Since September 11, 2001, an ongoing debate over public safety and people’s rights to privacy has polarized Americans. In an age of rising terrorism, the National Security Agency (NSA), in an effort to track down bad people, has expanded its surveillance programs to at times include the collection of phone records, emails and texts of millions of innocent people. Many freedom-loving US citizens are concerned that privacy rights will be sacrificed for the sake national security. Without getting into the political debate over privacy and security, I will say that it’s natural for people to feel frustrated when they are deprived of their rights. I see this everyday in the interaction between my two children. “That's my toy!” “It's not fair!” “I had it first!”
We should all be grateful to live in a society where people are able to go to court in order to claim their legal rights. Imagine a single mother left with three children to raise all by herself after their father (her ex-husband) has left her for another woman. Initially, he refuses to meet his financial obligations to his children. Would anyone blame her for claiming child support?
Surprisingly, Paul sometimes discouraged Christians from pursuing their rights. When members of the Corinthian church were going “to law against [another] brother,” he suggested, “Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Cor. 6:6, 7). He continued by making the profound statement, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful” (vs. 12). In other words, Christians do not always have the right to claim their rights.
Please understand, if you are in an abusive situation, Paul was in no way requiring you to surrender your right to seek protection. This would be a gross misinterpretation of his intent. Nor was he suggesting that if you are engaged in a business transaction, that you should voluntarily surrender your right to have the terms of the contract honored. Paul was simply reiterating the message and example of Jesus, which required self-denial and (at times) the giving up of our rights. In fact, Jesus taught that being preoccupied with my own rights is selfishness, which is the root of sin, and that to follow Him we must deny ourselves (Lk. 9:23).
Jesus surrendered His right to defend Himself against the mob (Matt. 26:47-53). In Isaiah it says of Jesus that “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth” (Isa. 53:7). He surrendered His right to be exempt from paying the Temple tax (Matt. 17:24-27). He encouraged His followers that “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” if you get sued for a tunic, give “your cloak” as well, and “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matt. 5:39-41). Paul surrendered his right to receive wages for his work as a minister of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:1-19).
In our relationships with one another, our inclination as fallen human beings, without the intervention of God’s Spirit, is to try to gain the most benefits for the least cost to ourselves. It is our default position in every given situation to seek the better end of the stick. This is why Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 9:24 is no less applicable today that it was in the first century: “Let no one seek his own good [rights], but the good [rights] of his neighbor.” I’m convinced that our relationships in the home and the church would improve significantly if we shifted our focus from our own personal rights to the well-being and rights of others.