Yesterday evening I was talking to a friend about the golden rule and how sometimes we misinterpret it either on purpose or through neglect.
I have been thinking about the implications of the statement from the New Testament “all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” [i] Often this adage is shortened to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. However, I believe that this statement dose not quite capture the spirit and full meaning of this ethical concept. So, today to help with me think this through I have made a list of seven variations on this often used phrase. I cannot claim that all of them are originally mine, but I hope that I might be able to provide some insight into them. In order from the least evolved to greatest they are:
1. Do unto others before they do unto you
2. Do unto others because they have done unto you
3. Do without others and they will make do without you
4. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
5. Do unto others as they would have you do unto them
6. Do unto others as the Savior would do unto them
7. Do unto others as if they were the Savior
Do unto others before they do unto you.
I call this first the Law of Self Preservation. Others have called it the law of the jungle or the survival of the fittest. The eighteenth century political philosopher Thomas Hobbs thought that life without a controlling government would revert to the operation of such a law and make life “nasty, brutish and short.” Such a dim view of human nature is an inevitably self fulfilling prophecy. Thankfully as individuals we have mostly overcome the tendency to operate on such a law. However organizations, businesses and nations often operate in a Machiavellian mindset that leads them to take advantage of one another only because they can and feel that if they could not then somebody would inevitably do take advantage of them.
While there is something to be said for the instinct of self preservation I believe that we not only must but can set aside such considerations in order to make the world a better place.
Do unto others because they have done unto you
I call this second law the Law of Justice. Unlike the first law the motivation for this is the restoration of balance and the ensuring of justice. However, as Gandhi famously once commented, if we go by the rule “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” then all of the world would be blind and toothless. Likewise the Book of Proverbs commands “Say not, I will do so to him as he hath done to me”[ii]
There is, however, an ironic element to this form of social mathematics. Although we often feel keen to invoke its use in connection with a wrong done to us, how many of us fail to even consider it when a kind act is preformed in our behalf. Too many think it is all well and good to demand equal punishment while not even considering the possibility of equal reward.
Do without others and they can do without you
I call this third law the Law of Tolerance. Although a very necessary virtue for a functional society, tolerance is all too often used as a kind of crutch, something to lean on while we heal from the broken legs of hatred but all too often are unwilling to relinquish in favor of the infinitely better healing brought only by love. As members of the church we too often choose to live the golden rule by only leaving others alone. After all, in our individualistic and atomistic modern America and multicultural world we all too often feel that we can “make it on our own” and insist that others mind their own business just so that we will not have to mind theirs. There are far too many in our numbers who, when asked to provide service in behalf of another person, reply with Cain like indigence “am I my brothers keeper?”[iii]
The truth is that we cannot build Zion on our own. Yes, salvation is a personal affair, but exaltation cannot be accomplished without a united and covenant keeping family. The establishment of Zion is a communal labor and we all have the responsibility to strengthen and serve each other, “reproving betimes with sharpness…and then showing forth an increase of love towards him [or her] whom though hast reproved.”[iv]
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
I call this classic rendition of the golden rule the Law of Kindness. The question that underlies this statement is simple yet profound: what do we want others to do to us? What are we trying to get from the people around us? Pondering on that question makes us begin to realize the importance of all of our mortal relationships. We must not only take into consideration our actions but our very nature. I have heard it said that we must be the kind of friend we want to have, and I think that counsel can be wisely applied to every aspect of our lives, making us better spouses, friends, ward and quorum members, citizens and employees.
However we must avoid the obvious trap that is all too often associated with this question. If I have learned anything from my cherished wife it has been this lesson: just because we do not mind if someone treats us in a particular fashion dose not mean that we are at liberty to behave in that way towards others regardless of their feelings.
Do unto others as they would have you do unto them
The slight of hand with pronouns that makes this law, which I call the Law of Service, so different is found in its outward focus. Although introspection is essential to really living the gospel we must also learn how to minister to others, to understand their needs and wants and do our best to fill them however we can.
This is why the best gospel teaching is not done from a pulpit or in a crowded classroom. The gospel can only be communicated on an individual basis: by missionaries delivering a prayerfully prepared presentation to their investigators, by a father talking to his son while pulling weeds, by a mother teaching her daughter while driving from one activity to another. Above all it is communicated to us by the spirit while we are seeking that spirit that we may be “edified and rejoice together”[v] with those who are trying to communicate to us their testimonies.
Do unto others as the Savior would do unto them
I call this the Law of Faith and Hope. Among the many aspects of faith is the realization that we can indeed return to live with our Father in Heaven. Once that faith has taken root it begins to produce hope that not only can he help us return, but that he will do so. Enlivened by this hope we move forward with a determination not only to understand the gospel but to live it. Once we gain this faith and hope there is no way that we can justify any of our uncharitable or unchristian actions towards our brothers and sisters here on earth.
We have been commanded to be perfect and to be as the savior is.[vi] The song I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus[vii] cannot be just another trite phrase that we adopt to soothe our consciences while we maintain our present behaviors. Thankfully we have not been sent into this earthly laboratory with only our own wits and a small collection of notes. We have an instruction book better than any college chemistry class and an unparalleled instructor. But above all we have each other and opportunities to teach and to learn, to forgive and be forgiven, and ultimately to develop the attributes which “will rise with us in the resurrection.”[viii]
Do unto others as if they were the Savior
I call this the Law of Charity. The most fundamental, and perhaps most difficult lesson that any disciple of Christ must learn is “that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.”[ix] I am reminded of my first night as a missionary in Tennessee. The Mission President gathered all of the new missionaries together into a room and we had a testimony meeting. All of us spoke by turns about how excited we were to be there, but I was struck in particular by the testimony of one young elder from Argentina. He was a convert and spoke about how he was there because of his love for his Savior, and how he wished to serve him in whatever capacity he could. The spirit was powerful as he spoke that night, and I reflected on his statement throughout my mission.
A few months later I had a very discouraging day. My companion and I were working in a poor inner city area of Chattanooga where there were few members and even fewer investigators. Poverty, it seemed, was everywhere, particularly among the Spanish speaking people we had been called on to teach. On this particular day we had been rudely dismissed from several homes.
One lady had been very critical of our efforts to teach people like her, and pointing to some prostitutes on the other side of the street suggested that they may benefit from our message more than she would. We talked to them briefly, but after they expressed their disinterest we began to walk towards the end of the street to start knocking on another row of doors. Silently I prayed and asked my Heavenly Father why I was there and what good I was doing. Quietly I felt the spirit of the lord rebuke me, and it was as if I heard a voice telling me “You don’t even know who these people are and what I have done for them.”
I understood then that these were literally my brothers and sisters, and no matter how discouraging it may be to try to speak with them about the gospel, I had no choice but to love them. For that instant all of my prejudices and biases melted away and I glimpsed how the Savior saw the people I was serving. I realized it was not enough to just love the Savior; we have to love those around us as he would love them.
In the end we may never in this life grasp the mechanics of how the atonement of Jesus Christ works. However, as a very insightful teacher once told a group I was in, we can and must begin to understand why the Savior atoned for my sins, for your sins, and for those of all our brothers and sisters around us.
[i] Matthew 7:12
[ii] Proverbs 24:20
[iii] Genesis 4:9, Moses 5:34
[iv] Doctrine and Covenants 121:43
[v] Doctrine and Covenants 50:22.
[vi] See 3 Nephi 27:27, 12:48, Matthew 5:48 and 2 Peter 3:11-12.
[vii] See the Children’s Songbook page 78-79.
[viii] Doctrine and Covenants 130:18
[ix] Mosiah 2:17