Duty before holiness

August 5, 2009 | 43 comments

Early on in my conversion, I was totally freaked out by the idea that the devil can lure you away from God by putting good ideas in your head. “What?!” I thought. “That is so unfair! How can we ever grow in holiness if we can’t even count on good actions to actually be good?!”

Yet I quickly saw how easily it could happen. As soon as I became involved in religious circles I heard archetypal stories of people treating others with scorn in the name of getting more prayer time, parents hardly seeing their children because of over-involvement in ministries, and spouses spending more time with prayer groups than with one another.

I thought that I’d learned from these examples and was all set. I wouldn’t sign up for too many ministries or neglect the kids for prayer time. Done. A few months later, however, I realized that the devil had found a perfect way to lure me down the wrong path in pursuit of faux holiness: reading and writing. As an introvert and spiritual slacker, I was never all that tempted to sign up for group activities or pray too much. But I can’t tell you how many times I was tempted to snap at the kids for interrupting me while I was working on a blog post that I was convinced was going to bring SO MUCH glory to God, or felt drawn to read some spiritually edifying book well into the night that would leave me exhausted and grouchy the next day.

It was clear that I was wide open to this kind of temptation on a larger scale as well. I’m a natural dreamer with a love of drawing up big plans, and I could see how easy it would be for the devil to convince me to slowly but surely begin neglecting the people around me in the name of starting some “very important” project that would be “so good” for God.

So what could I do?! Just as I was feeling doomed to unwittingly stray away from God by following “good” inspirations that would end up negatively impacting my life or the lives of my loved ones, I came across a three-word nugget of wisdom that would end up being one of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever heard:

Duty before holiness.

I don’t remember where I first heard it (perhaps from the wonderful Francis de Sales?) but the idea is that each of us has a clear set of duties that we must attend to, the details of which vary by state of life. For example, every Christian is called to show love to others, avoid sin, respect his or her parents, etc. But we all also have a set of duties that comes with our primary vocations (the most common vocations being to the married life or consecrated religious life), and a legitimate call from God would only strengthen our ability to carry out those duties. For example, a parish priest would never be called by God to do something that would make him feel burdened and resentful about his service to parishioners, a husband would never be called to do something that would mean neglecting his wife or children, no Christian would be called to pray instead of lending aid to someone in urgent need, and so on.

Once I understood this, so many things in my spiritual life became clear.

First of all, it’s allowed me to see God’s hand at work in my life much more clearly than when I was insisting on bull-headedly following whatever I perceived to be a call from God. Many times I’ve felt frustrated that God seemed to put some desire on my heart that was practically impossible to complete given the restrictions of my vocation (a recent example being my great consternation when my fourth pregnancy derailed my plans for the book I felt called to write). Too often I’ve insisted on forcing through my plans for holiness at the expense of my duties — and almost every time all those big plans end up fizzling in front of me, leaving me in a worse place than where I started. Yet on the occasions that I’ve managed to be obedient to my duties first, it’s been stunning to see how God has opened one unlikely door after another to allow me to fulfill those desires within the constraints of my vocation.

It’s also helped me deal with “honeymoon burnout, “ i.e. when something I’m called to do is no longer fun anymore and I’m tempted to move on to another, newer, more exciting way to bring glory to God. For example, I have been clearly called to welcome our neighbor girls into our home, and for a while it was different and interesting to have a houseful of kids here every day. Now that it’s been going on for over a year, however, there are days when I’m tired of fixing lunch for so many people and sick of the constant noise level and am sorely tempted to kick everyone out so that I can start up some new, supposedly more holy project. But reminding myself “duty before holiness” (as long as my duty to the girls doesn’t negatively impact my primary vocation, of course) helps me do what God has called me to do here and not jump ship for a “better” way to serve God.

And, oddly enough, I’ve found this concept of obedience to duty to be liberating. I no longer need to spend so much time deciding what holiness looks like, and I no longer feel plagued by the fact that I am so easily tempted away from God by “good” inspirations. I’ve found rest and peace in the knowledge that what God wants first and foremost is that I simply, lovingly fulfill the basic duties he’s set in front of me as a wife and a mother. Now when I get those sudden inspirations to go lose myself in Word of God just when it’s my turn to tackle a sink overflowing with filthy dishes, I can know with confidence that if it is a legitimate call from God, it can wait until the dishes are done.



