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15. The Golden Rule and the Renewing of the Mind

– Chapter 15 –

The Golden Rule and the Renewing of the Mind

The Golden Rule

We begin this final chapter with what is commonly known as the Golden Rule, found in Matthew 7:12 (and Luke 6:31):

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Mt.7:12)

The Golden Rule is also found in Chinese and Western ethical philosophy, but in negative form: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want others to do to you.” Hillel the great rabbi is well known for his version of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow human being” (Shabbat, 31a).

But Jesus gives the rule in its posit­ive form: Do to others what you want others to do to you. This changes the fundamen­tal char­acter of the rule. The positive form includes the neg­a­tive as a special case, but goes beyond the negative.

The negative is easy to fulfill. If you don’t want others to critic­ize you, don’t criticize others. If you don’t want others to be rude to you, don’t be rude. Refrain from doing what you don’t want others to do to you. You will reap what you sow, so don’t sow what you don’t want to reap.

I consulted the multi-volume writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers to see what they might have to say about the Golden Rule, but I was disap­pointed to see that when they refer to the rule, it is in the negative form again and again. I had a hard time finding references to the positive form as taught by the Lord Jesus. As for the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: In the 29-volume Ancient Christian Com­mentary on Scripture, there are only two Fathers who refer to the Golden Rule in its positive form, but they are merely quoting Jesus’ words without explaining what the rule means in practice.

Renewing the mind by practicing the Golden Rule

To live as true Christians, we need to be transformed in our thinking. Paul speaks of this as the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:2). It is not some­thing that happens in one flash by a word of com­mand but is attained by a spiritual method or process, namely, the practice of the Golden Rule with the help of the Spirit.

In what way does the application of the Golden Rule transform our thinking? When you are dis­couraged, what would you like others to do for you? Encour­age you! Then you start thinking about doing for others what you want others to do for you. If you want someone to encourage you, go out and encour­age someone. Then you will receive what you give.

Some people go down the drain spiritually because they are focused on them­selves and their depression. When you are in such a situa­tion, what would you like others to do for you? “I want some­one to hug me and give me a shoulder to cry on.” In that case, put your arms around someone who is discouraged. When your thinking is transformed, you will do for others what you want others to do for you. Even if they do nothing for you, you take the initiative to do some­thing for them. You sow the seed of the fruit you are going to reap.

The beauty of this is that it pulls you away from self-love and teaches you to love others. If you say to yourself, “I feel lonely; if only someone could come and visit me,” and yet you sit there wishing and wish­ing, you will only get more depressed because you are preoc­cupied with your own loneliness. If you want someone to visit you, go out and visit someone. You solve the problem of loneliness not by catering to it, but by visiting someone who is lonely. When two lonely people get together, neither will be lonely.

The outgoing character of the Golden Rule

Why doesn’t Jesus give the Golden Rule as, “Do to others what you would do to yourself,” since this is basically the substance of the rule? The problem is that there are many things you cannot do for yourself. If you are starving, this version of the Golden Rule won’t work because you have no food to feed yourself. You don’t have the means to help yourself, so you need someone to help you.

To understand the Golden Rule in its positive form as taught by Jesus, we must realize that it is focused on “others” with an out­look that forgets oneself. A transformed mind can forget oneself because it is confi­dent that God will never forget His people (Isa.49:15-16). And didn’t Jesus assure us that God will pro­vide for our needs (Mt.6:25-34)? The Golden Rule helps us to focus on others without a trace of self-interest.

We do for others what they cannot do for themselves. In some situat­ions, a person is powerless to help himself. If he is in prison, he cannot visit himself, but needs someone to visit him. If he is starving, he needs someone to give him food. The beauty of the Golden Rule is that it moves us from self-cen­tered­ness and guides us towards concern for others. Since we are no longer at the center of our own thinking, we can emulate the com­passion seen in the parable of the sheep and the goats:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. (Matthew 25:35-36, ESV)

The two stages of the Golden Rule

The first stage of the Golden rule goes something like this: You feel lonely and discouraged, so you deal with it by visiting the lonely and encourag­ing the discouraged. In the second stage, the focus is no long­er on your­self because you are not the one who is hungry or thirsty or in need. So you imagine yourself to be in the position of someone who is hungry and thirsty, and ask, “If I were in his situation, what would I like someone to do for me?”

In the first stage, you are in a position of need, so you do for some­one what you want others to do for you. In the second stage, you are not in a position of need, but move into some­one else’s situation, and do for him what he cannot do for himself.

Charles Colson, who was Special Counsel for President Richard Nixon, was put in jail for his role in the Watergate scandal. In prison he began to understand the needs of his fellow inmates, and how they longed for some­one to care for them. Rejected by society, they were hop­ing that some­one will show them concern. When Colson was re­leased from prison, he remem­bered the pain he had experienced as an inmate, and started a prison ministry that has expanded to many parts of the world.

