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Accidental Idols: The Fallacy Of Personal Rights


 “We need to share a secret with you,” Jill (not her real name) confided to my wife and me. “Seven years ago, Jack (not his real name) and I decided to opt out of paying our taxes.”

“Did you know that Congress never approved the Federal income tax?” Jack interjected. “The government is slowly taking all of our rights and freedoms away.”

As a result, Jack and Jill were constantly changing jobs, trying to stay a step or two ahead of the federal government who was hot on their trail to recoup what was owed.

Exercising their rights left them living in poverty, fear, paranoia, and bondage.

Most people don’t live in the extreme like this couple, but we all have varying beliefs about rights.

An Accidental Idol Exposed

Believe it or not, Lent begins in less than two weeks. Lent commemorates the 40 days leading up to Easter. During that time, followers of Christ are encouraged to prepare their hearts for Good Friday (the crucifixion of Christ) and Easter (his resurrection).

With this in mind, over the next few weeks, I want to look at accidental idols—practices and beliefs that may unintentionally stand in the way of us encountering God in a fuller way.

Recently, I shared a quote from political satirist and television personality Stephen Colbert on my FaceBook page (see the graphic at the top of this post) who reportedly said:

If [the United States] is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and needy without condition and admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

I prefaced the quote with the word Selah–a Hebrew word which probably means “reflect.” No commentary on my part, just the encouragement to take a moment to reflect.

You wouldn’t believe the firestorm it stirred. Colbert is, admittedly, a Democrat and a practicing Catholic. And most Evangelicals–with whom I share an uneasy co-existence–are Republicans.

Some FaceBook friends liked it, others were incensed. Without pointing my finger directly at anyone, one side was offended by Colbert’s words, complaining that the government is foolishly delving into areas that belong to the church. No disagreement from my end about that. The other side applauded Colbert for prodding Christians to be more generous. No disagreement about that, either.

One woman added that her ex-husband is a deadbeat dad who refuses to give her child support for their three children. Without governmental assistance she would be homeless. To my dismay, a person whom I don’t even know ended the discussion by criticizing this woman for stealing from him.

Reflecting on the sad ending to the discussion, I realized that the fierce debate really revolved around rights. Everybody wants them and nobody wants to give them up.

What Did Jesus And Paul Say About Personal Rights?

Let me begin by expressing my gratitude for the freedoms I enjoy in the United States—which all too often, I take for granted. But where does freedom begin?

In 2 Corinthians 3:17 Paul reminds us “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” True freedom is not contingent upon a right that it is granted by the governing authorities. It begins in the heart set free by the power of the Holy Spirit. “Free” countries are inhabited by people in bondage in the same way that truly free people can live in oppressive countries.

So what did Jesus say about rights? If someone slaps you, he said “turn to them the other cheek also.” If someone wants to sue you, “take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” If a Roman soldier tells you to carry his possessions for a mile, “go with them two miles” (see Matthew 5:38–42).

Reinforcing Jesus’ words, Paul writes, “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” (1 Corinthians 6:7).

Personal Rights In Perspective

The Roman Empire in the days of Jesus and Paul make Barak Obama’s “dream” of a Utopian state look like a Tea Party convention. Emperors randomly killed their foes and tax rates in Judea ran over 50%–without a governmental structure that supplied Social Security or nationalized medicine.

Ironically enough, neither Jesus nor Paul decried the everyday miscarriage of personal rights. Paul encouraged believers to pray for those in authority–the very people who were persecuting them. And read what he wrote about the authorities in Romans 13. Finally, he described Jesus this way:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
Philippians 2:5–8 (italics added)

Let’s be thankful for the rights our government affords us–but let’s keep the debate about rights in perspective. Most importantly, let’s exercise our freedom in Christ by laying down our rights, just like the One whom we follow.

Michael co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, Colorado with Eugene Scott. He finds it a lot easier to talk about laying down his rights in everyday life than actually doing it.

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