  1. Jane D.

    Thank you Jennifer, I have so often fallen foul of doing this, I needed this reminder x.

  2. Roxane B. Salonen


    It's a lifelong discernment process, I think, and a daily (no, hourly) one as well. Just when we think we have it figured out…the loop appears. I think if we accept this, that we are daily imperfect, then we can take our losses and gains equally and still start over the next day.

    I could relate well, as I so often do.



  3. Elizabeth Mahlou

    Duty before holiness is a great yardstick for prioritization — except, just sometimes, it would seem we need to leave the dishes and tend to God. Here is a case in point. A couple of years ago (seems like yesterday), I kept getting "nudged" to come outside and take my evening walk around our local mission grounds much earlier than normal. I started preparing dinner, but kept getting nudged so strongly that I had to give in. I gathered hubby, and off we went. As soon as I opened the door, I saw a lunar ice halo (might want to look that up on the Internet if you don't know what it is because I cannot describe it as well as a picture will show it) filling in the entire sky. It was like heaven connecting with earth and all the love of God just streaming down on the church grounds. Pure joy! It disappeared within minutes. Had I not obeyed that nudge, I would have missed the biggest "hug" from God of the past two years.

  4. Carrien

    "I've found rest and peace in the knowledge that what God wants first and foremost is that I simply, lovingly fulfill the basic duties he's set in front of me as a wife and a mother."

    Yes! My entire life got better when I figured this out. And I've done so much more since that I only dreamed of doing prior to understanding this, and doing it of course.

  5. blissful_e

    Every mother of young children should hear this. I am like you personality-wise (and with young children as well), and this was a helpful reminder to me. Thank you!

  6. Emily

    It's like the woman in David Copperfield (I'm forgetting her name) who totally neglects her family in order to help "Heathens in Africa."

  7. ~ Judy ~

    Great post! Thank you!
    I love St Francis DeSales so much…such timeless wisdom for any walk of life:)
    Duty before holiness: That's awesome.
    Here's another: "Don't be so heavenly bound that you are no earthly good"…and just one more: "You can trust that the responsibility before you is God's will for you at the moment"
    I think both of those go along nicely with the one you shared:)
    You've given me much food for thought; thanks!

  8. That Married Couple

    What a fantastic "nugget" of wisdom, and you unpack it so well! That is just what I needed to hear this morning – thank you.

  9. Luke

    Nodding along with you. You're right on, but it sounds so odd because we have such a warped view of holiness. May we be faithful in the things God has given us!


  10. V

    This post and your recent one on Spiritual Dry Spells have been ringing true for me.
    I am a new mother and my beloved son was always a good sleeper. He started waking all night long (teething?) and its been hard for me. BUT I keep reminding myself that he is a gift from God, one I so desperately wanted. So I pray. I pray before he falls asleep, I pray at midnight, I pray at 3:30am, 4am, 5:45am. 6:30am.
    I want him to sleep, I want to sleep! But I know that my vocation is the true path to holiness. God has called me to be myself, His child, His image.
    no book can replace that call.

  11. Rachel B

    Thanks for putting this into words. This kind of understanding of a vocation is one of the many reasons why I am so glad to be a Catholic. I have had these thoughts but just never put them into words as well as you did here.

  12. Kelly

    Wow. What an awesome message. God sent this idea to me not too long ago and now He's reiterating it to me. Just makes me wonder what new desire he is going to put on my heart and how he will work it out within my vocation. Thanks for posting this!

  13. Marie

    Yi, this is a tough one. Usually your posts I nod a lot, this one my face is all squinched up. I think that means this one I need. I hate it when that happens. Thanks. . . .I guess. . . . .

  14. Jen Raiche

    Great post! It's so easy to imagine that we know a better path to holiness than the one that's set before us. I struggle with this as well!

    Thank you for being so honest with your dear readers. And, thank you for sharing your journey with us. I really look forward to reading your insights. =)

  15. truthfinder

    "Duty before Holiness". I've printed it out, and I'm hanging it where I can see it when I'm tempted to neglect my duties. Thank you for that gem of wisdom.