We could start with something less ambitious than a prison minis­try, perhaps by identifying with someone in our household. If I am thirsty and wish that someone would make me a drink, I can say to myself, “I will make everyone a drink!” Instead of being un­hap­py that no one serves me, I will make everyone a drink. If everyone thinks like this, the next time around someone may make me a drink though this is not my motive. We have opport­un­ities to learn self-giving love in the life of the body of Christ.

Going from the first stage to the second

In learning to care for others, initially we may be motivated by self-in­ter­est. I was watching a news report of a forest fire in California. There was an interview with a man who had helped save another person’s house from being burned down. When asked why he saved the house, he said if another fire should threaten his own house in the future, his neighbors will come to his rescue. According to the report, the burn­ing house was saved be­cause of a collective effort to put out the fire. In fact most of the houses on the front line were saved. The man who was interviewed was moti­vated by, “If I do this for you, you will do the same for me.”

Initially our helping the neighbor may be motivated by self-inter­est. Yet the self-interest can be transformed into love for the neigh­bor, who later becomes the “other” person who is in need but is not in a posit­ion to help himself. Your self-serving motive can be changed into a self-giving love, so that one day you will do more for others than anyone has ever done for you. We are reminded of the situation in which a person jumps into a river to save a drowning man without thinking of his own safety. He is putting his own life at risk because his survival is not guaran­teed. If he drowns, he will have loved the other person more than himself.

Misusing the Golden Rule

Is the Golden Rule applicable in every situation? What about a situat­ion of wrong­doing? If someone sees you shoplifting, you pro­bably would not want him to report you to the police. Do we then apply the Golden Rule so that I don’t report on you and you don’t report on me? Only in a perverse way that makes us a band of thieves. The Rule works only for a cer­tain type of person, for it is based on the Sermon on the Mount which is addressed to those who are pure in heart and hun­ger for right­eous­ness.

If you commit a sin, what would you like others to do for you? Keep quiet about it or point it out? This is the cutting edge of the Golden Rule. It is not all strawberries and cream. If you stray from the Lord and com­mit more and more sins, what would you like others to do for you? Speak to you out of love? Give you a warning? Or over­look your sins? How we apply the Golden Rule reveals a lot about ourselves.

Another situation: What if someone loves you more than God? Will you be happy if your wife loves you more than she loves God? Or your husband loves you more than he loves God? Or that he or she loves you and the Lord equally? At your wedding what would you want your fiancé or fiancée to promise you? To love you more than anyone else? Even more than God? Or do you say, “I want him or her to love the Lord more than me.” You feel good for saying the right thing but what will happen when you are put to the test? If your fiancé or fiancée, or your husband or wife, goes on a missions assign­ment for the next six months, how will you take it?

The story of Xushu

I was wondering if there might be anyone in the secular world who wants others to love his country more than they love him. Then the story of Xushu of the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history came to mind.

Xushu was one of several advisors to Liubei. Liubei, a warlord and the founder of the state of Shuhan, was not outstanding in many areas, but he had one excellent quality. Some people are outstand­ing in many areas but are ruined by one weakness, whereas others are not good in many areas but have one redeeming quality. The latter was true of Liubei. His redeeming quality was his ability and willingness to recruit talented people to advise him, and he owed much of his success to them. One of those he recruited was this Xushu, a gifted stra­tegist. Liubei already had people like Guan­gong and Zhangfei who were more muscle than brains, so he was happy to find the right man in Xushu.

But Liubei’s arch-enemy, Caocao, also had his eyes on Xushu. Caocao too was in search of talented people but his repulsive character had caused many to align themselves with Liubei who was a respected gentle­man. So Caocao hatched a plan to lure talented people away from Liubei. He found out that Xushu’s mother was living in his territory, so he forged a letter to Xushu allegedly written by his mother, telling him to visit her. Xushu received this letter, and because he was loyal to his mother, he rushed off to visit her out of filial piety.

In one of the moving incidents of the Three Kingdoms period, Liubei pleads with Xushu not to leave, even hang­ing on to his horse. But Xushu was determined to leave because he felt that his first duty was to his mother. But seeing Liubei’s anguish, Xushu told him of a man named Zhuge Liang who could help him establish his kingdom. Then Xushu left.

He entered Caocao’s territory, found his mother, and said to her, “You called for me, so I rushed back to you.” She said, “I never called for you.” Xushu replied, “But here’s the letter you wrote me.”

His mother said it was a forgery. Far from being happy to see her son, she reprimanded him: “You shouldn’t have left Liubei because he is a good man whom China needs. You should have stayed with him to help him establish a just and righteous kingdom. Your prior­ities are wrong.” Then she killed herself! Xushu was shattered, but he couldn’t return to Liubei because he was trapped in Caocao’s territory.

