“No One Owes You Anything.” Really?

“No One Owes You Anything.” Really?


Many people have responded to the pervasive entitlement mentality in modern culture by promoting a spirit of independence. But with many things, we tend to go to one extreme in our attempts to escape another.

This spirit of independence has led to many people believing they are “self-made.” “I took the bull by the horns and did it all by myself,” is a common slogan among many successful people (the motivational ones will add “and you can do it too,” at the end).

The truth is there has never been any self-made man in the world. Whatever you become, it’s a product of the contributions of others, living or dead. If you had an enabling environment to build a business, some people in ages back paved the way for you. None of us creates anything “ex nihilo;” instead, we work with raw materials that are the finished goods of others who have gone before us.

If you got a loan to start your business, you are not self-made (and if it is your savings from a previous job, someone created the business that gave you that job). If you hired employees that worked with you on the dream, you are not self-made. In fact, if you read books that shaped your mind and had an education that set you in the right direction, you are not self-made.

Whatever you become, you are a product of the sweat, kindness, hard work, vision, and sacrifices of other people.

More importantly, God is the one who sent all those sweat, kindness, hard work, vision, and sacrifices your way:

“For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7)

“But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand” (1 Chronicles 29:14).

“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” (Deuteronomy 8:18).

I could go on, but you get the gist. God is the creator of everything in heaven and earth and whatever you have, you received from him. Moreso, you received it not as manna from heaven but as the sweat, kindness, hard work, vision, and sacrifices of others, direct or indirect.

So let’s stop all this self-made nonsense. Herod did it, and his dead body was food for the worms (Acts 12: 19-23). Nebuchadnezzar did it, and he became an animal (Daniel 4:28-32). Whatever you have or become, return all the praise to God and acknowledge those he decided to use to get you there.   

A needed caution

But enough of the detour, let me now get back to where I am going with this.

Another way that this independent spirit manifests is the popular idea that nobody owes you anything.

Of course, the people who say this have good motives- they want to help you flee from the entitlement mentality that is a common problem of our age. However, I believe we should tread with caution here.

The problem with the entitlement mentality is not that it feels entitled; it is what it feels entitled to.  Another problem is what it does when the entitlements are not delivered.

To illustrate, God demands that every government punish evil and reward good (Romans 13:3-4). Governments should use the power of the sword to protect their citizens from evil people, domestic and foreign. It’s also the government’s responsibility to protect religious freedom and ensure peace and quietness (1 Timothy 2:1-3).

If I demand that my government do those things above, am I guilty of an entitlement mentality? No. I am indeed entitled to the protection of my life and religious liberty. God set up governments to protect and defend the citizens’ rights, which means the citizens are entitled to such protections.

Entitlement mentality (the one we all condemn) only comes in when we demand from the government what is not their God-given duty to give.

If I believe that the government (or my uncle or friend, by the way) should give me a job that pays #300,000 after I graduate from school, with health insurance, a car, and a house to boot, then that is an entitlement mentality. Sure the government should enhance rather than impede your ability to get that kind of job-through policies that encourage free trade, entrepreneurship, innovation-but the government is not responsible for getting you that job.

Let’s take another example. If they are believers, your parents must bring you up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). If they are slacking and you tell them about it, that’s not an entitlement mentality. If they prefer to send you to a pagan school that teaches pagan things when they could have sent you to a Christian one that teaches Christian things, you are not feeling “entitled” if you talk to them about it.

But if you believe your parents should have a car and house ready for you at 18, you have a problem with an entitlement mentality. Sure your parents could have those ready for you if they can afford it, but they are not under any obligation to do so. What they are obligated to do is help you prepare for adulthood within the scope of the resources they have.

It’s important to differentiate between the entitlement mentality and accountability. When you hold people responsible for their God-given duties, that’s not (in and of itself) an entitlement mentality. Said differently, people do owe us things. The government owes us the protection of our rights; our godly parents owe us Christian upbringing; our employers owe us our wages (James 5:1-6), our elders in church owe us some shepherding (1 Peter 5:1-2). The problem arises when you expect the government to give you a job, your parents to leave you a fortune, the CEO to know your name, or your Pastor to visit you every day.

