Doing the Dishes and the Gnashing of Teeth

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When my kids were younger they had chores—one of which was doing the dishes.

It should have been as simple as everyone taking a turn on a rotating basis, but was never that simple.

Lacrosse games or ballet practices meant that somebody would miss their turn. To ask another child to take care of it resulted in anguished lamentations. These were even louder if the prospective dishwasher could conjure up a scenario where this debt might not be repaid. Then there was the was wailing and gnashing of teeth over the unfairness of having to do dishes on a night when we had a roast, as opposed the other night when a sibling had only to contend with the remains of a meal of bread and soup. Sometimes I got so sick of it that I just did them myself.

Grudging Obedience

I wouldn’t have been any happier if I had their silent obedience either.  It certainly would have been quieter, and possibly less frustrating, but it wouldn’t have lead to their happiness, and in my better moments what I wish most for my children is fulfillment regardless of the circumstances.

The problem in both of these responses, wailing lamentations or grudging obedience, is that doing the dishes is seen as a duty.  The idea of duty or obligation or requirement is set in opposition to happiness and joy.  For my young children, happiness and joy could only be achieved by doing what they wanted as opposed to what they had to do.  My kids put freedom first.

All this was a long time ago.  My children have all grown up. The great thing now is that when they come over for a meal, they joyfully do the dishes. It’s the same activity, but their attitude is completely different.

What accounts for this difference?  Surely, it’s maturity.  They’ve lived away from home and know how much money and work it takes to put a delicious meal onto the table.

But it’s more than maturity; the most important thing for them is no longer freedom from duties and obligations, but a relationship with me, their parent.  I cook for them a delicious meal because I love them and they wash the dishes because they love me.

If we think that Freedom is more important than anything else in order to live the good life (read more here), our focus will usually be hostilely directed toward those things which limit one’s freedom, and those who seemingly impose duties, obligations, responsibilities.

This creates resentful people.

If relationship is more important than freedom, our focus will be lovingly directed toward other persons who we love.

It’s obvious which leads to greater joy and happiness–fulfillment.

Biblical Basis of Fulfillment

It’s all there in Deteronomy 10.  The writer implores God’s people to

 12 . . .walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good.

Obedience certainly restricts our freedom, but washing the dishes after a good meal is a loving and joyful response to a great meal prepared for you in joy and love, and it’s all for our own good anyway.

My kids were miserable when they were focused on the duty and they are happy now that they are focused on the relationship.  God wants what’s best for his people, and it turns out that is obedience.

Not Simply Obedience

But it’s not simply obedience.

Simple obedience is for the simply religious, and they are miserable.  It’s joyful obedience that God is after and that will be a blessing to us.  In verse 16 of the Deuteronomy 10, it says 

Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.

Circumcision was a duty for the people of God and if they understood it only as an obligation, they’d be stiff-necked.  God certainly didn’t want disobedience, but silent and grudging obedience wasn’t any better; he wanted their hearts so that we can flourish.

Human flourishing is not about freedom, nor is it about fulfilling religious obligations, it’s about relationship.



  1. Donna Stelpstra

    Here’s an amazing quote from Richard Rohr about relationship: “Everytime God forgives us, God is saying that God’s own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us.” I think this fits with what you are writing about.

    • Trent

      That is an incredible quote, Donna. It’s exactly what I was trying to say. I might use it in a future blog (after I read the book it’s in. What book is it in?)
      Thanks for reading,


      • Donna Stelpstra

        It’s in Falling Upward. All about the latter half of life. 🙂 Great book!

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