It came to my attention that scattered throughout the scriptures are references to the “duty of man.” Since the prophets don’t toss words around lightly, I decided to look into our duty. What is a duty? Do we really have a duty? To whom do we owe a duty? If we really do have a duty to perform, as children of God, how do we define that duty?
A duty is defined as being bound by any natural or legal obligation to pay, do, or perform. It comes from the Latin word for debt, meaning “to owe.” Often we will hear someone refer to a person’s filial obligation. A filial obligation is that which is owed by a child to a parent. It is my filial duty to honor my parents. I am obligated to care for them in their times of need, and to be respectful of their authority over me, as their child.
A filial obligation is what is known as a natural duty. We don’t ask for this debt, but we all have it because of what our parents sacrificed to raise us. Duty can also be incurred through contract, as in the case of a soldier who joins the military and goes on “active duty.” That is a period of time in which the soldier actively fulfills their obligation to serve the needs of their country and do as their commanding officers require of them.
Establishing our obligation
Society recognizes each person’s debt to their parents and to their government. In ancient times the duty of a child to a parent was recognized by governments and upheld. If a parent felt a child had brought sufficient shame on the family or had been overtly disobedient, the parent could kill the child, and the government recognized the parent’s right to do it.
This raises the question of our filial obligations to our Father in Heaven. Do we owe Him a duty? If so, what is our duty to our God? First we need to recognize what our Father in Heaven has done for us that would create such a filial duty in us, as His children.
Remember Nephi’s conversation with the Spirit when he was told to kill Laban? He was warned that the posterity of his (extended) family would dwindle in unbelief if they did not have the scriptures. In Mosiah 1:3-5 we finally see the fulfillment of this warning to Nephi. King Benjamin is talking to his sons before he passes the kingdom to his eldest son, Mosiah.
3 And he also taught them concerning the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, saying: My sons, I would that ye should remember that were it not for these plates, which contain these records and these commandments, we must have suffered in ignorance, even at this present time, not knowing the mysteries of God.
4 For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God, even down to this present time.
5 I say unto you, my sons, were it not for these things, which have been kept and preserved by the hand of God, that we might read and understand of his mysteries, and have his commandments always before our eyes, that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief, and we should have been like unto our brethren, the Lamanites, who know nothing concerning these things, or even do not believe them when they are taught them, because of the traditions of their fathers, which are not correct.
I hope we can all take for granted that having a knowledge of God and His goodness towards His children is indeed a great blessing. It is only through the revelations from God that we come to understand the great plan of happiness He has provided for us. It is through this plan of happiness that we will someday be able to walk back into His presence and become like Him, enjoying all the privileges and blessings He enjoys.
Because of the scriptures, living prophets, the priesthood, and prayer, we have revelation, peace, promises of eternal salvation, and a knowledge of our Savior and His redemptive work. We owe more to our Father in Heaven than we can possibly repay. What could we possibly do for Him that could even begin to rival the power and blessings we have been given?
The nature of our debt and duty
In Mosiah 2:20-25 King Benjamin is outlining to his people the nature of their debt to God. Notice that he says that it doesn’t matter how much we do to fulfill our duty to God, He always blesses us more than we can possibly repay. This is an eternal debt of gratitude. We accepted this debt willingly when we accepted His great plan of happiness in the spirit world.
20 I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another—
21 I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.
22 And behold, all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you.
23 And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him.
24 And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?
25 And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you.
Reading this passage hopefully filled you with a sense of gratitude for the blessings we have received from our Father in Heaven. This is not a debt I would want to be able to pay back. Why would I want to rid myself of the obligations associated with my obedience to God? Accepting and fulfilling my obligations to my God provide me with endless blessings and can only lead to eternal happiness.
Fulfilling our duty
In Mosiah 2:27 King Benjamin says this to his people:
27 Therefore, as I said unto you that I had served you, walking with a clear conscience before God, even so I at this time have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together, that I might be found blameless, and that your blood should not come upon me, when I shall stand to be judged of God of the things whereof he hath commanded me concerning you.
He recognizes that he is going to die soon. He is wrapping up his time as king. He needs to tie up all the “loose ends.” One of those loose ends is to make sure that he has done absolutely everything in his power to be blameless before his God in the execution of his duty as their king. He recognizes that, as their king he is responsible before God to teach them to be righteous. If he fails in this responsibility the Lord will hold him accountable for the people’s sins. Their blood will be on his head if he has not taught them correctly.
King Benjamin is not the only prophet to recognize man’s duty to God. Brigham Young also spoke of our duty and how to fulfill our duty to God.
What is our duty? It is our duty to improve upon every blessing the Lord gives to us. If he gives us land, improve it; if he gives us the privilege of building houses, improve it; if he gives us wives and children, try and teach them the ways of the Lord, and exalt them above the dark, degraded, and sunken state of mankind. … In his providence he has called the Latter-day Saints from the world, has gathered them from other nations, and given them a place upon the earth. Is this a blessing? Yes one of the greatest the people can enjoy, to be free from the wickedness of the wicked, from the calamities and clamor of the world. By this blessing we can show to our Father in Heaven that we are faithful stewards; and more, it is a blessing to have the privilege of handing back to him that which he has put in our possession. … Then it is plain that what I seem to have I do not in reality own, and I will hand it back to the Lord when he calls for it; it belongs to him, and it is his all the time. I do not own it, I never did (DN, 20 June 1855, 4).
I don’t know about you, but I struggle with the concept that I owe a debt I cannot repay. It is a juvenile emotion, but it is a real one. I am trying to learn to be grateful for this debt. My duty to my God is the source of all my happiness. Getting rid of this debt is an invitation for disaster, for those who denied this debt are now serving with Satan in the world of the spirits as our tormentors on earth.
Yes, we need to be duly grateful for the blessings of our God. But we also need to recognize the responsibilities we have to fulfill the conditions of our debt, to fulfill our duty to God. These blessings were given with the understanding that He and His Son would bless us with the opportunities of eternal glory, and all we have to do is obey His commandments and be humble in our service.
There is no duty earth can conceive that will bring greater joy to our souls than that of serving our God and fulfilling the obligations created by our Father’s generosity and love. Really, our only duty is to seek happiness, for “men are that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25).
Kelly P. Merrill
Kelly Merrill is semi retired and writes for https://gospelstudy.us. He lives with his wife in Idaho. His strength is being able to take difficult to understand subjects and break them down into understandable parts. He delights in writing about the gospel of Christ. Writing about the gospel is his personal missionary work to the members of the Church and to those of other faiths who are wanting to know more about Christ's gospel and His Church.