    Rosemary in Missouri

  16. ABBEY

    Gracious! I would swear you were describing me! Thank you for an excellent story.

    By the way, I have left a gift for you on my blog, so visit me soon!


  17. Mitch

    My latin prof, a wise old jesuit reminded me of this concept when I was getting over involved and falling behind in Latin. He mentioned at story from the life of St. Ignatius, that when Ignatius was in school he often felt called to become overly involved in local parish life to the detriment of his education. Ignatius realized that these urges to be so involved in leading liturgical and community activities could not be from God because they took him away from school which was the path to his vocation of being a priest. Our vocation in life comes with duties, as a student I struggle with this idea because helping run x event for University Ministry or the parish down the road sounds like a lot more fun and a surer way to holiness then being locked in my room studying passive paraphrastics and ablative absolutes, etc!

  18. Barbara C.

    Great message!! It's one I think I needed to hear. Of course, part of it, too, is recognizing that our duties equal holiness, even when they're seemingly mundane. They may not be as flashy as writing a book or building a house for the homeless, but scrubbing the bathtub with a happy heart can be just as holy if that is what God has called us to do.

  19. Gina

    Read Luke 18.

  20. memoriesblogger

    I, too, can so easily relate to the temptation to rationalize doing good when I should be doing my duty, my first calling. When I attended a small, Christian college, I learned how easy it is not just to be fooled by this temptation but to use it to rationalize doing what I want to do! When girls wanted to break up with their boyfriends, they would say that they really wanted to concentrate on their relationship with God right now and couldn't focus on anything else… when in reality, they just plain didn't like the guy anymore. We rationalize so easily… I will think on this for a while. Thank you for the thought.

  21. monica_divineoffice.org

    When you said "I'm a natural dreamer with a love of drawing up big plans" I thought we are alike in that way and I struggle all the same although I'm not a wife or a mother yet. God bless!

    Liturgy of the Hours

  22. Anonymous

    See, I'm not sure whether this this supposed to biblically be true all the time, at least in terms of precedence among the noted people in the Bible. In many cases, God seems to lift people out of their duties, away from their families and previous obligations, to follow him absolutely (i.e. the disciples, Paul, Jesus himself, David, Joseph, Jacob, Martha, Mary vs, Martha, many of the saints). Then again, Proverbs, the laws, and the pastoral letters attributed to Paul tend to support common, everyday duty.

    So… how do you balance that? Just curious.


  23. Multiple Mom T

    Excellent three words for exactly where I am! Thank you so much!!

  24. Jessica

    Jen, this was good to read today. I like the trick of your title, because, of course, in following our duty, we grow in holiness. Thanks for writing this.

  25. Kacie

    I have been thinking about this a lot recently, and have been posting a series about it on my blog. I plan to quote you in the next couple of days (though with a Protestant perspective)… thanks so much for these thoughts.

  26. Lisa V.

    I just want to tell you I love your blog. It seems almost every day I read it, it affirms that deep down we as believers share the same heart for God regardless if Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, or non-denominational. If we truly love God and are obedient to him we're all sisters and brothers. I'm not Catholic, but I find such a connectedness (word?) to so much you say. And so many others MUST too. Especially today's post, how many times I thought spending 2hours on the couch reading my bible is doing so much for God then say cleaning my bathroom that's begging for help! But I'm learning and putting that book down when my son is crawling all over me for attention. So thank you for re-affirming what that still, small voice has been saying to me.

  27. Rebecca

    This is such a great thing to keep in mind, and reminds me of one of my favourite pieces of wisdom from one of my favourite minds ever, CS Lewis, who said something to the effect that you shouldn't be "praying when you really ought to be helping your wife with the dishes" (I'm paraphrasing).

    (Of course this is easy for me to say as I am often guilty of NOT taking enough time for prayer.)

