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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9 responses to “Accidental Idols: The Fallacy Of Personal Rights

  1. Georgie-ann

    me, me, me, I, me, mine, I want, I deserve, I should have,…gimme,…

    When I was a young ‘un growing up in the South, these words would have released a torrent of accusations from the environment (whoever might happen to be around) of “selfishness,” — which had the aura of being the absolutely most supreme sin and disgraceful type of personal behavioral characteristic imaginable! It was actually very humiliating to be considered Selfish and given the label to “wear.” (So, deep inside, I think that many of us “had come to know” — somewhere way deep-down — that we really were at heart selfish creatures, and that this was a tendency worth making some noble efforts to counteract, even if in general appearances only!)

    Nowadays, it seems that people are almost identified with their own selfishness (and self-seeking motives and agendas) as a matter of “pride and entitlement.” I DESERVE. “MY” RIGHTS. “MY” FREEDOMs to “say” and “do” as I please.

    Selfishness does “come naturally,” and since the 60s, we’ve been “learning to accept” things that “come naturally” as being OK — “I’m OK, you’re OK,”… (but MY OKness will trump yours in my sight!),…

    So, where has that gotten us actually?,…hmmmm,…well, we’re not accused of being uptight hypocrites quite as much as in the past, but “the truth” sure is “ugly” to behold! It seems to have brought about a very clear demonstration of humanity’s irrational, self-centered partiality and inability to judge itself, or to learn from “experience,” or come to any kind of general and agreed upon conclusions that will work for everybody.

    To me, it only proves more so, that we need God to help us, His Word(s) to guide us, and the sacrifice(s) and sufferings of Christ to cleanse and heal us,…now as much as ever,…top down, and bottom up,…

    Matthew 19:23-26
    23 “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’

    25 “When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’

    26 “But Jesus looked at them and said to them, ‘With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'”

  2. Georgie-ann

    Selfishness, love of self and contempt for others, is the root of so many modern “social problems” — bullying, “free” sex, abortion, Wall Street, even drug use that wastes resources and zombies out a parent’s beloved child forever,…and so much more,…

  3. barbara dokter


  4. Georgie-ann

    I remember writing this almost a year ago, and I thought to repeat it here:

    I would suppose that most everyone has heard this description of being in Heaven and Hell,…it’s not original:

    Some people died and found themselves in “hell.” They were seated around a table on which there were many large bowls of sumptuous food. But all around them was wailing and crying and angry cursing,…why?,…because everyone had only 3-foot long spoons — too long to eat with,…and they were hungry, starving, frustrated, and unable to feed themselves,…

    Some other people died and went to heaven. They found the EXACT SAME SETTING as the folks in hell,…BUT,…here everyone was happy as could be — laughing, smiling, cheerfully chatting with each other!,…So,…what was the difference??,…they were feeding each other with the spoons!!!

    WOW!,…what a simple but significant difference!

    • Georgie-ann

      According to this example, “selfishness” actually makes us “blind,” doesn’t it?

      • Georgie-ann

        Matthew 15:14 “Let them alone and disregard them; they are blind guides and teachers. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a ditch.”

        Luke 6:39 “He further told them a proverb: ‘Can a blind [man] guide and direct a blind [man]? Will they not both stumble into a ditch or a hole in the ground?'”

        Matthew 15:12-20
        12 “Then the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Do You know that the Pharisees were displeased and offended and indignant when they heard this saying?’

        13 “He answered, ‘Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be torn up by the roots.

        14 “‘Let them alone and disregard them; they are blind guides and teachers. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a ditch.’

        15 “But Peter said to Him, ‘Explain this proverb (this maxim) to us.’

        16 “And He said, ‘Are you also even yet dull and ignorant [without understanding and unable to put things together]?

        17 “‘Do you not see and understand that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the abdomen and so passes on into the place where discharges are deposited?

        18 “‘But whatever comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this is what makes a man unclean and defiles [him].

        19 “‘For out of the heart come evil thoughts (reasonings and disputings and designs) such as murder, adultery, sexual vice, theft, false witnessing, slander, and irreverent speech.

        20 “‘These are what make a man unclean and defile [him]; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him unclean or defile [him].'”

  5. Georgie-ann

    I have always thought that “political freedom” — which no doubt IS a great blessing — is about quite a different realm of freedom issues from the “freedom” we have “in Christ.”

    In Christ, we have been granted “spiritual freedom” from the inherent natural inborn inclination to sin, (from being in bondage to the “sin nature” — the curse of satan’s lordship over us, our flesh and unregenerate spirit — which became our ill-fated fate as a result of disobedience and “the Fall”). Our serious damning bondage is a personal and human spiritual issue, not really — to begin with — a political one at all. Fallen humans will “naturally” promote fallen politics and world conditions, … which should be obvious enough(!) to any casual observer.

    People who understand and live by their redeemed nature “in Christ,” should be able to formulate better policies to live and govern by, if they are “in power,” so-to-speak. But given that this will never involve/include 100% of the population at any one time, such results and idealized “freedoms” are always going to be functioning in problematic situations at best.

    In fact the relationship between spirit and politics can be much more of an issue of separation and protection of values, (and of on-going clashes, frustrations and offenses), rather than causal and effective mutually-supportive linking:

    Mark 12:17 “And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they marveled at Him.”

    Having “the mind of Christ” will lead us to pray and work for earthly and political conditions to reflect the best that mankind and spirit has to offer, but earthly obsessions with earthly power mongering and innate manipulation and self-serving corruption tendencies, will form an “opposition” and at times a very formidable foe.

    One side’s “freedom” may well be the other side’s “bondage.” Nothing simple about it.

    “This world is NOT our home!”

  6. Pingback: Accidental (American) Idols: What We Can Learn From Whitney Houston | The Neighborhood Café

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