Unalienable rights! We hold these truths to be self-evident! God created us equal! The Creator endowed us with rights—as in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!
The Declaration of Independence’s motivating expressions stirred colonists to demand their God-given freedom and their entitlement to “dissolve the political bands,” while at the same time justification was provided to the world for “the causes which impel them to the separation.”
The impetus—unalienable rights—still stirs the American soul.
“Unalienable” means that which is not capable of being transferred to another’s ownership. Doubtful it is that Jefferson’s cherished words would have been canonized in profundity had he qualified these unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by adding “within reason.”
But can these rights be taken to an extreme? Understanding the document’s original intent, legal scholar Robert H. Bork raised awareness to the danger:
The ringing phrases are hardly useful, indeed may be pernicious, if taken, as they commonly are, as a guide to action, governmental or private. Then the words press eventually towards extremes of liberty and the pursuit of happiness that courts personal license and social disorder. The necessary qualifications assumed by Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration were not expressed in the document (1996, 57).
Popular culture’s gross perversion of “unalienable rights” has gone so far that the creature believes he has disenfranchised the Creator who imparted these rights. In the minds of many, God has been voted out; he no longer has the right to make moral demands.
Another nation’s signature document was carved in stone; its preamble and first article were: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2-3, ESV). Likewise, Paul illustrated God’s sovereignty when he asked, “Has the potter no right over the clay?” (Rom. 9:21). The secular mind responds, “Absolutely not!”
This generation is living to see—and many in it are living proof—that the god of radical individualism is preeminent. Twenty-first century Americans, though, hardly have the market cornered. The problem is ancient and universal, as evidenced by the first of the Ten Commandments.
Unquestionably, encroachment on God’s authority is an age-old problem. Humankind has needs that only God can fulfill, but when the Creator is banished from all consideration, man looks to fulfill his own needs on his own terms. If he ever learns better, his education may come the hard way, and finally it dawns on him: “I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23).
But men won’t starve themselves; they have desires, which they’ll seek to meet. When out of balance or distorted, unmet longings of humanity may contribute to choosing illusory alternatives, including various addictions. Addictions, whatever the form, are patently destructive—to self, family, church, and country.
Some addictions involve illegal activity (e.g., use of illegal drugs). Other obsessions are legalized in some states, but without a doubt are wholly injurious (e.g., gambling and prostitution in Nevada). Some addictions are legal in all states if you are of legal age (e.g., use of alcohol and pornography).
Another compulsion, however, is legal everywhere, and there is no legal age. You won’t find it in an encyclopedia of psychological disorders, unless you think its only manifestation is NPD (i.e., Narcissistic Personality Disorder). What I am talking about is not manifestly self-destructive; it’s a slow-growing kind of malady that eats away at a family. Fathers and mothers rot on the inside; it afflicts members of the church. Yet, it’s helpful to the economy and protected by the state. That’s right. Many have bought into the idea, rampant in American culture, of radical individualism.
Affluence tempts in many ways. We have time and money and plenty of choices for spending both. Sacrifice and selflessness are out in popular culture, and indulgence and self-centeredness are hot commodities.
In this environment, even wholesome activities become wrong when, for example, the family’s welfare is sacrificed because of the “needs” of one of its members. Moms feel unfulfilled; dads need “down time.” Individuals are finding all sorts of ways to distract and please the self while others in their nest go without. We’re a nation of TV addicts, weekend warriors, golf addicts, fishing addicts, hunting addicts, fitness fanatics, sports nuts, and workaholics—every kind of distraction imaginable.
Don’t miss the point: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these things. But evaluate the time and money many people spend in their private “pursuit of happiness,” or consider how they look to their careers for “personal fulfillment” to the detriment of their families and their own spiritual welfare. Their “right” to do these things whenever they want, to the extent they want, to paraphrase Robert Bork, courts personal license and familial disorder. When leisure becomes license for excessive indulgence we are nothing more than addicted to me and the moment. Out of balance, spiritual substance and lasting rewards are exchanged for disproportionate fun and sun—and even work, when it becomes an end in itself.
Remember Esau? The Hebrews writer appealed to the case of Esau to warn Christians about a kind of spiritual apathy he calls “profane”—a disregard for religious and holy things by someone who is familiar with them. Consider the writer’s argument: Esau made a choice. His choice set in motion a series of consequences. Although afterward he desired to inherit the blessing, he could not. The situation was irrevocable. How is this passage intended to educate Christians?
We must remember that the inheritance was not a light thing in Isaac’s house. Even Esau himself “sought it diligently with tears”—afterwards. He had developed, however, a profane state of mind. He did not consider it as valuable as he should have.
Esau was like many people today. He had a mediocre level of interest in the patriarchal promises. When it comes to spirituality, mediocrity is another way of saying “on the way to spiritual bankruptcy.” Get a church softball team together, and some will act adolescent again. But when a non-titillating spiritual work arises calling for sacrifice and selflessness, some of those sports enthusiasts are hard to come by.
Although Esau knew the seriousness of the inheritance, he traded instant gratification for the patriarchal birthright, and he subsequently lost the blessing. It was not a split-second, off-the-cuff, weak-moment mistake. He was a profane man, the Hebrews writer says, and lived with a low view of the sacred promises—ripe for the temptation to sell his birthright. When the blessing was bestowed on his brother, in patriarchal fashion, it was unalterable.
Here is the point for the Christian: if we live for the moment, with a light appreciation for the Christian inheritance and the blood that bought it, we can suffer terrible loss. There’s no use for tears, no chance for repentance, after death and judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Like the foolish virgins who were unprepared at the bridegroom’s arrival, sometimes it is too late to cry, “Open to us” (Matthew 25:1-13). Like the rich man who was sorry once he was in torment, it was too late for him to repent and warn his brothers (Luke 16:19-31). This kind of regret comes too late.
The message is as relevant today as it was in the first century. If you live with little regard for spiritual things, you will regret it—eventually. But that regret comes too late. Now is the time for concern.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a number of individuals who cope with serious regret. They lament the preoccupation with self, especially when their kids were at home—consumed with careers, recreation, or just sitting in the recliner “out of touch,” while little kids begged for attention. What appears to be a self-evident truth is that “addicted to self” may be the most insidious addiction of all.
Just listen to the market, right? It’ll tell you what goods and services are needed. In 1974, the market was saying something when it placed Harry Chapin’s hit on the top of the chart. Google “Cat’s in the Cradle lyrics” and read a poetic, accurate description of far too many families—even in the church.
The answer? Listen to Jesus Christ: "Then Jesus told his disciples, "