If your religious experience has been like mine, then you have labored under a sizeable list of sacred duties, defined by the church and its theology. Not many months back, I heard a preacher say that tithing of at least 10% of your income was a requirement established by God. In the same vein, deciding to be a Christian, in the normal sense of church affiliation, carries a long list of "must do" items: read the Bible, pray over every meal, attend every service, set a good example by living piously, actively support all church activities and programs, show proper respect to church leaders, and help grow the membership by personal evangelism.
I was probably not alone in finding all this burdensome and daunting. To make matters worse, it was always implied, if not specifically stated, that, if you did not do these duties, you might not actually be a Christian. That made me even less comfortable with the "must do" list. Were these works something I should be able to enthusiastically perform because I had been saved, supernaturally causing these activities to become joyful, or were they activities I just had to grit my teeth over and perform in as positive a fashion as I could muster. In either case, apparently, I had to prove to myself and others that I really had been saved? Did everyone else in the church really enjoy Bible reading and trying to convert their neighbors or were they conflicted about these things, just like me? That was my secret question. It was certainly possible in my mind that the pressure applied by the church could easily cause people to pretend to relish these duties despite how they really felt.
Even now, as I have evolved to a new religious understanding, I encounter Jesus' admonition to love my neighbor and to overcome evil with good. There, once more, I face what appears to be another "must do" item, ones no less challenging than those enumerated by Orthodoxy. Have I just traded one list of sacred duties for another one? If I hesitated to embrace the duties of Orthodox Christianity, how am I better off without the church but still under a new commandment- Love like Jesus? If emulating Jesus is my current duty, how does that make anything easier and more enthusiastically accepted than the old church measures of righteousness? That is a very good question, one that begs an honest answer.
That answer, for me at least, revolves around the very concept of duty. The dictionary defines duty as a moral or legal obligation. It is a responsibility I owe to someone else. Failure to fulfill that obligation may carry a legal penalty; but, at the very least, that failure causes a sense of guilt or inadequacy because it adversely affects others. Not performing a duty brings with it the exposure to condemnation. I had to do my duty and I did not or could not and therefore I suffer guilt, remorse, frustration, anxiety, all the negative emotions we associate with failure.
Maybe the example of Jesus and his mode of living is not to be embraced as another, perhaps more difficult, sacred duty, but rather as a life lesson which potentially leads to peace, joy, and freedom. Instead of Jesus issuing new commandments, even more strenuous than the Law of Moses, maybe he imparted abundant life instructions, which we are free to accept or ignore as long as we are willing to accept and live with the consequences. In other words, the admonition to love even our enemies is not a requirement or new sacred duty. It is, instead, simply good advice with divinely guaranteed results. We are under no obligation to accept that principle as one to live by. Jesus claims we would be better off to do so, but we are not obliged to accept this advice until we are ready. If, in hearing these words of Jesus, we feel any reluctance, any misgivings about the practicality of this advice, we needn't feel any sense of failure or remorse. We simply note a continuing opportunity to grow some more spiritually and maybe someday recognize that all forms of forgiveness and kindness are gifts to ourselves. We don't do good things for ourselves because it is a duty but because we actually enjoy it. That's a whole different "ball game".