The Perils of Privilege

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[Disclaimer: Text to life is the best sequence for Bible study and living! However, with your patience, we’ll begin with observations from life which illustrate a prevailing Biblical principle.]

The referee throws both arms into the air to eject two superstar basketball players from an NBA playoff game. We’ve come to expect it. Ejections and technical fouls are common in professional basketball. However, Michael Lewis, author of sports books like The Blind Side and Moneyball, identifies a pattern to these infractions. “The ones who pitch these hissy fits,” he says, “are the famous players or the coaches that protect them.”

Ramona Shelburne, ESPN’s basketball insider, agrees that the indignant reactions come most often from the star players. She says, “It’s just different than in the past. When you’re a star…you get used to a certain level of treatment. With any star and any celebrity, there comes a level of entitlement.”

In the last few years, the NBA spent millions of dollars on replay technology and instituted dozens of policies to enforce the rules of the game more fairly. So, why are the superstars so mad? Michael Lewis’ concludes, “The stars used to get more calls in their favor than they do now, just because they were stars. Objective refs have eliminated some of their privilege. The more objectivity there is, the less power they have. And to them, that’s outrageous.”

Let’s shift gears and talk about cars. Who are the best drivers on the road? Social researchers Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, say the statistics reveal those who drive low-value, “beater cars” are actually the best citizens on the street.

For example, they examined how drivers respond to a pedestrian entering a crosswalk. By law, motorists are to yield to the person walking. They found those who drove luxury cars were “more likely to commit infractions.” Keltner concludes, “45% of the drivers of [luxury cars], blazed through the pedestrian zone, and said, “The rules don’t apply to me.””

Another study examined how people respond at 4-way stop signs. By law, drivers are to yield to the first vehicle entering the intersection. They found those who drove luxury vehicles were four times more likely to cut in front of others. Keltner submits, “It makes us think of the perils of prestige.”

Does privilege breed permissiveness?  It seems so. Yet, the Bible revealed this problem long before basketball courts or stop signs. The prophets called “fouls” on the elite who responded by throwing their hands up in disgust. Micah asked, “Listen, you leaders of Jacob, and rulers of the house of Israel! Is it not for you to know justice?” (Micah 3:1). “Laws are for the little people,” they imagined. “Power has its privileges.”

The problems of prestige are personified in King Uzziah! The Bible says, “When he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the Lord his God and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense” (2 Chron. 26:16). Nobody tells the king what to do! Sure, entering the temple is not for the under-classes, but certainly there is an exception for the king. God didn’t think so!

Jesus helped the crowds see the errors of the elite. He said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:2-3). They happily used their position to lay burdens on other people, yet they lived comfortably above those obligations themselves. People of privilege become used to others deferring to their desires and excusing their errors. They assume God will do the same. He must, after all, for they are special.

But here is our problem. Most of us are privileged. Very privileged! We’ve attained some degree of wealth, position and esteem. We are the stars of our own stories. Is it possible that we are susceptible to the perils of privilege? Are we rolling through the 4-way stop signs of Scripture thinking they don’t apply to us? Are we throwing up our hands in disgust because the referee of life has not called our game fairly?

We must remember that privilege does not exempt us from God’s commands. In fact, God seems to pay more attention to the activity of the privileged (Isa. 3:13-26; James 3:1). The spiritual law of motion states, “Privilege often leads to inactivity, while humility produces a holy service.”

We see this illustrated in the life of Isaiah. God allowed him to step out of the royal courts of Judah and into the throne room of Heaven. There, in the presence of God, human achievement was utterly insignificant, and human sinfulness was painfully obvious. In humility he cries, “Woe is me!” God responded to his humility and made him holy and useful (Isaiah 6:1-12).  The best thing the privileged can do is to see themselves for the needy, dependent souls they are, who are responsible to serve the King of kings. Even the masters of this world have a Master they are to obey.

We must also know that blessings do not exempt us from helping people. They give us a responsibility to serve them. The privileged often get an office, build a house and raise walls to separate themselves from others. But we follow a Lord who “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9). He used His position to serve others not separate Himself.

Timothy was to charge “the rich in this present age…to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:17-19).  The spiritual law of economics states, “Privilege often leads to the poverty of selfishness, but blessings used for others makes one rich.”

It’s time for us to face up to the perils of privilege. Its corruption is subtle, yet complete. It may cause us to miss out on the real privilege of knowing the Lord and serving people.

Tim Jennings


Extra Bits:

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ first beatitude is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:8)?  One must understand their poverty before they will act ethically under the rule of heaven.

Isn’t it interesting the rich young ruler left Jesus and Zacchaeus, the tax-collector, followed Jesus? (Luke 18:18-30; 19:1-10). Did the wealthy young influencer think the rules of discipleship didn’t apply to him in the same way they did to the other disciples?  Sure, a tax-collector should give his money away. He got it in the wrong way.  But, is it just as bad that a young man kept his wealth for the wrong reasons?

Isn’t it interesting that Peter was ready to “leave all” and follow Jesus only after he saw how lowly he was in comparison to how great Jesus was? Jesus gave Peter a great catch of fish. This caused Peter to see the glory of Christ in Jesus. Peter then saw himself as “a sinful man.” Then Peter was ready to receive Jesus’ compassion and direction, “Don’t be afraid, come follow me, I’ll make you a fisher of men.” (Luke 5:1-11) Humility led to service.


Paul Piff, and his team, divided people into two groups. One group was asked to compare themselves to those who were lower on the socioeconomic scale (poorer and less powerful). The other group compared themselves to those who were higher on the socioeconomic scale (richer and more powerful). Both groups were asked to write a brief description of how an interaction with one of these people might go.

Then the group was taken into a room to wait. In that room was a jar of candy. The group was told the candy was for a child-research laboratory, but they could have some if they wished. Whatever was left would be given to the children.

Remarkably, the people who just spent time thinking they were better off than others took more candy for themselves, while people who spent time thinking they were less-well off than others left more candy for the children.



Basketball Report: Against the Rules. Ref, You Suck! Michael Lewis. Podcast (fyi, the piece contains some bad language)

Vehicle & Candy Studies: Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Paul K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Dacher Keltner. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2012, 109 (11)