Are You an “Ought To” or a “Want To” Christian?

Have you ever wondered how David, apparently a man after God’s own heart, found himself capable of flagrant acts of adultery and murder? Have you ever wondered how David could still be a believer after all that? Think about if a similar scandal were to come to light in our day: if some mega-pastor were caught in adultery with one of his congregants, and then it turns out he had her husband assassinated in an attempt to avoid a scandal. Would you ever be able to trust that pastor’s repentance?

Duty and Affection

For years, I have had a sentence written on the glass between the tracking and monitoring rooms in the Nehemiah Foundation’s project studio: “Duty will not compel me more than affection.” It’s an aphorism I learned from some colonial American whose name I have forgotten. I like to look at it while I’m in the tedious process of mixing and editing. It reminds me that I press forward not in grim resignation but joyful resolution.

But that’s me. I know many people whose commitment to duty very much overrides their various affections, and I won’t say at this point that these people necessarily err in this. When I look at my father, for instance, I see a sincere and meek-hearted Christian whose commitment to duty overrides all other impulses. I don’t know the true state of his heart, obviously, but his actions are generally unimpeachable. So I don’t know that it makes a lot of sense to tell my father: “Duty should not compel you more than affection.”

In the parable of the willing and unwilling sons, Jesus made it clear that the unwilling son who helped his father in spite of his contrary feelings was a true son (Matt. 21:28–32). In other words, it was good that the unwilling son’s sense of duty ultimately overcame his initially wrong-hearted affections. But is Jesus suggesting that doing what is right even when we don’t feel like it is the terminal destination for Christian sanctification? I don’t think so. But neither is he saying that contradicting wrong affections with a sense of duty is (necessarily or always) false religion or legalism.

In the process of developing an effective approach to right-doing, I have begun to realize that sincere and genuine believers tend to find motivation for righteousness in at least two distinct ways: through reverence (duty) or through devotion (affection). In other words, there are “ought to” Christians and “want to” Christians.1

Before I dive into making a biblical case for the legitimacy of these two motivations to virtue, let me say that I don’t think either one is more or less important or necessary in the church today. In order to stay healthy, the church needs a good mix of both kinds of Christians.

“Ought to” and “Want to” Christians

“Ought to” Christians are motivated by a desire to obey the rules and orders given by their Master. They generally submit to authority. They have a strong commitment to duty, and a healthy fear of punishment. They regularly do right even when they don’t actually want to do right. They are unwilling to bend the letter of the law because they often have trouble seeing into its spirit. They prefer to “err on the side of caution.” They tend to be conservative, particularly in “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” terms. They operate toward God as their Father and their Master much more often than as their Brother and their Friend.

“Want to” Christians are generally unwilling to do differently than they feel, so following the rules for them has more to do with correcting their broken affections than constraining them. They tend to challenge the status quo and question authority. They regularly bend the letter of the law. In fact, they tend to act without carefully consulting the letter in the first place. They often experience the spirit of the law more clearly through sustained intimacy with God, but have dangerous intermittent periods of spiritual coolness that leave them vulnerable to great temptation. They do not fear punishment. They tend to think it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. They operate toward God as their Brother and their Friend much more than as their Father and Master.

The Bible has a number of scenarios where “ought to” and “want to” Christians are placed together in the same story as mutual foils. Each of these scenarios is enlightening. Here are the ones I have noticed:2

  • Jehu and Jehonadab (2 Kings 10:15; Jer. 35:1ff)
  • David and Uriah (2 Sam. 11)
  • Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42; John 11:20ff)
  • The Prodigal Son and his brother (Luke 15:11ff)

Notice that in each of these scenarios, God makes it clear that both the “want to” and “ought to” believers are truly his children. They each represent legitimate complimentary angles on righteousness. Let’s consider the story of David and Uriah more closely.

David and Uriah: Case Study of “Want to” and “Ought to”

David was a “want to” Christian. He viewed the law of God as his delight before he viewed it as his duty. He regularly bent or broke the conventional rules of tradition and propriety and had a pretty flexible view on the letter of the law as well. For instance, he ate the forbidden showbread (1 Sam. 21:1ff). He danced before the ark in what his wife (and probably others) thought was a shameful state of undress (2 Sam. 6:12ff). He had no problem telling lies to his enemies (1 Sam. 27:8) and sometimes even his friends (1 Sam. 21:2). He eschewed the conventional parameters of hand-to-hand combat—and warfare in general (re: Goliath).

There are probably many other examples of how David discerned the spirit and substance of the law, and therefore felt comfortable operating in an extra-conventional righteousness. God still blessed David in this, and God considered David even an exceptionally righteous man (Acts 13:22).

But then you have, on the other hand, Uriah. This was a man of duty, conviction, and principle. He refused to sleep with his wife when he came home from the battlefield. He came home only at his king’s specific command. He fought and died bravely, and from everything we know of him, he was righteous. He followed human conventions even possibly to a fault, and probably said things like, “Better to err on the side of caution” and “It’s the principle of the thing.”