What commitment! His mother didn’t want her son to love her more than the country, more than the kingdom, more than the wel­fare of the people. To show her commit­ment, she killed herself. How many Christ­ians have a similar intensity of commitment? Earlier we asked, What do you want others to do for you? If you are a mother, do you want your son to love you more than God? Or equally with God? Or less than God?

Putting God first — nominally

I once interviewed a couple who were applying for the full-time min­istry training. The husband was totally for God. I then asked the wife, “Please tell me the order of your priorities.” To my surprise, it was her children first, her husband second, the church third — and of course the Lord above them all, nomin­ally at least. It is easy to say that God comes first, but when the test comes, what will you do? The wife could not be ac­cepted for the min­istry training (much to her husband’s disappoint­ment) because we cannot allow anyone to serve God with the wrong prior­ities. Again we see the cutting edge of the Golden Rule.

The “others” in the Golden Rule include first and foremost the people clos­est to us. Do I want them to love me more than God? If a church lead­er thinks like this, his priorities are upside down. I don’t want anyone to love me more than God. When people become too devoted to me, I push them away. I don’t want my wife to love me more than the Lord. I would sug­gest to her that she go out and serve God in some way. I can do the cooking and wash the dishes for myself from time to time. It would be a waste to have some­one who is trained to serve God to do the cooking or the laundry for me when she could be meeting the spiritual needs of others. It would be self-centered of me to have her look after me while others are being denied the encour­agement and teaching she could give them.

We want people to love us because we want to possess them. Par­ents often do this with their children. It is the demands of those closest to us — father or mother, son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife — that make it hard for us to obey the command to love the neighbor who is in need. But if we teach our children to love God first and fore­most, this won’t weaken our love for one another but will strengthen it.

Hate our family?

The Lord Jesus says in Luke 14:26:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mo­ther and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (ESV)

This verse sticks in our throats like a fish bone because of the word hate. But we mustn’t run away from it, for when Jesus uses a strong word like hate, there must be a good reason for it. We find the word object­ionable and wonder why loving the neighbor must exclude lov­ing those closest to us such as husband, wife, father, mother, children. The fact remains that we need to deal with the word hate. What are we to do with it? Water it down? Many commentaries understand “hate” to mean “love less” and they quote Mt.10:37 for support: “Who­ever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.”

But the absence of hate in Mt.10:37 does not remove hate from Lk.14:26. If you look up the Greek word for hate or its Hebrew equiv­alent, you cannot evade the fact that hate really means hate and not “love less.” I have confirmed this by consulting several dictionaries, inclu­ding BDAG for Greek and BDB for Hebrew.

A principle of exegesis is to see how a writer uses the same word else­where in his own writings. Luke uses “hate” several times and in no in­stance does it mean any­thing less than hate. Examples include Luke 1:71 (we are saved from our enemies and those who hate us); 6:22 (blessed are you when men hate you); 6:27 (do good to those who hate you); 19:14 (the king’s subjects hated him). The BDAG lexicon defines the Greek word for “hate” in these verses as hate, detest, abhor.

In Luke 14:26, “hate” is in the present continuous tense; hence it is an ongoing hate and not a one-time hate. The verse says that the dis­ciple is to hate his own life, which accords with Jn.12:25 (he who hates his life will keep it to life eternal) where the same word “hate” is used.

The fact that Mt.10:37 is a weaker form of Lk.14:26 does not negate or nullify Lk.14:26. Mt.10:37 cannot be taken to mean that it is permis­s­ible for us to love father or mother on the same level as the Lord. That interpretation is possible if all we had was Mt.10:37, but Lk.14:26 rules it out.

The word “less” has a relative or comparative meaning rather than an absolute meaning. If we love someone less than the Lord, how much less? Slightly less, somewhat less, or much less? All these fall within the range of the meaning of “less”. On the other hand, “hate” is not a relative term but the diamet­ric opposite of love. The comparat­ive “love less” may apply in some situat­ions, but there are other situat­ions which force us to choose the one or the other, as in the case of a teacher I knew personally in China. One evening after work, God told him in a vision to go and preach the gospel. When he told his wife about it, she told him to choose between her and God, for he cannot have both. When he declared his choice for God, his wife told him to leave the house, for she considered that he hated her.

The Levites killed their brothers

In studying a New Testament passage, we often need to consider its Old Test­a­ment connection. The background of our discussion on “hate” is the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32:6ff, and in particular what the Levites did in that incident. Moses had just come down from a mountain when he saw a chaotic situation in which the whole na­tion of Israel was wor­shipping the golden calf. So Moses said to the nation, “Who­ever is on the Lord’s side, come to me!” (v.26) All the sons of Levi res­ponded to the call and flocked to Moses. Then Moses told them that by Yahweh’s com­mand, each man was to “put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor” (v.27, NASB). The love of one’s neighbor is now expressed in a radical way. No guilty person was to be spared. Sure enough, that day about 3,000 men fell to the sword (v.28). The swords of the Levites were dripping with the blood of their closest relatives.

