This article is part of Rooted’s 2019 student series, where young Christians share their experiences of faith in high school and college. Mac Harris is a 2019 graduate of Davidson College.
If you asked me, “What’s the Golden Rule?” I would probably tell you it’s the fourth or fifth best barbecue joint in Birmingham, Alabama. And to be honest, that’s being a little generous. But if you asked a normal person, they would probably tell you something predictable like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Experts disagree.
For many of us, learning the Golden Rule was and is a staple of Sunday School, and for good reason: it provides kids (and adults) with a rule of thumb for every interaction that is straightforward, easy to remember, and best of all, literally the Word of God (Matt. 7:12).
What most people don’t know, however, is that the Golden Rule and its ethic of other-centeredness existed long before Jesus, and spans across many cultures and religions, including several ancient East Asian religions and Judaism. While the simplicity and near-universality of the Golden Rule are two of its strengths, the actual doing unto others is much harder than simply reciting it, for Christians and non-Christians alike. Perhaps it is so popular because we are so bad at it.
Yet today, in a society desperate to distance itself from its religious roots, the fashionable secular Golden Rule for moral behavior reads more like “you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm others.” Further, Christians are often criticized for trying to “force” their narrow morals on others. Christian students must be aware of the culture and prepared to engage with a world starved of kindness and full of despair. As such, we Christians must seek what Jesus really meant when He told us to do unto others, and what sets His teaching apart from the rest.
Of course, Christians are no better at Golden Ruling than anyone else, and we shouldn’t aim at self-betterment by gritting our teeth in reluctant obedience. If we’re not saved by our own efforts (and we are not), we can’t hope to change the world through forced smiles. So what does Jesus really ask of us?
“…as you would have them do unto you”
We’ll start in reverse order—to know how to do unto others, it seems you must first know how you would have them do unto you. But if all I ask is, “do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt me,” that is a pretty depressing standard to set. The bar is too low. As a child of God created in His image, surely I can hope for more.
In his famous sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” scholar and theologian C.S. Lewis examines several of God’s promises, most notably that we will be glorified with and by Him in heaven (Rom. 2:6-11, 8:29-30; 2 Cor. 3:16-18). As Lewis (and Scripture) details, by the grace of God, human beings redeemed by Christ are so much more than an average Joe (that’s the technical term) worthy only of harm-avoidance.
No, by the death, resurrection, and saving grace of Jesus, we are to be clothed in fine linens, reflecting the splendor and glory of God Himself, and bearing the crown of life (Rev. 19:8; James 1:12). In Heaven we will not only glorify God eternally, but remarkably, He will bestow some of His glory on us. “To be loved by God,” writes Lewis, is to be “delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory,” one that saturates our life with His eternal favor.
It is easy to acknowledge God’s love for us, but few of us know it. Few of us live like we are worthy of God’s love, approval, and delight, but Jesus makes us so. We are “known” by God, we bear His image, and we are a temple for His Spirit, and therefore we are worthy of so much more than merely not being harmed (1 Cor. 8:3; 3:16). If we have been made worthy of love and dignity from the Creator of the universe, surely we ought to be treated as precious by other people. But now comes the hard part.
“do unto others…”
In turn, out of God’s adoring acceptance of us comes our mandate to treat others with the same love and respect. “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back,” Lewis writes, urging us to consider how God views others as well as ourselves—holy, cherished, and worthy of His glory.
Whether interacting with family, friends, or complete strangers, Lewis reminds us to approach each interaction with a heavenly perspective: “There are no ordinary people,” he writes. “You have never talked to a mere mortal…but it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
As such, we ought to live and love like everyone we interact with may one day be endowed with God’s own glory. Just as we are covered by Christ’s righteousness when God looks at us, so too we ought to see God’s children as worthy of His love and glory. And as Christians, we must also recognize that Jesus does not differentiate between believers and nonbelievers when he speaks of “others” in Matthew 7:12. We are all created in the image of God, and like Lewis says, “we live in a society of possible gods and goddesses.”
By the grace of God, there’s more than meets the eye to all of us, and by living out of our own approval in the eyes of God, we can see God’s favor rest upon His other image-bearers. We are not threatened by or jealous of His love for other people, so we are free to respond to our brothers and sisters in loving kindness.
“Love your neighbor as yourself”
The saving life and death of Christ reminds us of the inherent worth and dignity to each and every person, and the popular “do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt others” mentality doesn’t hold up to Christ’s standard. And yet, He challenges us to even more.
While the world upholds selflessness or not telling others how to live as the supreme moral value, Christ reminds us that love is the highest virtue (Mark 12:30-31). In Lewis’ mind, the world’s philosophy doesn’t seek the betterment of others, but rather the restraint of ourselves, “as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.”
Lewis reminds us that the substitution of the negative command of self-denial for Christ’s positive instruction to love is foolish, and instead urges us to actively love others. “Our charity must be a real and costly love,” he writes, “with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love.”
Treating others with love doesn’t mean we are always in agreement, or that we always endorse their actions, or even that we enjoy interacting with them. Sometimes, loving one another requires us to disagree and have hard conversations. But we must take one other seriously, with “no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption,” and see every person as our neighbor worthy of God’s love, and of ours.
This is no easy task in the hallways of high school and campuses of college.
As students, we grow and interact with a culture that is increasingly desperate for the very values it has rejected. As Christians, we are uniquely positioned to offer redemptive love and reliable hope to everyone, friend or foe. It is easy enough to do unto others when they do good to you, but it’s never easy when we are challenged, disrespected, or not treated as worthy children of the Most High.
Nevertheless, when we remember not only who we are in Christ, but also who others are in the eyes of God, we find freedom as our motivations shift from moralistic self-denial to sacrificial, godly love. Our tendencies to judge, envy, gossip, or belittle become harder and harder when we see our neighbors as bearers of God’s glory. After all, Lewis reminds us that second only to Communion, “your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Imagine if we actually lived like that.