Some years ago, my young bride and I were driving night and day across the United States in our Volkswagen van. Just after dawn one morning, I gave Darlene the wheel and crawled into the back to take a nap. We were traveling through the Southern part of Arizona, on our way to Tucson.
I woke to the lurching of our van as it began to roll over and over. A few seconds later, I found myself thrown out of the vehicle. The dust was still flying as I looked around me. The van lay on its side totaled. Everything we owned was scattered on the desert. Then I panicked. Where was my wife? I found her a few yards away, her head bashed in, her eyes rolled back, she wasn’t even trying to breathe.
As I sat there in despair, cradling her battered head, God spoke to me. He asked, “Loren, are you willing to serve Me?” I thought and replied, “Yes, Lord, I have nothing left but You.”
Until that moment, I didn’t realize that I truly didn’t own anything in this world. We speak of “my family,” “my house”, “my ministry,” “my car,” “my reputation,” but we can lose them all within seconds. These things are given only to us by God for a time, to use for His glory.
As soon as I said, “Yes, Lord, I’ll serve You,” God spoke a second time. He told me to pray for Darlene. It hadn’t occurred to me to pray for her, I thought she was already dead. As I began to pray, she started to breathe and fight for her life. A Mexican man found us and went for help. An hour later, we were in an ambulance, on the long trip to the hospital. She was still unconscious, but God spoke a third time, telling me that my wife would be okay.
Darlene recovered, and we have enjoyed 22 years together since that day on the desert. But I have never forgotten my promise to the Lord to serve Him. Giving up our right to the people and things God has given us is at the very core of Christian discipleship.
We have rights as individuals. The Bible says every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father (James 1:17). God gave us the right to a family. God gave us the right to possessions, the right to freedom, the right to our country, and to other basic blessings. All of these things are good.
The Hindus say the material world is evil, while the Buddhists say that only in turning away from the things of this world will we achieve reality. Yet God looked at the earth He created and said, “It is good.” And God looks at us and the rights He has given us and says, “It is good.”
Then why is He asking us to give back those rights? Because He wants to give us greater things. This is a rule of the Kingdom of God; give up something good and receive something greater. Give up your rights and you will receive greater privileges with God.
God gives us the right to own possessions. God emphasized the right to personal property in the Ten Commandments. God wants us to open our hands rather than tightly clench our fists around what we own. He says we can’t be a servant to money and a servant to Him at the same time. He gives us the right to own things and then asks us to freely give back to Him that with which He has blessed us. When we give up the right to spend our money as we want, and are able to say to God, “Tell me what You want. All I have is Yours. What do You want me to give back to You?”, then we will see God as our provider. Then we will have the excitement of seeing Him do the miraculous to meet our needs.
We have been given other rights. We were born to our parents, raised in a neighborhood and brought up to believe certain things. Our moms fixed food in a particular way, and those dishes probably are our favorite foods to this day. Whether we are American, Filipino, or Swiss, whether we grew up in Seattle or Shanghai, these things are part of what makes us who we are. When we need something to wear, we buy what we like, probably influenced by the way others we admire dress themselves. It could be an outfit like the one we’ve seen everyone else wearing at school, or if we live in a Malaysian village, it could be a certain way to tie hand-dyed sarongs. Whatever it is, we’re happier and feel at our best when we dress a certain way, eat certain foods, live in a certain kind of house and raise our children to do the things that are important to us.
Even where we go to church is geared to our background, our choices, our likes and dislikes and our experiences. We may like a plain building for worship with happy, informal singing and preaching. We may like stained glass windows and a soaring pipe organ. These are all part of our culture, our heritage, our denomination, our families, and our upbringing.
Furthermore, we have the right to be an American (or an Australian, Brazilian, or Russian). We have the right to enjoy our own culture and country. We have the right to belong to a certain church and other groups that express what we believe is important. We have a right to live and to talk and to eat.
But if everyone exercises their rights to the exclusion of God’s plans for us, a tragedy of cataclysmic proportions will occur. Millions of people will live their lives in guilt and despair and will die to face judgment for their sins eternally in hell. There are more than 2.5 billion people who’ve never heard the Gospel. More than 8,000 unreached people groups wait for a Christian witness.
All we have to do to seal the fate of these millions is to stay where we are, exercising our rights, in surroundings comfortable to us, eating the food we like, going to the church we enjoy, wearing the clothes suited to us, staying with friends who talk about what we like to talk about and shutting our ears to God’s cry, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
Jesus gave us the supreme example of giving up everything (all of His “rights”) for a greater goal. Philippians 2 says, “He didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, a slave.” Slaves have no rights, and Jesus became a slave for our sakes.
He gave up the right to be with His Father.
He gave up the right to a home, saying that while the birds have nests and the foxes have dens, He didn’t have a place to lay His head.
He gave up the right to money. He had to borrow a coin from someone for a sermon illustration once.
He gave up the right to marriage, and the right to His reputation. As far as most people are concerned, He was an illegitimate baby, raised in a town that was scorned. The ultimate slur to His reputation came when He, the Son of God, was called a devil by the religious experts of His time. But Jesus went further.
He gave up the right to life itself, becoming obedient to death on a cross. For what purpose? So that God might exalt Him, give Him a name above every other name, which at His name every knee should bow. But there’s another reason: Jesus was showing us how to live our lives. He was showing us how to win over the devil, which is the greatest job ever given to us - taking the earth from Satan and winning it back for God. Jesus was showing us that the only way to win is to lose; the only way to conquer is to submit.
Jesus wants us to follow Him, losing ourselves and gaining the world. Only by taking Jesus’ example into every part of our lives will we be able to win in life.
He spelled it out for us in Mark 8:34 and 35: “If anyone would come after me he must 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 for me and for the Gospel will save it.”
The choice is ours. We can hold onto our rights, expect and wait for “our blessings” (while people are going to hell) and miss out on God’s greater purposes for us. Or we can give them freely back to Him for the greatest privilege of all - winning this world for the Kingdom of God.