The Golden Rule: A New Ethic?

When Jesus gave us the Golden Rule, he did not appoint us to serve as the judges of truth, goodness, and love. The Golden Rule does not liberate the soul from the commands of God through the founding of a new ethic. Rather, it is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus clearly articulates the rule in connection to the Old Testament saying,, “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).”

Does Spirituality Evolve

Despite the context of Matthew, the vendors of popular culture have claimed that Jesus’s rule can have variety of meanings. Former President Barak Obama famously summed up the American understanding of the Golden Rule a few years back when speaking about his evolution on the topic homosexual marriage. President Obama said,

But – you know, when we think about our faith, the…thing—you know at…the root that we think about is not only – Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf – but it’s also the golden rule, you know? Treat others the way you’d want to be treated.”

In other words, the President longs for others to respect his marriage and his commitment to those whom he loves. Working from his expectations, he concludes that he should extend homosexual couples the same rights and privileges that he values. Even if the practical extension of love and acceptance in this circumstance works against his personal ideological and spiritual preferences, President Obama will treat others as he would have them treat him. He will follow the ethic of the Golden Rule as he understands it.

With regards to the practice of love, the President’s sentiment proves biblical. Human beings typically build their interpersonal relationships upon the concept of friend and foe. We love those that love us and hate our enemies. Jesus redefines this common paradigm, calling his followers to “Love your enemies and to pray for those who persecute you (5:45).” In other words, chants such as “Let’s go Brandon” which unquestionably insult President Joe Biden have no place in Christendom. Believers may disagree with politicians and vote them in and out of office. But even in the middle of those disagreement, the Christian is to love his enemies.

What is Love?

The need for love raises an even more profound question, “what is love?” Or perhaps better stated, who gets to define love? Can homosexuals tell us how to love them? Even more pertinently, can we tell others how they are to love us? Do we get to define what love is? Do we get to define the Golden Rule?

The Messiah says, “no.” In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus does not liberate his hearers from the vision cast by the Law and the Prophets. Rather he calls his listeners to obey the commands in both action and thought. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:28).” Jesus intensifies the law and then obeys it perfectly, dies, and comes back to life so that he may save us through his Spirit which will enable us to obey his law. In other words, love is not a fluid thing open to interpretation. Love consists of living with others in accordance with the law of God. Paul restates Jesus’s intent, Romans 13:9-10 writing:

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

To live out the Golden Rule as Jesus would have understood it, men and women must do unto others as they would have them do unto them in accordance with the Word of God. Regardless of our station in life or society, we should not interpret the Golden Rule according to our experiences or wants but according to the Scriptures.

Why We Need Help

Jesus does not allow men and women to define love because they lack the moral ability to do so (Eph 4:18) Every utopian experiment has failed because humanity lacks the organizational and philosophical ability to overcome basic human impulses such as selfishness and pride. The fate of Adam and Eve has been the fate of every human being and human society. When we look within for love, we find only darkness and confusion.

God’s Word alone contains the ethic of the kingdom of God and of perfection. To envision happiness and fulfillment, we need to envision a world in which the ten commandments are perfectly followed by every citizen. In other words, God’s law does not keep us from fulfillment but rather leads us towards human perfection.

If someone’s actions or thoughts run counter to the commands of God, we cannot validate their wishes. To do so would be to further cut them off from true human flourishing. We cannot support someone as they gossip because they find joy in judging others. We cannot let someone sleep with underage minors because they find satisfaction in deviant behavior. And we cannot support a homosexual marriage even if the event brings the individuals involved happiness for it defies the command of God. Such actions convey their practitioners further into darkness. Just as we long to flourish, we should long for others to flourish. We should long for people to know and obey the laws of God.

To do unto others is to extend mercy instead of anger to our coworker who insults us. To love others is to pray for our mother-in-law when her hypercritical judgement rests upon the dinner we cooked. To do unto others as we want them to do to us is to pursue the hurt spouse who refuses to talk by washing of the dishes and taking the kids to school. We do not get to define love according to our preferences or love languages. A loving spouse, a loving child, a loving parent, or a loving neighbor is one who loves others according to the commands of God.

Final Thoughts

The Golden Rule is not a new ethic but the practical fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. To do unto to others as we would have them do unto us, we must both know and obey the commands of God. Apart from them, the Golden Rule cease to be Golden.

Why You Should Keep Praying

The ability to love those who insult us, to remain pure when our phones offer us a million pathways to pornography, and to refrain from being hyper-critical of that man’s vegan diet does not naturally reside within the Christian soul. To achieve the lifestyle that Jesus prescribes in his famous Sermon on the Mount, Christians must regularly ask God for help. They need it, and God promises to give it. In Matthew 7:7-8, Jesus begins the conclusion of his sermon with a reflection upon prayer, saying,

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 the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.

No soul naturally loves its enemies or places its hope in God as opposed to riches and bank accounts. Were faith our natural condition, Jesus would not have had to recast the vision for the kingdom for us. Even those souls that have entered the narrow gate still cannot achieve the kingdom ethic in their own power. To overcome temptation and to develop a love for God and neighbor, the Christian must regularly and faithfully pray to Jesus who promises to give them what they ask for. 