  28. Lana

    Yes. I have had a hard time figuring out the "less-important" decisions, recently, though. Like today I parked near our church and had to walk back to my house. So should I stop in for a few minutes before the Blessed Sacrament, or rush home to be home in time for a scheduled call with my mother (who lives overseas)? I opted to come home as fast as three toddlers allow me to go, and then waited and waited and the call never came. So…did I make the right choice? This is also the case with exercise: I am better when I feel more energized after I exercise and I am a happier mommy. But, what if I over-exhaust myself and then end up feeling crabby the rest of the day…?
    I know these sound small but to me they end up consuming me with frustration when I feel I may have "missed out." I guess the frustration is the real problem, not the actual decision, right?!

  29. CM

    Well, let's just say that was a needed kick in the teeth!:)

  30. MaryLouise

    "Abandonment to Divine Providence" by Jean-Pierre De Caussade

    essentially this Priest/spiritual director says one must be true to the state of life to which they are called and through this and in this, they will (mixed metaphor) be able to do "something beautiful for God" and grow deeply close to God.

  31. Agnes Regina

    Thank you Jen! That's another motto I can keep before my eyes every day — it will help a lot!

  32. Anonymous

    Years ago a reading of MADAME BOVARY, Gustave Flaubert's first and most famous novel, powerfully influenced my thinking about duty. Had Emma Bovary had a sense of duty, everything that befell her and her family would have been avoided.

    There are other problems when we seek fulfilment outside of our duty. Self-deception comes to mind — and that's just one example.

    MADAME BOVARY is a powerful novel and worth reading.

    ~ Nona

  33. Kelly the Kitchen Kop

    I suppose I should really look into subscribing to more Catholic/Christian blogs than yours, because my other blog (I have a Christianity blog besides my health & nutrition blog) is quickly becoming mostly links to YOUR blog! This is another link I'll have to add, because it's just-so-dead-ON! I wish I was half the writer you are!

    Thanks, Jennifer!

  34. Ouiz

    Oh, thank you for this. That's going to stick with me, and I need it to!

    Simple: Duty before holiness.

  35. danielcox

    Having been involved in ministry for over 15 years, I have been guilty of putting "holiness before duty". It's so easy to use the business of ministry to avoid what is essential and real in our lives.

    Thankfully, my children have looked past my shortcomings and still like me, if even a little. :0)

    I especially related to your comment of "freedom of obedience". I learned that truth in ministry and have found deep comfort in the covering that comes from obedience. It's so counter-intuitive, but so liberating. When I found the courage to be obedient, I discovered it wasn't so bad.

  36. Mrs. Parunak

    Thank you for this great post! I love so many of your posts, but this one was like a glass of ice water on a hot day. I just had to comment and tell you!

  37. Jasmine

    Holiness comes from obedience to God's will. Being obedient to the vocation to which one is called by God (i.e., not just any vocation you feel like pursuing!) is the best and only way to grow in holiness. I wouldn't necessarily say that duties come before holiness because in fact the two are simply intertwined.

  38. Nick

    The quote is a paraphrase of Saint Padre Pio's words, one of his many sayings: "Duty before everything else, even something holy."

  39. Anthony

    Maybe "Duty before piety" is more to the point? Duty is part of holiness.

  40. Roz

    What a great reminder. Thank you!

  41. Ethel

    Thank you for posting this. I'm a working mother – sole breadwinner, in fact, as my husband can neither support the family nor earn enough to pay the costs of a second job – and so often I feel like I could be so much holier if I didn't need to work. I imagine attending daily Mass with the children, praying grace at every meal with them and the occasional Rosary, and doing good deeds for friends like cooking meals when they have new babies – things I just can't do when I am out of the house 50 hours a week. I feel less worthy than my friends who are able to do all these things, even though I realize that there is a reason it is the stay-at-home moms in our friends' families who do this and not the husbands who have full-time jobs, and I shouldn't be comparing myself to them.

    Right now it seems like duty consumes most of my energy and time, and I have little left over for God directly. During Lent I make an extra effort to give 20 minutes a day to God, and the strain on my family is tremendous! From a mere 20 minutes! It's so hard to hear all the messages that if I just loved God more, I would make time. I've tried making time, and the fact is that even 20 minutes puts a burden on the very people God has asked me to care for.

  42. Amanda

    I've never really thought about this. It really is a very liberating thought!

    Thank you for sharing.


  1. A Woman After My Own Heart | Rina Marie - [...] Duty Before Holiness [...]

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