The preamble of the United States Declaration of Independence contains one of the most famous phrases in modern political philosophy:
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.
By calling these rights unalienable, the authors of the Declaration – primarily Thomas Jefferson – are saying these are rights inherit in the nature of our species. They are not contingent upon any societal codes, customs, or beliefs. This concept of natural rights is largely derived from, though not exclusive to, the political philosophies of John Locke who, in Two Treatises of Government, writes: “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” In the Declaration, the concept of personal property as a right is changed to the pursuit of happiness – Jefferson knowing well that the fledgling government might have to seize property in upcoming battles.
Using the concept of deity to stir the masses, Jefferson (whose beliefs excluded any notion of a God that would intervene in human affairs) writes that these rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are given by our Creator, and it’s so ingrained into our cultural doctrine that it is assumed to be true, but I want to take some time in this lesson to examine what the scriptures have to say regarding our rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The Right to Life
There is a lot of discussion around the concept of one’s right to life and what that expression means, but, historically, our nation’s leaders have applied it to the preservation of one’s own life at all costs – that our lives our completely and wholly our own. In Matthew 16:24, however, Jesus encourages us to take up our crosses to follow Him – that is to put self and self-interest to death. He goes on to warn that those who are unwilling to make that sacrifice jeopardize their own souls. In fact, Paul says we are purchased by God in Ephesians 1:13-14. We are no longer our own. God holds all rights of ownership over us. Reinforcing that point, Galatians 2:20 has Paul saying he has given himself up, and now Christ lives in him.
Coming to God on His terms involves sacrificing self, giving up that unalienable right of self, and turning our lives over to Him. Our lives are then no longer a right, but they become an opportunity to share God’s grace with others. We give up self-interest to put God and others before ourselves. We no longer look at our lives as our right, as our own possessions to do with as we will. We count our lives as loss so may may lay hold of the eternal life spoken of in I Timothy 6:12.
The Right to Liberty
The Christians of the First Century lived under very oppressive conditions, but the New Testament writers seldom address these conditions. In I Timothy 6:1-2, Paul instructs Christian bondservants (read: slaves) to honor their masters. He even goes on to describe conduct if a Christian owns another Christian. Romans 13:1-7 encourages Christians to submit to their government and pay their taxes, and remember this in the context of Roman rule – a dictatorship with oppressive tax codes and wicked leaders. Even those who would be undergoing persecution in Revelation 3:10 are encouraged to simply endure.
The liberty of the Bible has nothing to do with equal representation, freedom of speech, or taxation. God is concerned with our spiritual liberty. Romans 6:6 calls us slaves to sin without the redeeming blood of Jesus, but verse 7 says those who have died with Christ – that is, submitted to baptism in Him – have been freed from the bondage of sin. Sin and death rule over us no more than over our Messiah, and we obtain this liberty, not through revolution or protests, but by looking into and following the perfect law of liberty according to James 1:25. II Corinthians 3:17 simply states that, where the Lord is, there is liberty. Our spiritual liberty is not a right. Rather it is a gift we obtain through God’s mercy.
The Pursuit of Happiness
When we seek the joys of this life, we are seeking the temporary. We are seeking that which will pass away. I John 2:15-17 warns us against loving the things of this world, and Matthew 6:19 advises against laying up treasures here on this world. Verse 24 states we cannot serve God and our riches simultaneously, and Jesus goes on in the next several verses to say we should let go of the worries surrounding our earthly possessions. While I do believe God allows us to be happy in this life, He does not promise happiness, nor does He encourage us to seek worldly happiness. After all, such endeavors did not get Solomon very far.
After living life to its fullest, the wise ruler of Israel concludes, in Ecclesiastes 12:13, that true fulfillment is found in submitting to God. Returning to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to seek God’s kingdom first, before all other pursuits in Matthew 6:33, and He calls on us to place our hopes and our hearts in heaven back in verses 20-21. In Colossians 3:1-3, Paul says we have died to the things of this world. We should then be seeking things above.
As hard as it might be for us to hear, God does not guarantee our lives, our liberties, or our happiness as rights in this world. These things are not self-evident, but what is self-evident is that we have a Savior who died on the cross so we may have something better than this life has to offer. With our eyes on that cross, we count this life as loss so we may have eternal life with our Father. We seek liberty from sin, obtainable regardless of the state of our personal liberties. We forsake pursuing the things of this world so we may pursue things above. In this, we gain more than any worldly government can provide according to Philippians 3:20-21. We become citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom, conformed in His perfect image.