d and Jocelyn lived the high life, putting the conspicuous in “conspicuous consumption.” They holidayed in France, Hawaii, the Caribbean, splashing their vacation photos on their Facebook pages. They wore the flashiest designer duds, lived in one of Philadelphia’s priciest neighborhoods, dropped hundreds of dollars on a single night out.
Friends never quite knew what to make of (or where they stood with) Ed and Jocelyn. Jocelyn claimed she was the daughter of plastic surgeons with homes on both coasts, that she’d grown up in Europe, that she was a star athlete who spoke 11 languages. The reality was much more ordinary. Her father was a plastic surgeon, but her parents had kept only two houses since their divorce.
The divorce had devastated Jocelyn. In high school she changed identities—prep, goth, athlete—with the seasons, discarding old friendships like yesterday’s makeup. She sought affirmation from one boyfriend after another. Her grades slipped and teachers caught her cheating. Classmates started to suspect her of petty thievery.
Starting college away from home gave her the break she’d been looking for. As investigative reporter Sabrina Erdely wrote, “At Drexel, classmates noticed that when Jocelyn wasn’t running her mouth, she didn’t know what to say. But then she’d blurt out some outrageous lie—like when she returned from shopping at Urban Outfitters saying they’d asked her to be a model—and suddenly she’d seem comfortable again” (“The Fabulous Fraudulent Life of Jocelyn and Ed,” Rolling Stone, March 20, 2008).
Then Jocelyn found the perfect partner in crime. Recently graduated from Penn State, Ed worked as a financial analyst. They set out to live the life they felt they deserved. Living in a ritzy high-rise owned by his employers, Ed procured the keys to his neighbors’ apartments. Together they stole Social Security and bank account numbers, creating accounts in strangers’ names, financing their outrageous lifestyle on other people’s credit. And why not? They were just taking what was theirs by right—more than $100,000 of it.
When finally arrested with more than $1,500 in hair extensions charged to a victim’s credit card, Jocelyn insisted that all her hair was her own. Police summoned a hair stylist to certify that, yes, most of her hair, like so much about her, was stolen.
Lust and flattery
Such perverted senses of entitlement pop up throughout Scripture, from Achan to Gehazi. But perhaps no Bible characters exhibit this attitude more than King David’s sons Absalom and Amnon. His character corrupted by the knowledge of his father’s “what-the-king-wants-the-king-gets” sin with Bathsheba, Amnon fell into lust with his half-sister Tamar. Once he’d stolen her innocence, however, “he hated her more than he had loved her” (2 Sam. 13:15). Once Amnon had the prize, he had no more use for it.
Tamar’s brother Absalom took it upon himself to avenge his sister’s honor—by having Amnon murdered. After a prolonged exile from Jerusalem and unofficial estrangement from his father when allowed to return, king and prince reconciled. But the tender moment wouldn’t last, for Absalom’s heart had its own lust—for power. Absalom started getting up early to commiserate with people headed into Jerusalem to air their grievances. He flattered each plaintiff with the rueful words “Your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you. If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice” (see 2 Sam. 15:2-6).
It didn’t matter how unfounded someone’s complaint was—Absalom was glad to stroke their ego if it would boost his chances of political success. After all, as the king’s son, he was entitled to it—to pomp, to power, to place, to popularity.
“Rules are for the unexceptional”
In his article “Why I Steal,” Adam Stein reflects on his 15 years of consistent shoplifting. “There’s an undeniable thrill,” he writes, “associated with the act of taking that which is not yours. A spiking of adrenaline, a sharpening of the senses. . . . Those who are addicted to the tension-to-excitement rush of Getting Away With It are called kleptomaniacs. But I did not have any of the hallmarks of this particular addiction . . . I did not do it because I needed to or was even compelled to. I did it because I felt like it—and because I kind of thought I should.
“I wanted something. I did not care to, and could not, pay for it. And yet I knew I should have it. I looked into the essence of the thing and knew it should be mine. So I took it. And you know what? I never felt bad about it.”
Stein finds the roots of his pathology in his indulgent childhood. He was, as his parents’ firstborn, the special one. His younger sister might well make do with mediocrity, but he “was capable of so much more.” Such unbalanced parental love skewed his sense of self-worth. He started to resent every material thing he still lacked compared to his peers at the “rich kids’ school” his parents had lobbied him into.
“That feeling of entitlement can be corrosive,” Stein writes. “You start to feel like anything is yours for the taking, that you should have it simply because you want it, in that moment, and the consequences of that momentary desire are not your concern. Consequences are for other, lesser people. They are for those from whom you take. Rules are for the unexceptional, not the exceptions. They are for those not special enough to break them” (“Why I Steal,” GQ magazine, March 2006, pp. 306, 321).
Deed and title
Even church members today think they’re owed something. Didn’t we build this church with our own sweat and prayers—and didn’t our offerings pay for that orange carpet? Didn’t we cast out backsliders in Jesus’ name? Don’t we pay a pretty faithful tithe, even if it means a few less dinners at Cracker Barrel?
So how come we’re not getting the deference we deserve? How dare they change the order of worship/let someone inexperienced take over/move the pulpit. They don’t know this church like we do. They don’t deserve it—not like we do . . .
Stop me if you’ve heard this song before. A small church begins with a dedicated core of leaders. Eventually its success draws in new people, who bring their own skills. And some of the pioneers start to sulk and withdraw—or mutter discontentedly until they get their way.
Too often we crave a church that merely serves our needs, instead of fostering the fulfillment that comes only through serving others. When our egos aren’t massaged, we walk out the door in bitterness and discontent, grumbling about the ungrateful.
Such false superiority seeps even into our private lives. Wounded by life, we lash out, even withholding love from the “less deserving.”
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day looked for a Messiah who would flatter them, patting their backs for all they had done for God and country. When Jesus’ sharp rhetoric challenged them instead, digging deep into the muck and algae in their souls, they fought back. But Jesus wouldn’t relent, for if there was one thing He couldn’t abide, it was seeing His Father’s character misrepresented. Jesus said that neither knowledge nor good deeds were sufficient for salvation, but rather a true relationship with Him, which bears un-self-conscious fruit (Matt. 7:16-23).
When we anchor our identity in anything but Jesus’ love and sacrifice for us, we start believing lies. We assume that we’re worthless—or that only our concerns are worthwhile. We think salvation must be earned—or we think our heavenly reward is due to us right this instant. We’re not spiritually content unless we’re materially comfortable. We don’t know how to listen, but we’re certainly good at talking about ourselves.
This false sense of entitlement distorts our worldview—and our selfview. It keeps us from living the authentic lives God designed for us. We worry about image, about politics, about position. We try to steal what grace offers us for free. The self-help attitudes in vogue today stand in sharp contrast to the gospel’s selfless simplicity. The truth is, our salvation has nothing to do with what we’ve done. Our value isn’t rooted in anything we could ever earn. We live only because Jesus loved us. Our standing in Christ boils down to “He served us that we might serve others.”
It all comes back to one of the two extremes from which Jesus’ perfect (and perfectly balanced) law of love—“Love your neighbor as yourself”(Matt. 19:19)—shields us. Love only others, and you’ll soon have no more of yourself to share. Love only yourself, and your self-satisfied character will shrivel to nothing.
Love God, your neighbor, and yourself in balance, and you’re that rare person God can truly use, touching countless lives for His glory.
Tompaul Wheeler, the author of GodSpace and Things They Never Taught Me, lives in Nashville, Tennessee. A photographer and videographer, he enjoys teaching youth Sabbath school alongside his wife, Lisa.