Therefore, the first problem with the “no one owes you anything” mindset is that it takes away a sense of responsibility and accountability. It makes us mum when we should be outspoken. It’s the kind of stuff that makes an indifferent populace, easily-trampled-upon employees, bad parenting, heretical churches, among others. People do owe us things, and it’s not bad if we remind them of their responsibilities.

And this does not take away thankfulness. I can still be grateful that I live in a democratic country where the government recognize its duties, that I have parents willing to embrace their duties to raise me up, employers that recognize that the labourer deserves his wages, and pastors that embrace their duty to shepherd the flock.

We should be grateful for all that because there is nothing we receive that God did not give. If we have people willing to embrace their responsibilities dutifully, it is God who made them willing.


The other side

Of course, it’s possible to still suffer from an entitlement mentality by what we do when people fall short of their duties. Here, the problem is reacting to other people’s failures with a sinful attitude.

There is a world of difference between critiquing and calling out a government that is not protecting its citizens’ lives and properties and speaking evil of authorities ( 2 Peter 2:10) and turning to a whiner, who takes no responsibility for his own failures.  

While we should hold people accountable for their responsibilities, we should show them grace when they fall short. It’s the only way to avoid being bitter. If your parents didn’t raise you well, you can’t perpetually hold it against them. And perpetually singling them out as the cause of your failure is one way to manifest that entitlement mentality.

If your employer does not pay you, use all the moral and legal means you have to hold him accountable. But if you don’t prevail (and even if you did), you must still treat him with grace and not nurture bitterness in your soul.

If your church elders are not faithful to their duties, you should speak up and let them know. But you should not make enemies of them and pick at everything they do (he is using the 1984 NIV, instead of the 2011 NIV, for example). Neither should you use their deficiency as a pretext for your sin or your flippancy in spiritual matters.

My point here is that we can hold people responsible for their God-given responsibilities without fostering an entitlement mentality that uses their failures to justify our sins or failures.

The major problem

The major problem with the “no one owes you anything” attitude is that we are not far away from the “I don’t owe anyone anything” attitude. The two go hand in glove; they are 5 and 6, if you would. Ideas do have consequences.

Once we imbibe this idea that people are not responsible towards us, it won’t be long before we think the same of our responsibilities towards others. If the government is not responsible to me, why should I be to them? If my parents are not responsible to me, why should I be to my children? If my employer was not responsible to me, why should I be responsible towards my employees?  You can fill in the rest.

What this does is fuel the spirit of independence that detaches us from others as we live in our cocoons. When you are an island, the problem is not only that people are detached from you, it is also that you are detached from people.

No wonder some “self-made” rich people become so impervious to the needs and sufferings of others. If nobody made me, why should I bother about making you? If no one owed me anything, why should I owe you?

The result is a culture of irresponsibility.

Instead of going down this destructive path, what we should do is acknowledge that people are responsible to us and we are responsible to people. Then as believers, we should be ready to carry out our responsibilities irrespective of how those responsible to us act (acted).

Because we are people saved by grace and called to be gracious, we can be patriots even under a failing government, good parents even when we didn’t have good ones, good employers even when we didn’t have a good experience with ours.

In essence, we should not measure the seriousness of our duties by how others fared when they were responsible to us. We must do our duties well, as working unto God, not unto man. (And for us Christians, the duties we have towards others always exceed what they have to us.)

But we can’t get to this place unless we recognize that people do owe us and we do owe people. The difference is that we treat people with grace when they fail us, and we embrace our duties with faithfulness and commitment, despite others’ failures.


God has assigned us duties, and we are responsible and accountable to him, and through him, to the beneficiaries of those duties.

When we are the ones with the duties, we must do them well, as unto the Lord. We must never allow the wrong-headed spirit of independence to cloud our sense of duty and responsibility. We must be the citizens, parents, pastors, church members, employees, and employers (et al.) God wants us to be.

When we are the beneficiaries of such duties, we must hold accountable those responsible. (But we must hold them accountable for what they are actually responsible for). And when such people fail to discharge their duties towards us, we must show them grace and refuse to embrace the entitlement mentality that sees every sin and failure as others’ faults.

Moreso, we must never allow the failure of others to discourage us from our own duties. We must treat people not as we have been treated, but as God in Christ has treated us. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).  

We must never think that God created a world where every individual is on his own, doing his own thing, independent of everyone else. No! We live in a moral universe where God has bound us together by our common humanity and common responsibility to a holy God who will hold all of us accountable.

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