My rights vs. what’s right (part 2)

“I have every right to do this, so leave me alone.”

“There’s no law against it, so what’s your problem?”

Have you ever heard someone say that? Have you ever said it yourself? (Come on, you remember your teenage years.) The language, unfortunately, reflects a thin understanding of rights: I get to do what I want to do as long as it’s not illegal and I’m not physically stepping on your toes. Back off, Jack– it ain’t none of your business.

A similar attitude was causing problems in the Corinthian church, and Paul tried to correct it:

Love…doesn’t seek its own advantage (1 Cor 13:5, CEB).

No one should look out for their own advantage, but they should look out for each other (1 Cor 10:24).

I don’t look out for my own advantage, but I look out for many people so that they can be saved (1 Cor 10:33).

All three of the verses above are from the same letter. All of them contain the same verb, translated as to “seek” or “look out for.” There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the verb itself. But if we’re to understand what Paul means in the first verse, I believe we need the context of what Paul is saying in the latter two verses from chapter 10.

We could even go back further, to chapter 9, in which Paul says that as an apostle he has rights and privileges, including the right to benefit from the services he provides the Corinthians. But, unlike others (presumably, the opponents who are criticizing him!), he serves them for free. He refuses to take advantage of his rights, rather than “put any obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (9:12).

He continues to use himself as an example in chapter 10, where he tackles the controversy over buying and eating meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols (Clearance! Prime cut, previously owned…). Some of the Corinthians argued that there wasn’t a law against eating such meat, so they had a right to do it — but their behavior was hurting others who had weaker consciences.

Paul doesn’t argue that they have no right to eat that meat, but rather that they should voluntarily give up their rights, if that’s what it takes to avoid causing offense and making someone stumble. The overriding principle is this: “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, you should do it all for God’s glory” (vs. 31) and not your own benefit.

It’s natural to seek our own advantage. We are built to learn to avoid the things that harm us, and pursue the things that bring us pleasure.

But we are not self-serving automatons, machines built solely for survival and gratification. We have neighbors, brothers and sisters, whom we are commanded to love.

And as we’ll explore in the next post, love goes beyond the cultural script that teaches us to look out for number one.