Why We Don’t Pray

I suspect many Christians succumb to temptation and make peace with sin because they fail to grasp their persistent need to pray. Just as some people nominally concerned about their health diet for a day or two and then quit after seeing no meaningful results, many Christians pray for a day or two and then quit. They pray that God would give them a love for their coworker. But then Monday rolls around, their coworker makes another off-colored remark, and the hate of last week boils back up. They assume prayer failed and that God is at peace with their irritable nature. It is just who they are. They will call again if someone gets cancer or if a hurricane is headed their way. Otherwise, they are good.

Keep Praying

Essentially, they stop asking, they stop knocking, they stop seeking. Understandably the change they desire never comes. Yet, the fault lies not with little tried tool of prayer but with the practitioner of the prayer. Godly prayer requires perseverance. As the German Reformer Martin Luther noted,

“Since your need goes on knocking, therefore, you go right on knocking, too, and do not relent.”

Jesus clarifies the connection between perseverance and prayer in Luke 11: 5-8. In this passage that heavily resembles Matthew 7, Jesus tells the parable of a man who bangs on his friend’s door at midnight because another friend just popped in to spend the night. At first, the friend in bed tells the man to go away.  But the man keeps on knocking. Fearing the man will wake up the entire house (kids and all) the friend gets up and gives the man some food. Jesus says, “Because of his impudence, he will rise and him whatever he needs (8).”

The point of the parable is obvious. The soul that keeps on knocking will never leave empty handed. As Jesus says, “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened (Mt 7:8). The teenager who longs for sexual purity will get it through fervent prayer. The tired wife that bangs on God’s door asking God to give her a love for her in-laws will receive it. The angry child that looks for freedom from her anger through prayer will find peace. Those who pray without ceasing will receive the gifts that they need.

Trust God’s Character

To drive the point home, Jesus compares his care for us to how our earthly father’s care for us. Just as children can trust earthly parents to give them bread and not rocks for dinner, Christians can ask God for their spiritual needs, trusting that he will neither manipulate them nor harm them. Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him (Mt 7:11)!” Jesus does not toss out the analogy to validate human goodness. Rather, he uses it to reveal that if we can trust our earthly fathers who are capable of great evil to do some basic good things, then we should trust God even more. God will not play games with us. Even if we ask God for a stone, he will still give us bread.

Why Didn’t God Heal Susie?

That very promise from God to answer our prayer can also cause us to doubt whether or not God truly is good. Many Christians have prayed for years for a new job, for Johnny’s salvation, and for Susie to recover from cancer. Yet no one calls you for interviews, Johnny still refuses to come to church, and you just learned that Susie died. In light of God’s promise that those who seek will find, many souls cannot help but openly question: “What happened?”

But such questions arise from a profound misunderstanding of the context in which Jesus promises to honor our prayers. As John Stott noted many years earlier, the promises made in Matthew 7 relate to God’s character as Father and not as creator. As creator, God bestows the earthly gifts of family, health, and financial success upon billions of people who never pray. In Matthew 5:45, Jesus credits God with sending rain, “on the just and the unjust.” While Christians should ask God for their daily bread as their heavenly Father is the author of all good gifts, the specify delivery of good gifts cannot be guaranteed through prayer. Moreover, our repeated and earnest asking of God for something does not obligate God to give us the earthly thing asked for. For example, I longed for a red convertible as a teenager and college student. I frequently prayer for such a good gift. To date, I have never owned a red convertible. We should ask him for health and a host of other earthly but should do so with the tagline from James, “if the Lord wills (Jm 4:15).”

But as Father, God answers all the spiritual things we ask of him. Salvation comes not by osmosis nor by splashing water on people’s foreheads. It comes through asking. Paul confirms the foundational role of prayer in the saving process, writing, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom 10:13).” Sanctification occurs in the same manner. Through asking, seeking, and knocking we grow in our ability to love others, to fulfill our marriage vows, and to promote peace. Spiritual gifts always come through prayer. If we will but ask, seek, and knock, God will give us the desires of our heart.

The old hymn correctly states: What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!

Are you praying?

I Can Judge You: Jesus Says So

The biblical phrase “Judge not, that you be not judged” and its more direct rendition, “Do not judge” has achieved a unique level of popularity within Western culture (Matt 7:1). These words seemingly validate modern self-expression. Perhaps more importantly, these words invalidate the mandates of our self-righteous friends. The moment, they whip out their judgmental ticket book, we can piously respond, “Don’t judge me.” Then, we go on, “Jesus calls you to love and accept me for who I am.”

Though Jesus’s words have taken up residence in our culture, they have often done so under false pretenses. The biblical context and the logical implications of these words, reveal that Jesus never intended for us to suspend all judgment. More importantly, he is also not condemning judgment within the context of interpersonal relationships. Rather Jesus’s words condemn hypercritical judgment. To “judge not” means we are to refrain from delighting in the needless and unscriptural criticism of others. But we can and must compare people’s actions to Scripture. Allow me to explain.

