Rights, right and righteousness

Back or rare of women with crucifix or cross form and light from dark sky God light expel darkness

God has given us a capacity and yearning to live beyond ourselves, an innate desire to do good by our conscience: where our actions, decisions, words and expressions are guided by our framework of values, beliefs and moral expectations. This framework could be based on religious beliefs, cultural heritage, family traditions, and law.

As Christians, we can be motivated by three different but distinct notions:

  1. Acting on our rights
  2. Doing what we deem to be right
  3. Living right from a position of being made righteous in and through Christ

Acting on our rights

Rights are an entitlement accorded by society, usually through its laws, to regulate certain behavioural patterns for the sake of the common good. A man queueing to board a bus does so when his turn comes, and hardly feels any need to look around to see if anyone might need to board before him. He acts out of the social ‘rights’ accorded to him based on this convention of ‘first come, first served’.

While queuing is a pragmatic and systematic way to negotiate competing needs, it often tempts us to rush to be first in queue since it is the place of privilege. We end up focusing on our self-interest at the expense of others, while still feeling we are doing right by it. Here, legality, legalism, do’s and don’ts are the rule of the day.

Doing what is right

“Doing the right thing” is a close cousin of the first notion of rights. The engine behind this is the mental construct of our conscience, expressed as a moral choice for a certain course of action. It’s a function of what and how we think, largely arising out of an intellectual process.

Consider what the Lord said to Samuel regarding David: People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). What goes on in our heart matters as much as, if not more than, our actions. Our hearts are our consciences, the seat and wellspring of our being, and reflects who we really are. We can perform a ‘right’ act and yet feel nothing in the heart about it. What proceeds as a cut-and-dried form of religiosity or cold discipline can have the semblance of ‘doing good’ but is a mere product of our mind and will.

Living as righteous

The final notion of “acting from the place of being made righteous” is the most powerful, history-making position we can ever take. Second Corinthians 5:21 explains that none can arrive at a state of righteousness except through the appropriation by faith of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and we become fully submitted and conformed to the person of Christ.

Rights are a human construct, while being right is based on personal judgment. Both represent man’s efforts in striving to do good, and are imperfect works of the flesh.

Instead, the righteousness of Jesus is about dying to ourselves: our ideas, desires, agendas and earthly treasures, denying our rights and becoming fully alive to the Spirit, so that Christ Himself is the one who causes us to act. It’s no longer about simply matching ourselves against a certain societal, moral or legal standard.

When we let go of ourselves, Christ takes over and we give room for the Spirit to lead what we do. In the process, we inch closer towards the likeness of Christ. Letting the old lady behind you get up the bus first can be a considerate once-off event, or the evergreen fruit of righteousness that proceeds from a life of listening intently to the Spirit, and acting promptly on what is revealed.

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” Galatians 2:20 (NASB)

David Ang –

serves as the LCEC Chairperson in Kum Yan Methodist Church. He is married to Amy and they have three children. He is also a business owner, and on a consulting assignment with Focus on the Family.