The Golden Rule

When I was growing up, I was taught to live by the “golden rule”: to treat others as I would like to be treated by them (found in the Bible at Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31). This post is about what I have learned along the way.

To my young mind, the golden rule sounded like the ultimate good deal. I interpreted it to mean that if I were honest, kind, and faithful to my word, I would receive that behavior from others in return. You may be chuckling because you see the problem in my logic. I actually thought that it was a guaranteed and automatic covenant, that everyone was and would be operating according to this principle. What I missed for many years was that the golden rule is NOT a covenant (I’ll do this if you’ll do that); it is an ethical standard for ME to follow. It invites ME to model thought, actions, and speech that are peaceable, uplifting, and filled with integrity…with NO guarantee of such behavior in return. It took me decades to understand where I had gone wrong. And, to be honest, I continue to learn this lesson more with every passing day.

By the time I was a teenager, I was consumed with the need for things to be “fair” – for me, for my loved ones and community, and for everyone everywhere. That is incredibly naïve, I now know, but that’s what I believed. One day, I was in my room railing loudly to myself and anyone within earshot about how unfair various situations and people in my life were. My mother heard me and said, “Honey, life isn’t fair”. Gut punch! “What about the golden rule?”, I thought. But I don’t remember asking my mother that question. She would probably have offered me a wise explanation and a way to keep my commitment to the rule while being cautious of others who were not so committed to it. I simply remembered what she said and began to construct my own solution. I was focused on the earthquake that had just occurred in my worldview.

That was probably the day that my emotional walls went up. My passion to do what I could and to speak up for fairness was not dimmed. I just needed to find a safe and powerful way to continue my commitment to fairness. Whether consciously or unconsciously, it soon became clear to me that words would be the way. And not just any words: the law. One reason that I love our country is that we are founded on the rule of law rather than on the changeable whims of the rule of man. The rule of law levels the playing field when properly applied and allows even the weakest and poorest to have a shot at justice. Both in studies and work, I gobbled up knowledge about contracts. I had finally found covenants with the power of enforcement. Contracts were and are emotionally neutral. You write them, agree on the terms, sign them, and – voila – you have what should be an iron clad understanding of what to expect.

By this time, I was a young adult and thought I had found my solution to fairness: obtain positions of influence or authority through which I could contribute to the writing of laws, ordinances, contracts, etc. that would bind the more powerful to treat the less powerful with fairness. Again, you are chuckling. And you are right. What I had yet to understand is that no one can legislate a good heart. For all the laws and contracts that require certain behaviors, there are others that can open loopholes and alternative paths. Over time, I also learned about the dark underbelly of operating under man-made laws: you box yourself in at least as much as you appear to be maintaining security for yourself and others. Your heart hardens because of the protections you have constructed for yourself and others (both those who are “us” and those who are “them”). For more on this, see: “Settling Old Scores”.

In my early 40s, I was confronted with an ethical and emotional dilemma: how could I protect myself from the unfairness of the daily life on planet Earth while allowing my heart to remain (really, to become again) tender, loving, forgiving, and brave? I am forever thankful that God intervened to show me the answer. Yes, God Himself. The answer was to go back to the golden rule. Hah!

This time, I began a journey back to golden living with a much greater understanding of myself and of the realities of selfishness in this life, both mine and that of others. I realized that I needed to spend time with others who were studying what the Scripture was really teaching about the golden rule. I tried all kinds of churches and even took a correspondence course for four years in lieu of going to Bible college. Each path I walked down had rules and precepts. They were helpful, but I didn’t understand how each path could be the only “true” way. There would surely be a true way, but it wouldn’t cause division and strife among those claiming to be on the same path.

At the heart of what I have been seeking is an understanding of how every human being could possibly be created in the “image and likeness” of God, as promised in the book of Genesis. The golden rule teaches us that we should be loving and true regardless of how we are treated. This is how God loves us. When we return that love to Him and to others, we continue to grow in His qualities. It’s about our transformation, a transformation that invites shalom (peace and completeness) into every aspect of our lives regardless of the chaos and dirtiness swirling around us.

For 30 years now, I have been seeking the means by which I can tear down the protective walls I built around my younger self and remove the callouses on my heart. I have worked to find the proper balance between a completely open and naive heart and a closed and strongly defended heart. And I have been seeking the proper way to champion fairness in an unfair world.

What I have found is that life is not fair but that it IS good. Follow the golden rule, and you will attract and spread goodness. Walk THROUGH the unfairness that circumstances and others may throw at you, knowing that you will learn good lessons with each battle. You will find that your willingness to be a light despite the darkness will give rise to fairness in ways that laws alone never can.

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