Est. May 2008

07 April, 2013

Rights And Privileges

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (US Declaration of Independence)
I’ve read and re-read that sentence in light of what I know about Christianity, and something about it just didn’t seem to ring true to me.  No, not the part about all men being created equal – the other part, about being endowed by our Creator with certain ‘unalienable rights’.  The thing that kept rattling around in my head is, can ‘rights’, as such, be ‘endowed’ (or given) to someone, or do they become ‘privileges’ because they’ve been endowed?

All ‘rights’ become ‘privileges’ when there are fences placed around them – borders one dare not cross.  And it’s the level of authority of those who put up the fences which matters most.  Driving a car, for instance, is often considered a ‘right’, but it’s actually a privilege.  Why?  Because there’s a fence around it: you have to have a license, you have to be 16 (or 18, depending on the state).  You could, if you wanted to, grant the privilege of driving to your 14-year-old offspring, but that privilege could easily be revoked by someone with a higher level of authority than you – say, a cop – unless you ‘fenced’ that privilege yourself: no driving off the property, for instance.

In the same vein you could give the privilege of drinking to your 14-year-old – but, again, only when they’re ‘fenced’ in: at home, in the house, not out in public.

These kinds of fences abound: you can drive, but you can’t speed; you can drink, but only if you’re over 18 (or 21); you can smoke, but only if you’re over 18 (or 21); you can do all these things within the confines of your own home or property, but you can’t do them in public; and so on and so on.  And because these privileges are fenced in and can be taken away by someone of higher authority than the grantor, they’re called ‘privileges’. 

So, who is the ‘higher authority’ who can take away the privileges of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

God, of course, since He granted them in the first place.


God gave and continues to give life to His creation.  He made man and breathed into him the breath of life.  Paul says of God that ‘He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things’ and ‘in Him we live and move and exist’.  And, as the great Flood shows, God can revoke that privilege of ‘life and breath’ as He sees fit. 

In the wilderness through which the Israelites wandered for forty years (after disobeying God at the border of Canaan), God twice (I believe it was twice) warned Moses that He was going to wipe out Israel and start over with Moses’ family.  Moses convinced God to hold off, and through His great mercy and grace He stayed His hand (although He did whack the Israelites something fierce).

It’s that great mercy and grace of God which keeps us alive – some people call it ‘longsuffering’, other call it ‘patience’.  That’s the only thing, really, keeping God from snapping His fingers and all of us disappearing in a puff of smoke.  And God showed His greatest mercy and grace by sending His Son to die on the cross for us while we were yet sinners.

Life, in short, is a privilege God grants us; it only becomes a ‘right’ when someone of lesser authority than God (which is, well, everybody and everything else) tries to take it from us.


For some people, ‘liberty’ means ‘being able to do what you want’.  But that’s not God’s liberty.  God’s liberty has fences, too: He expects us to love Him and to obey His commandments.  We may not see that kind of thing happening down here on earth – seems there’s not a day that goes by we don’t hear or read about somebody disobeying God – but the Bible is clear that God will eventually punish those who don’t obey Him.

According to Paul and Peter, God placed earthly governments to enforce His rules – punishing evildoers and protecting the people – and we are to obey them so long as their rules don’t run counter to His. 

In fact (something I pointed out long ago in a post here), Paul, Peter, James, Jude, John, and others called themselves doulos of God – ‘slaves’, in the original Greek.  Slaves don’t have a whole lot of rights, and they certainly haven’t got liberty.  But enslavement to God is a good thing, because He treats His slaves better than most people treat other people – and His slaves eventually become friends, then brothers to His Son and adopted as sons themselves into His family.

Pretty good deal, if you ask me.

But as to liberty being a God-given right, tell that to the Israelites, who, after years and years of disobeying God ended up on the short end of the Assyrian stick.  Tell that to the ancient Judahites, who got the same treatment for the same disobedience at the hands of the Babylonians.  Tell that to the myriads of Christians oppressed in Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, India, Polynesia, China, and other places on our planet.  Tell that to the Christians who are beginning to suffer ‘soft-persecution’ in England, Europe, Canada, and the US of A.

And look at what happened when the Israelites went to Samuel the prophet demanding a king.  Samuel warned them they’d lose the liberty they’d had with God as their king (1 Samuel 8:10-18).  Did they ever: the monarchy, for all the good it did, eventually led them down the garden path to Assyrian and Babylonian domination and exile. 

God grants the privilege of liberty to those who love Him and remain obedient to Him, and He will revoke that privilege at His will.

Pursuit of Happiness

How do Judeo-Christians pursue happiness?  We’re told via the Bible that happiness is pursued via finding out what God wants us to do and doing it.  God wants us to love and obey Him, so there’s your path to pursuing happiness.

When the Israelites obeyed, God protected them, gave them rains in season and good crops, and made them powerful among the nations.  When they disobeyed, He punished them by taking the good stuff away.  And although the life of an obedient servant of God isn’t always roses and caviar, for the most part it’s a lot happier than a life of disobedience (trust me, I know this from experience).

Speaking of not being roses and caviar, look at Paul.  This guy got the stuffing beaten out of him on more occasions than I care to count (2 Corinthians 11:24-28), but the guy was happy; he was content with little or much, with poverty or riches, with discomfort or comfort.  Torture and martyrdom came to the Apostles (except for Judas and John) and many of the early church leaders, and continues even today among Christians in the Middle East and the Orient.  And yet these folks are happy.  Their pursuit of happiness comes in their efforts to remain obedient to God, who dries tears and calms nerves.  It’s certainly not easy, nor are Christians instantly laughing and smiling (yes, there are thing which make Christians unhappy – usually things which would irritate God), but because we pursue happiness through obedience, we know (sometimes via experience) that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long that tunnel seems.

God privileges us with happiness so long as we pursue it according to His rules - love and obey Him, and happiness will be yours.

So, IMO, Christians ought not to use the phrase ‘God-given rights’: if they’re given, they’re not rights – they’re privileges.  And the only reason those privileges ought to be considered rights is because they’ve been granted by the Highest Authority there is.

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