. If I do my duty consistently, the pride I felt in doing it sometimes will be replaced with a different emotion: joy. I may find out why David wrote in Psalm 119, “I delight in your commands because I love them”.