Rights, Oppression, and Bitterness

I am quite thankful for the Bill of Rights. I am thankful too for the suffragists of the last century that fought for a woman’s right to vote. But I’m also aware that our western view of civil and human rights are not shared universally. Even more importantly, I think they become a tricky issue when we are about God’s kingdom business. While God certainly set up a just system protective of human rights in His instructions on government to Moses, I don’t see God as overly preoccupied by individual civil rights as He calls His children to some pretty glorious roads of obedience through suffering.

Consider Joseph. His rights were certainly trampled upon. When his brothers present themselves, and Joseph has the chance to avenge the loss of his rights, he doesn’t slap them across the face and send them on their way to starve to death. He eats it. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Gen. 50:20) He is in effect saying, “You trampled upon every human right endowed me by God, but God had a plan to use the very trampling of my rights to preserve His people and the line of Christ. The line of the Messiah and His kingdom to come are more important than my rights.” Then he instructs them to take his bones after his death with them, because he believes there is something coming that none of them has realized yet. THAT is the thing for which Joseph is lauded in the Hall of Fame of faith in Hebrews 11.

What do we do with the issue of our personal rights? Do we fight for them? That’s our national mantra, isn’t it? And yet, I’m confronted with first, God’s example to me in Jesus Christ. In Philippians 2, God instructs me in no uncertain terms to make Christ’s attitude my attitude. And His attitude is characterized by the fact He gave up His rights and made Himself a servant for the good of God’s kingdom. Second, I watch empirically sister after sister in Christ ensnared and enchained by bitterness over the loss of her rights. Someone oppressed her, sinned against her, did her wrong. Sometimes, bitter people are poor judges of who has and has not legitimately sinned against them. But the other half of the time, they are exactly right. Someone truly has done them wrong. The husband who slept with another woman. The Christian sister who spread lies about them. The church member who went to their pastor with a problem instead of coming to them in person. The pastor who silenced them. The government that denied them the right to vote. The Christian institution that systematically undermined their credibility and destroyed their career. Boy, that can certainly incite bitterness.

My sister and I have talked much about this. I have invited her to write a post on bitterness and hope she gets it finished soon. She was the queen of bitter women—and at least half of the things she was bitter about were legitimate. She tells me of the day the Spirit freed her from the oppressive bitterness that weighed her down constantly. She knew she had to let go of her rights. Her rights to retaliate. Her rights to anger. Her right to fight for her way. It didn’t matter if she had the ammunition to win every fight with everyone she was mad at. She was crushed by the weight of it all and fell on her face before God. It was almost like a physical opening of her hands and letting go of the weight of defending her rights. Like Peter talks about in I Peter 2, she FINALLY entrusted herself to the “One who judges justly.”

It was after this that her husband left her for another woman. I watched her walk through that bitter betrayal, and I remain amazed to this day at the freedom God granted her when she let go of her rights to bitterness and anger and entrusted herself to Him who judges justly. She wasn’t defined by her husband’s infidelity. And she didn’t have to spend her days figuring out how to get even with him or show him how badly he had failed his obligations to her. She trusted herself to God, and He worked in that situation to free her precisely through grace rather than a bitter grasping of her rights. She is one of the most vibrant, free divorced women I know, with a crazy busy life of ministry. I have watched her enslaved by her bitterness since I was a child, and now that she has the biggest circumstance in her life over which to be bitter, it holds no power over her at all. It’s beautiful.

Someone sinned against you. They may have done it in an institutional setting surrounded by people who knew better but said nothing. They may have done it privately in your home. It was wrong. It hurt dearly. It affected you long term. Your choices now are bitterness or grace. I highly recommend grace. Ladies, it’s ok to let go of your rights. You can trust the One who judges justly to perhaps defend you, but to most definitely use you as you are spent like Christ for the furtherance of His kingdom. And THAT is freedom, my friends.

3 Responses to Rights, Oppression, and Bitterness

  1. Wenatchee the Hatchet January 29, 2010 at 2:21 pm #

    A useful distinction I have learned from some of my political science pals over the years is that there is a distinction to be made between a right and a liberty. In the last century the distinction has been blurred to the detriment of our understanding both in terms of politics and other applied ethics. Christ did not exercise His rights but He did exercise His liberty as our savior. A right implies something that can be asserted and, if withheld, protested in times when it is absent. Liberty conveys more the sense that one is free from the restraint of something, is not impelled by whatever that something may be. I know quite a few people who would cling to their rights and have often wanted to cling to them myself, but frequently we sin against others or are sinned against when these rights get asserted. There does come a point where, as Paul put it, we must ask ourselves why we would not rather be wronged so that the name of Christ isn't impugned. I wish I had more practical insight than these abstractions.

    Liberty is a complex term and can encompass both the negative sense (the lack of coercion to do or be a certain thing) and a positive sense (the freedom to be or do what one will). Clearly for a Christian there are limits to liberty and Christ can be considered our example both in not clinging to His rights but also living a life of paradoxicaly liberty in service. I would be the last person to claim I effectively live that out!

  2. Wendy January 29, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    Thanks for that insightful and helpful comment, WtH. I will be thinking on that for a bit.

  3. bekahmae January 29, 2010 at 8:34 pm #

    A professor once told us that, as believers, the only right we continue to assert is the one found in John 1:12, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

    All other rights we claim to have held as humans are submitted to his will at salvation. That thought has done wonders for my issues with bitterness. Does that mean I just let people walk over me? No! I still hold people accountable, my feelings still hurt when I am let down or betrayed. But at the end of the day, I follow the instructions of Paul who says that as much as we are able we should live in peace with everyone and remember past that that the Lord is Sovereign. Remembering the words of Joseph to his brothers gives a liberating perspective on rights, bitterness and God's sovereignty.

    Thanks for starting this conversation!