So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them,
for this is the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew 7:12 (ESV)
This idea is not unique to Christianity, but in the context of seeking to a live a life of Christ-likeness, it is a powerful precept for us to consider. It is important to notice what Jesus did not say. He did not say, “Do unto others as they want you to do unto them.” This could obviously be disastrous—just consider trying to live that out as a prison guard or an elementary school teacher.
To live out this injunction, we must consider, “What would I want me to do if I was in that person’s place, knowing what I know?” This is how parents can refuse to let their children eat an entire bag of cookies for lunch. While they may think it’s great for the moment, we know their stomachache would outlast the pleasure and the pattern of gluttony could become a burden for the rest of their lives.
It can also be useful to reflect upon the so-called “negative version” of the Golden Rule, which states, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to you.” This is particularly instructive when we find ourselves on the receiving end of action that causes us anger or hurt.¹ We should reflect by asking ourselves, “Do I do that?” If so, we have reason to repent and ask for forgiveness of God and man. Or, it may be that we must accept the hurt as justified because we failed in some manner and should ask forgiveness of the one who chastised us.
If we find ourselves in supervisory roles at work, or if we are parents (which is certainly a supervisory role), it is good to think of the ways supervision has been modeled for us. None of us have had perfect parents or supervisors—some are better than others—but we can learn valuable lessons even from our least favorite. Many a young person has said, “When I’m a parent, I will never…” only to look in the mirror a decade later and realize they have not kept that vow.
We can do better if we identify a few concrete actions to take that we have learned from our life experiences framed in the Golden Rule. At work, I have a piece of paper on my desk with a few written out to serve as a reminder, having become convicted of them by reflecting on a few times I felt hurt or ignored in various workplace situations. It is only by putting particulars on our understanding of the Golden Rule that we carry it out. The general form is easy to remember, but we must apply it to particular situations for it to be of practical value in regulating our behavior.
Sometimes it takes a good deal of reflection to derive what our actions should be in a certain situation. Consider the Geneva Conventions on Armed Conflict which can largely be viewed as an application of the Golden Rule to war. That may seem an odd idea at first, but even in such extreme circumstances as armed conflict, we must consider Jesus’ words. He did not say, “Do unto your friends as you would have your friends do unto you.” “Others” encompasses everyone who is not me—friend and foe alike.
It is perhaps here that the Golden Rule is the most helpful, as we deal with people who do not share our values, beliefs, or culture. In our fractured and factionalized world, we will always have someone who is opposed to something we are in favor of. We can learn what our words and actions toward them should be by reflecting on the Golden Rule and looking at Jesus’ life as an example of how to live it out.
¹ Considering this the next time you find yourself upset while behind the wheel of your car may change the way you drive.