What The Golden Rule Does NOT Mean

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them.”

This is, as Jesus described it, the second greatest commandment. It is, as society knows it, “the golden rule.” (We dislike commandments, so we go with rules which are viewed as somewhat arcane and archaic, but still a necessary evil.) It is a good standard and one the world would be better for if more people obeyed. But, like many of the Bible’s commands, we have ripped the heart out of it.

We have managed to take instruction on how to best love others made ourselves the center of it. We make ourselves the standard of behavior and value. If I like it so must everyone else. If I respond to it so must everyone else. We treat other as if they were just like us because we’re treating them the way we want to be treated!

Here’s where that goes sideways. I am a sarcastic person and blunt to a fault. I speak directly and tell people what I think, often (especially) when I am critical. I also appreciate that kind of communication in return. Don’t beat around the bush, don’t be passive-aggressive, don’t hem and haw. Just lay it on me. I have thick skin and I treat others as if they do, or should, too. The problem is that many or most people do not appreciate by brand of bluntness. It hurts feelings. It is caustic and leaves them feeling insulted.

But I treated them the way I like to be treated! I followed the golden rule! The fault must be theirs. Get thicker skin, people. Learn to speak sarcasm. Stop beating around the bush and get to the point. Toughen up.

I treat people like they are me. I make me the golden standard and hold people to it. And in that I am wrong. I am not the standard – love is. Respect is. Valuing others’ inherent dignity is, and God did not make them like me. I am not the mold of humanity and neither are you.

What we missed in “love your neighbor as yourself” is that the emphasis is on love not on yourself. How can we treat others in a way that honors them, that respects them, that dignifies them and values their opinions and worth?

“Treat others the way you want to be treated” must be understood as “treat others the way they want to be treated.” This is much more difficult. It requires empathy and emotional intelligence – the ability to put ourselves in their lives and minds and feelings, to know what they value. But isn’t that a key element of love?

As a husband I must work to understand my wife’s wishes and values and desired. I must learn what she hears when I speak (they often are not the same thing) and what she receives when I give. As a father I can only truly care for my children when I place myself in their fears and frustrations and concerns and enjoyment and fun. In the workplace I cannot collaborate well with my team if I do understand how they best communicate and receive communication, either positive or critical. The principle holds true in every single relationship.

We must reemphasize love instead of self and others instead of you. Jesus gave us this command so we could reflect Him and His love – selfless, sacrificial, wise, empathetic (remember, He knows our weaknesses and temptations). He knew hearts in part because He was God and inn part because he cared enough to connect His life to theirs.

Asking questions like these will help:

What do they need to feel valued?

What do they hear when I speak?

What way do they best receive criticism and/or praise?

What need do they have that I can meet?

It is so easy to make my preferences into values and then those values into everyone else’s values. So I must consider their values before my own. If we don’t do this we actually tarnish the golden rule.

I live in the Nashville area and spend my days helping churches with leadership development. My nights are spent writing and rooting for Minnesota sports teams. I also podcast a bit. I'm the author of The Pastor's Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity, Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is Not the Enemy of Faith, and The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches Every Part of Life