It’s interesting to consider how Uriah and David would have operated if their places had been switched. If Uriah had been in David’s shoes, he probably would not have sinned with Bathsheba. But he probably would have died trying to cross swords with Goliath (as a matter of honor), and it’s unlikely Uriah could have written most of the Psalms.

It’s almost certainly the case that David would have slept in his own bed with his own wife if he had been in Uriah’s position—and he wouldn’t have been wrong to do so. And it is almost equally certain that Uriah would not have eaten the showbread in David’s position—and Uriah wouldn’t have been wrong to abstain.

The David and Uriah pairing should act as a grave warning to the “want to” Christian. What happens when you don’t want to or when you are drawn to want something other than God’s will in your life? You’re in a dangerous position. You can infer the cooling of David’s fervency even at the beginning of his temporary fall from grace. Rather than going out (with Uriah and the other soldiers) “during the time when kings go to battle,” David decided to stay behind and loaf about on his rooftop (2 Sam. 11:1).

Marc Chagall – Kind David and Bathsheba (1957) [demurely cropped for “ought to” brothers and sisters]

Was he depressed? Complacent? Bored? Possibly all of the above. The point is that his delight in God’s will was not burning quite as fervently in his heart as it usually did. And unlike the “ought to” Christian, David didn’t have the same healthy fear of punishment to hold him back from great sin. So when his affections were drawn elsewhere, he acted on them as usual—to devastating consequences.

Would such a fall likely happen to an “ought to” Christian? No. Such a public scandal is not likely to happen to an “ought to” Christian—if he or she is a genuine believer, that is. Duty-driven Christians generally avoid such circumstances by not veering from their rules. They have learned how to operate against their affections out of a healthy fear of negative consequences.

But “ought to” Christians have a major weakness too—since they are capable of functioning righteously on the exterior even when their hearts are not in the right place, they often don’t have the same external warning signs when something is going very wrong in their spirits. And they don’t have the same urgency to get their hearts right. Everything could look quite normal and righteous on the outside, even when a sinful spirit is rotting them out from the inside.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Our Motivations

The “want to” Christian has many strengths: contagious passion, oftentimes greater insight into the spirit of the Law, spiritual boldness, and a willingness to challenge the status quo (very important when it needs challenging).

But the “want to” Christian has a major weakness: the capacity for extraordinary acts of wickedness in those rare and usually short-lived times when his passion for God has cooled.

The “ought to” Christian has many strengths: steady righteousness, faithfulness in the little things, respect for authority and tradition, and extraordinary loyalty.

But the “ought to” Christian has a major weakness: the ability to harbor a sinful spirit indefinitely within a superficially “righteous” exterior.

It’s generally the case that a “want to” Christian, like David, can commit even great sin and still be a sincere believer. In fact, the “want to” believer’s spirit might be truly righteous most of the time. Since David obviously did whatever he wanted, the fact that he so consistently followed after God indicates that he generally wanted to follow after and be like God. A whole lot more than most of us actually. So even though many of us might never do that thing that David did, it’s still the case that his heart was more consistently like God’s than ours.

Great sin can come against the “want to” Christian in a moment of weakness, but in order for an “ought to” Christian to do what David did, that Christian’s entire motivation for virtue would have to be destroyed. If an “ought to” Christian gets to the point that he no longer possesses any healthy fear of punishment for a monumental breach, he has probably been living in secret sin already for many years. It’s hard to recover from that.

When you consider the Pharisees, you see the final corruption and apostasy of “ought to” believers: they become white-washed tombs. “Ought to” Christianity can drift into Christ-hating legalism if it is not rooted in real union with God, and one of the extraordinary dangers of this drift is that, at least superficially, apostate “ought to” pharisaism doesn’t look much different than genuine “ought to” belief.

“Want to” Christians look like the big sinners we all say we know we all are. “Want to” Christians have trouble hiding their sin tendencies, for better and for worse. While they are re-tooling their affections, they will probably sin fairly regularly (and publicly). They don’t contribute very much to making the church seem pious to outsiders (or insiders, for that matter). But their zeal and sincerity (when properly directed) contributes much to the right spirit of the church.

“Ought to” Christians look like legalists. Their commitment to duty can make them real sticks in the mud. They don’t contribute much to making the church seem welcoming to outsiders (or insiders, for that matter). But without their faithfulness, prudence, loyalty, and conservative submission to standards, the church would tear itself apart.


Jesus exhibited both “ought to” and “want to” qualities at different times in his life and ministry. He clearly didn’t have much problem breaking conventional rules (he particularly galled the Pharisees by working on the sabbath and hanging out with sinners). But he was also absolutely fastidious in other circumstances (his responses to Satan in the wilderness were all drawn from the Law in Deuteronomy). He also did things he did not “feel” like doing (as evidenced in Gethsemane). His reverence for the Father compelled him at times. His affection for his brothers and sisters compelled him at others. He was and is the perfect and whole person in himself.

As Christ’s body, each of us must imitate him in that small part he has given us within himself. None of us are complete or whole unto ourselves, though. “Want to” and “ought to” Christians pursue their individual qualities in Christ, and then come together to form a complete person in the church.

