God’s Golden Rule

It’s an established fact that many of the world’s religions have some form of what is called the Golden Rule. Some statement or ethic of reciprocity that is meant to provide a foundation for civilized relationships.  

In Brahmanism: “Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” In Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”  In Confucianism: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you” To be fair Confucius also wrote the positive form of the rule, “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” A form of the rule can also be found as far back as Ancient Egypt. “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.” On the surface, it may seem that Jesus’ plagiarized “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but not so fast there partner.

Part of the problem is that well-meaning folks have pulled the Golden Rule (a term not found in the scriptures themselves) out of its context. Now, it’s reasonably obvious that, with one exception, the statement presented by Jesus, “treat people the same way you want them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12b, NASB95) is different in that it’s asking for a positive forward-looking kind of ethics. Okay, fair enough. But we miss a huge truth because we’ve reduced a teaching to an easily recalled slogan. The full verse reads, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NASB95)  Hey! Where did that “therefore” come from? What has been called the Golden Rule is the conclusion of something, not just some proverb worthy of a fortune cookie. Taking “do unto others…” outside of its context is like asking your gal to marry you but only giving her the diamond without the band or the setting.

Jesus taught, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:7–12, NASB95)  Do you see the part where God also practices the Golden Rule?

Here’s Jesus’ point, we are to adopt the same ethic that God has. We treat others the way we want to be treated because that is how God treats us. Remember Jesus’ guiding ethic as He ministered among the sick and broken – “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19b, NASB95)  It is not that God is forcing us into some kind of programming but His desire is for us to know Him and follow what He is already doing.

So what’s the difference between what Jesus said and what is found in other religions? I think the difference can be explained by understanding two words, mercy and grace. A simple definition of mercy is not getting the just punishment you do deserve. Many of the other “golden rules” adopt an attitude of mercy in a kind of don’t hurt others as much as you feel they deserve mode. A simple definition of grace is getting something you don’t deserve. God’s Golden Rule adopts an attitude of grace, giving to others what is good even though they’ve done nothing to deserve it. Where mercy withholds punishment, grace sacrificially gives. Jesus taught His followers to live by the same ethic that God the Father lives by.

Let’s put God’s Golden Rule in the perspective of being a parent which is also how Jesus taught it in Matthew. Parents exhibit abundant grace. They feed, love, and protect their children even when they’ve done nothing to deserve it. But things are not always roses, there are times when wrongs must be disciplined. Now, I’m not saying that every bad or painful experience is God’s discipline. But some are. God’s Golden Rule dictates, however, that discipline is measured and is designed to teach and protect. After all, if we are doing something wrong, sinful, or harmful don’t we want to know it even if it hurts to learn about it? If God never disciplined then He would be violating His own rule. But God’s discipline is just a small part of our relationship with God. There is so much more that He graciously offers: His unfailing love, calming peace, effervescent joy, unflinching forgiveness, always being there to listen, and sure guidance. All of these and more are offered with the grace of a loving father.     

There are some truths that are embedded in the fabric of the world, treating others like we want to be treated is one of those. God’s character is often revealed in His creation. Is it any wonder then that other spiritually minded folks would see those same truths in some form? But Jesus took it further, He showed us why this truth is important and where it comes from. So, let’s endeavor to follow it. Not when we want to or when it feels good but all the time. That’s another part of the context that we haven’t mentioned.

Jesus prefaced the “Golden Rule” by saying, “In everything.” Treating others the way we want to be treated applies everywhere; in our homes, in our family gatherings, in our workplace, in the marketplace, on the playground, and everywhere else we do life. Seems impossible and it is without God’s grace.

Dale Heinold
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