You Didn't Build That


Don't worry.  This really isn't a post about politics.  The title of this post comes from a quote from President Obama made during a speech on July 13th.  In that speech he said the following:

"There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."

One particular snippet from this speech turned into a rallying cry for both the Right and the Left: You Didn't Build That.  For conservatives, this was an admission that Obama places no value on the private sector.  For liberals, this was a much needed push back that individual ambition alone is not sufficient to succeed–you need a functional society shaped in part by government services.  I'm not going to weigh in on this today, other than to say there are parts of each argument I like.

Instead, I want to tell you that from a Biblical perspective President Obama was 100% correct.  Put down the pitch forks and here me out.

Let's look at one of the final speeches Moses gave to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.  In Deuteronomy 8:17-18 we read. "You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today."

We may say we built something, but God says to us, "OK, but where did you come from?  Who gave you yourself?"  Now if you are not a Christian and you don't believe in scripture, I still can't let you off the hook.  You did not produce yourself.  You were born out of the Universe.  Your life is a gift.  We have never seen a being on earth born out of its on volition.  You didn't build you, and I believe that knowledge must compel us to a humility about our accomplishments.  Say you are exceptionally hardworking and intelligent.  Those attributes give you a leg up over someone who is not.  But why are you intelligent?  Why are you hardworking?  A combination of your genetics and environment formed a potential and then developed it.  I call that God, but you may call it something else.  Either way, you didn't build it.

Back to Deuteronomy, in this speech of Moses.  Now we look at chapter 10, verse 18, Moses is speaking of God and his character, "He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing."  Then in chapter 14 Moses talks is speaking about rituals and festivals when he says "The Levites have no land of their own, so you must give them food from the storehouse. You must also give food to the poor who live in your town, including orphans, widows, and foreigners. If they have enough to eat, then the Lord your God will be pleased and make you successful in everything you do."

Did you get that?  "If they have enough to eat, then the Lord your God will be pleased..."  Now do not misread me.  I'm not endorsing Barack Obama, or saying the way to serve the poor is to vote for him.  I have too many intelligent, conservative friends with a deep compassion for the poor who argue that the breadth of government programs creates a dependency and too many intelligent, liberal friends who believe that government is the only organization with the scale to address issues of need across America to back a horse here.  I have thoughts, sure, but ultimately I don't know the best government approach to poverty and need.  The problem is bigger than my brain.  I'm surrendering the battle to those of you wiser and more well read than I am.

Instead, I am appealing to you, personally.  What are you doing with the wealth God has given you?  What am I doing each day?  I can tell you its not enough.  I've started buying meals and taking them to people who live on the streets.  It's not enough.  I try to find opportunities to bless the working poor I know: single mothers and the disabled.  It's not enough.

Here's what I ask you to do.  When you read or write a post on Facebook about the role of government in poverty, or when you start to discuss it with friends, ask if you are putting at least as much energy and time into personal meeting the needs of those in your community who have nothing.  One thing I know for sure: if we were all doing the work with our own hands the debate would be a lot less pressing.

May God show us all what we can do with our great wealth.

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