I wrote this article to help genuine Christians recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, but also to help us look after each other in love. Too many times, churches begin to coalesce around one particular motivation for virtue, and this often results in a collective emphasis on individual weaknesses. “Want to” churches tend to lack discipline, rigor, order, and commitment. They tend to look down on the hobgoblin-beset, legalistic minds meeting down the street. “Ought to” churches tend to lack heart, compassion, forgiveness, and flexibility. They tend to look down on the nightmare hippie children scandalizing the name of Christ in the other part of town.

The operations of “want to” and “ought to” Christians serve a similar function in the church that fusion and electro-magnetism serve in the sun. Without fusion, the sun would be cold and dead. But without the constraining electro-magnetic field, the sun would be an explosion—not a productive and continual source of life-giving energy.

We need a healthy mix of both kinds of Christians in all of our churches. Developing this healthy mix will require all of us to exit our comfort zones for the sake of our brothers and sisters and the church. Practically speaking, how do you think we can accomplish this?

  1. I don’t think any Christian is entirely one or the other. I’m talking about primary, not exclusive, motivations toward virtue.
  2. I have written the pairs here with the “want to” believer first. There are likely many other pairs of mutual foils in the Bible. Please comment if you think of one/some.

4 responses

  1. Hopefully this is not too much of a tangent, but considering how David said in Psalm 119 “I hate all double-minded men but I love Your Law”, do you think that “want to” Christians are more likely to be double-minded (by accident or on purpose)?

    • I think double-mindedness is a problem for all sinners. I think it looks different in different people though. For a “want to” Christian, from my experience, it usually develops into a fractured identity: each mutually exclusive grouping of sincere desires becomes the seat of a new identity. For the “ought to” Christian, double-mindedness looks more like pure old-fashioned hypocrisy. The “ought to” Christian usually knows he is not being true to his identity in Christ when his heart strays from God’s will. The “want to” Christian will have a more difficult time detecting his own lie. His double-mindedness often doesn’t feel like hypocrisy, since each seat of identity is actually sincere in him. It feels more like schizophrenia. I hope that makes sense.

  2. I think this is a good article. I think we need to have both qualities if possible and if not, perhaps both kinds of people in the church to keep things in check. I think your statement about Jesus galling the pharisees by working on the sabbath and being with sinners doesn’t constitute a ‘want to’ attitude because he wasn’t breaking any scriptural laws. A man of God would have to work on sabbath and sinners need salvation. Jesus was working against the pharisee’s traditions, but not God’s word. I get called legalistic and a pharisee for not celebrating christmas or easter because they are spiritual adultery in my opinion, but I have to point out that the pharisees weren’t legalistic to God’s word. They were legalistic to their own traditions which makes void the word of God. People forget that Jesus wasn’t condemning them for following God’s word to the letter, but their own traditions.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      Because Jesus had insight into the substance and purpose of God’s Law, he was able to set aside many of the restrictions the Pharisees were using to “protect” the Law. That is very much at the heart of the “want to” believer’s strength. Whenever you contradict a traditional restriction that has corrupted the heart of the Law, you are operating in the spirit of the “want to” believer. The Pharisees and the people who followed them did not believe their prescribed restrictive hedges were “unscriptural.” They believed those hedges to be an application of the Law in practice, and the Jewish culture had almost entirely adopted those restrictions as necessary to righteousness. Jesus taught otherwise, emphasizing the freedom and liberty of righteousness in the face of an enslaved self-righteousness that obscured God’s character. The “want to” believer regularly allows himself freedoms that are frowned upon by his pious brethren as “dangerous” or “tending” toward error. The “ought to” believer has rules for himself that keep him far from danger. There are pitfalls in either approach. Obviously, one’s freedom can become a stumbling block. And one’s rules can become a snare. Neither are in themselves wrong in all circumstances for all people.

      It brings to mind the meat sacrificed to idols. Some sincerely believed that eating meat sacrificed to idols was spiritual adultery. Others did not believe this was the case. Some chose freedom. Others chose discipline. Paul indicates that, depending on the circumstance, either could be virtuous. There are times when eating is sin. There are times when it is not. But what he emphasizes throughout is charity. Those who eat should consider those who do not eat to be more important than themselves. And vice versa.

      When it comes down to it, every rule we make for ourselves is an application of God’s Law in some sense, and it likely doesn’t follow the exact wording or scenarios of Scripture. Our applications should follow the general equity of the ethical and moral boundaries God sets, but virtue requires discernment. For instance, your rule against Christmas and Easter is not found anywhere in the Bible. You have discerned it from principles you found in the Bible, certainly. But the Pharisees said the same thing concerning many of the rules they made, and most of the Jews firmly believed they were right. They didn’t eat with prostitutes because the Proverbs said not even to go down the road by her house, much less eat with her. Sure, sinners need salvation. But bad company also corrupts good morals. When it boils down to it, we are each individually responsible for our virtue before God. We sometimes come to different conclusions for very good reasons. That’s why I emphasize charity and grace with one another. We’re in this together and we all have a lot to figure out. Love is the fulfillment of the law.

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