The Importance of Giving up Our Rights


Yesterday morning, I made an offhand comment on Facebook:

I’m always amazed to hear Christians talking about “defending our rights.” One of the most fundamental aspects of Jesus’ message is that we must give up our rights.

I should have known better.

I thought this was one of those things all Christians agree about in theory and just have a hard time remembering and practicing. I get that. I have a hard time letting go of my rights. It’s one of my biggest struggles on a day-to-day basis. In that comment, I was preaching to myself as much as to anyone else.

Yet I wasn’t expecting to return and find a barrage of comments from Christians actually arguing against the principle of self-denial.

Giving up one’s rights is implicit in pretty much everything Jesus taught. He rarely opened his mouth without referencing this principle in one way or another. But since further explanation is needed, let’s survey a few of the more explicit statements from Jesus about giving up our rights.

According to the United States Declaration of Independence, God gave mankind the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But according to Jesus, we can’t truly follow him until we let go of such things. I couldn’t state it any clearer than Jesus already did:

And summoning the crowd together with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life on account of me and of the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34–35, LEB)

To the earliest disciples of Jesus, this meant submitting themselves to persecution, imprisonment, and death—exactly the opposite of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And they were to choose this willingly. They were not to fight back against their oppressors.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer, but whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. And the one who wants to go to court with you and take your tunic, let him have your outer garment also. And whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38–42, LEB)

With these incredible words, Jesus instructed his followers to give up their “rights” to retaliation, to dignity, to legal protection, to their time, to personal ownership—and I don’t think he meant that to be an exhaustive list. This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy such things if we have them. But we must not cling to them. Jesus freed us from the need to fight for our rights. (Click to tweet!)

We can rest in the knowledge that our Father knows what we need and will provide accordingly. Our job is simply to seek his kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6:31–33).

The principle of self-denial is not merely something Jesus requires of his followers—it is firmly rooted in his own actions.

But Jesus called them to himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions exercise authority over them. It will not be like this among you! But whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be most prominent among you must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25–28, LEB)

For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am in your midst as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:27, LEB)

So when he had washed their feet and taken his outer clothing and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, for I am. If then I—your Lord and Teacher—wash your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that just as I have done for you, you also do. Truly, truly I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12–17, LEB)

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, complete my joy, so that you are in agreement, having the same love, united in spirit, having one purpose. Do nothing according to selfish ambition or according to empty conceit, but in humility considering one another better than yourselves, each of you not looking out for your own interests, but also each of you for the interests of others.

Think this in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,

who, existing in the form of God,
  did not consider being equal with God something to be grasped,
but emptied himself
  by taking the form of a slave,
  by becoming in the likeness of people.
And being found in appearance like a man,
he humbled himself
 by becoming obedient to the point of death,
  that is, death on a cross. (Philippians 2:1–8, LEB)

Jesus, as God himself, has every right imaginable. But he didn’t cling to his rights as God. He gave up his rights and became a human. And while he could have been born as a human king or emperor, he chose instead to come in the most humble circumstances. Though he is Lord and Teacher, he did not exercise his authority to “lord it over” his followers. Rather, he put himself in the position of the lowest slave and washed his followers’ feet. Finally, he gave up his rights to a fair trial and to life, willingly submitting himself to an unjust death.

It may be tempting to think that Jesus only gave up his rights in order to be our Savior. But these passages all make it clear that Jesus gave up his rights to be both our Savior and our example. We are to give up our rights in the same way that Jesus gave up his.

With all that being said, here’s what I don’t mean by giving up our rights.

First, I certainly don’t mean that we shouldn’t fight for the rights of others. As followers of Jesus, we must take the side of the oppressed and the less fortunate. We should absolutely do our part to bring about justice for others. But we don’t need to worry about justice for ourselves. As we just read, “each of you not looking out for your own interests, but also each of you for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4, LEB).

Second, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy whatever rights we happen to have. Those of us in America are privileged to be in a country with many liberties, and we’re free to make use of them. But our first thought when exercising our rights should be to use them for kingdom purposes—just as Paul did when asserting his Roman citizenship.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. What happens when our rights are infringed? Do we immediately go into self-defense mode, fighting to keep our rights? Or do we go into self-denial mode, submitting to injustice for the glory of God?