In the New Testament age, killing the neighbor with the sword is not something that we do literally. Yet a similar question arises: If you should stray from God, forsake your commit­ment, apostatize, and lead others astray, what would you like your neighbor to do to you?

In the story of the golden calf, we see radical com­mitment among the Levites. There is an early parallel to this when Abraham was about to kill his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God (Genesis 22). How much did Abraham love his son? With all his heart and all his soul. He would have gladly died in place of Isaac if God had allowed it. He would have sacrif­iced himself at the altar if it meant his son could live. Isaac was young and had a future ahead of him, but Abraham was more than 100 years old. But because it was Abraham and not Isaac whom God was test­ing, it had to be Isaac who was to be offered. Abraham loved Isaac with all his being but he loved God even more.

Now we see what “hate” really means. At the very least, it includes loving God more than anyone else. How much more? To the extent that an observer would take your actions for God as hating the other person. When the Levites were killing their loved ones in obedience to Yahweh’s command, in a real sense they were hating them. The Levites didn’t just say to them, “I’ll let you off this time, so don’t do it again”. Deuteronomy 33:9 says that each Levite “disowned his brothers and ignored his child­ren”.

Because 3,000 idol­ worshippers were killed, the rest of the nation was spared further disaster. Some comment­ators have noted that 3,000 out of two million people is not a high percentage.

By what they had done, the Levites ordained themselves into God’s service and became the tribe of priests. Because of their commitment, they were sanctified: “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord” (Ex.32:29 ESV; HCSB has “dedi­cated to the Lord”). The Lord bestowed on them the blessing of the min­istry. The Levites are the special servants of Yahweh God, for they have proven their com­mit­ment and faithful­ness.

Similarly in Luke 14:26, your com­mitment to God esta­blishes you as a disciple and you are ordained into the ministry of the king­dom of God. Some have noted that the 3,000 killed by the Levites are equal in number to the 3,000 added to the king­dom at Pentecost (Acts 2:41). The former were killed by the Levites; the latter came to life through the new Levites, the disciples of the Lord, since Christians are the new Levites: “He has made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev.1:6).

Will we respond to the call, Who is on the Lord’s side? We are afraid to be extreme or radical. But if you go along with the crowd, you will be no different from the others. On the other hand, a radical person will stand out from the crowd and draw their attention.

Jesus says that the world hates us, and this is despite our love for the people of the world. But does the world really hate a philanthro­pist who cares for others? The world doesn’t hate people who give to charity, but it hates those who love God and man radically and uncom­pro­misingly. The world tolerates reli­gion when it suits its pur­poses, but opposes those who put God and Christ above everyone else. Jesus says, “Everyone will hate you because of me” (Mk.13:13; also Mt.10:22; Jn.15:18; 17:14). We want to be liked, not hated, but Jesus says that if we are truly his disciples, we will be hated.

There is a remarkable incident from the Spring and Autumn period of China’s history (8th to 5th century BC). There was an official by the name of Shi Que who lived in the state of Wei. He was a daifu, a high official. He had a son named Hou who conspired with Zhou Xu to assass­inate a duke. When Shi Que found out about the plot, he had his son executed! From this incident comes the Chinese saying, da yi mie qin (to uphold righteous­ness above the welfare of one’s own family). Execut­ing a son for his crimes is rare in practice, not only in China but in the history of the world. This makes the incid­ent of the Levites in Exodus 32 all the more remarkable when we take into account the vast scale of the killing.

A remarkable paradox

But if we live under the lordship of Jesus and obey his teach­ings in total com­mitment, we will experience a remarkable paradox: In hating our loved ones and in loving God above all, God’s love will empower us to love them on a whole new level: the spiritual level. He will pour into our hearts a divine love (Rom. 5:5) that carries a new quality and a new intensity. Far from loving them the less, we will love them the more, with God’s own love. Many Christians have experienced this par­adox and know it is real. It is related to the principle that we will lose what we cling to in carnal love. But if anyone hates his own life — and those dear to him — he will keep it for eternity (Jn.12:25; Mt.10:39; 16:25).

God, the sum of all love and commitment

We are called to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves, which in practice means to love our neighbor more than ourselves. Our thinking must be centered on others, having the mind of Christ by the work of the Spirit. But our love for the neighbor, even our dearest ones, must never exceed — or even equal — our love for God, the Father of Jesus Christ. God is the ultimate source and object of all true love. He is the fountain of love from which commitment springs forth.

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