Good Judgement

We know Jesus cannot stand in opposition to all judgement, for human life is predicated upon judgement. If Hank suspended all judgement when driving, eating, walking, and working, he would not live long. The person who eats moldy bread and fresh bread with the same gusto will be spending some quality time in the bathroom. Similarly, if Sally decides not to exercise judgment when choosing which side of the road to drive on, she will not make it work alive. And if Phil suspends judgement and plays video games instead of completing the prestation for work, his income will take a hit. We must make judgements to have full lives. We also know Jesus did not want us to live every day as if it were a “Yes Day” for he too exercised judgment when picking disciples, choosing locations for ministry, and even when eating. Matthew 7:1 cannot mean that all judgment is bad.

Can I Judge You?

But the words also should not by universally applied to interpersonal relationship. Jesus has not given us license to live life as we choose within the bounds of community. In verse 6 of Matthew 7, Jesus tells his followers to exercise judgement within the interpersonal context of evangelism. If a soul proves especially belligerent to the gospel, Jesus told his disciples to end the conversation with the wild dogs and disgusting pigs of the spiritual realm and move on. Then in verse 15, Jesus tells his listeners to beware of “false prophets,” noting “you will recognize them by their fruits (20).” Jesus calls his followers to examine their interpersonal relationship with pastors in light of God’s Word. Such evaluations undoubtedly produce judgements. In other words, Christian should respond very differently when encountering a pastor who faithfully preaches the Word and loving affirms the hurting teenager and a pastor who sleeps with his secretary and regularly defrauds his members. We are to praise the one and warn and condemn the other.

Though Westerners find the idea of interpersonal judgement distasteful at one level, they all implicitly affirm the need for it. Even the most secular among us condemns people who abuse children, rape women, and murder the elderly. I believe such judgements are good and just. But their existence again raises two question: “What do we mean when we say, “Do not judge?” and does it line up with what Jesus meant?

What We Mean

I suspect many of us appeal to the phrase “Do not judge me” not because we oppose judgment in a philosophical sense but because we oppose people judging us. In short, we use “Don’t Judge me” as an ethical get-out-of-jail free card the moment someone challenges a live decision. We could also say that we use the phrase as a simple defense of self-expression: namely, “what I like is right.”

What Jesus Means

Jesus never intended his words in Matthew 7:1 to be an uncritical defense of our self-expression, a get-out-of-jail-free card. Rather when Jesus tells the disciples not to judge he warns them to avoid hypercriticism, judgement that makes personal preference divine law. For example, the hypercritical person condemns his fellow church members because they have tattoos, own a T.V. or joined the wrong political party. Similarly, the person is quick to suspect that her pastor has abandoned the gospel because he changed the drapes from green to red. She knows that poor design choices reflect a poor walk with Jesus. The hypercritical spirit quickly condemns all who fail to achieve its standard with some whispered words and a haughty look. If the hypercritical person is honest, he or she often enjoys the failures of others because they give the hypercritical soul something to talk about that confirms their self-righteous impluses. This is the attitude that Jesus condemns in Matthew 7:1. When this person gets his engines revved up, we should quickly play the “Do Not Judge Me” card. But in so doing, we are not calling for the abolishment of all judgement but rather for biblical judgment.

Jesus wants our interpersonal judgment to be fused with his understanding of truth and applied with mercy and forgiveness. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful for the shall receive mercy.” The context of Scripture clearly indicates that these statements are not conditional but revelatory. In other words, we don’t show mercy to get mercy. But if we have experienced the mercy and forgiveness of God, we will extend that mercy and forgiveness to others. If we perpetually refuse to extend mercy and forgiveness to the kids running in the hall and mercy to the lady with the tattoos, we show ourselves never to have experienced the mercy of God. One day very soon, God will judge us with the judgement with which we have judged others. While we can only see in-part, God sees in the whole. He knows each time the hypercritical person broke his own rules running through church in his younger years or watching T.V. while at his favorite restaurant. The merciless judgement with which we condemn others with will be applied to us a million-fold. “Judge not, that you not be judged.”

Final Thoughts

Jesus’s command to “Do not judge” should not be seen as a divine call to suspend all judgement. The believer should exercise discernment when eating, when talking with her parents, and when attending church. The believer should choose not to walk with the ungodly and should avoid the seat of scoffers. But she must do so graciously and lovingly. As Jesus notes in Matthew 7:5, the Christian is to deal with her own sins before straining at the imperfections in another. But still she must help her brother caught in sin once she has dealt with her own sin. Godly criticism should lead to restoration. But when her criticism expands beyond the pages of Scripture and makes her preferences about food, dating, entertainment, organization, and church polity matters of salvation, she becomes guilty of hypocritical judgement. She has created laws where mercy and grace should abound.

Good judgement depends upon mercy and forgiveness. To display such judgement requires great wisdom which requires much prayer. May God help us all to not be hypercritical.