Why the Golden Rule is both Dysfunctional Tyranny and Invitation to Joy

Golden Rule

Presenting at the Art Institute

Every few months a friend of mine invites me to present Christianity in his class “Myth, Ritual and Magic” at the Art Institute of Sacramento. I love presenting in that context. The classes are filled with wonderful, interesting and diverse students. The student body is in fact so diverse there is little I can assume in terms of background knowledge. Most of the students in the class have little or no knowledge of the Bible. A highlight of the presentation for me each time is telling this group of people the story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. It is such a powerful story and to be able to witnesses the power of this story come alive for the students for the first time is truly a thrill.

If there is one thing I can count on in that student body it would be their approval and embrace of the concept of “love”. While diverse Americans may struggle to agree on whole hosts of things what it seems most can agree on, especially the young, is that love is good.

If I were to ask this group about Jesus most would express some positive ideas about him a lot of which I think is attributed to his reputation as being connected with love. Jesus was known as being accepting, eating with sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes, welcoming little children, forgiving sins, and giving the golden rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Why Does Love Break Down? 

I usually dig a little deeper with the class to explore why, if we can all agree that love is good, that love should guide our lives, that love should permeate not only our face to face social relationships but our public policies, we fail at love so predictably? Marriages end. Families break apart. Civil unrest breaks out over police brutality, racism, poverty, etc. Why don’t we do better at love?

The usual answer that comes back is “people are selfish”.

I usually push them a bit harder. “Aren’t the same people who say love is good, who say the golden rule exhibits a great way to live together, why are these people selfish? Or is it that there are two classes of people, people who love and people who are selfish?

Few people take that bait. Most of us know ourselves better than this. We know aspirations of being better people despite the bias that we imagine ourselves better than we really are. We consider ourselves, like all the children of Lake Wobegon “above average” yet we know we are not perfect. Maybe forgivable, but not perfect.

If asked why love breaks down we look to the list of usual suspects:

  • fear
  • hate
  • bigotry
  • loss

When asked how we can overcome our love deficit other usual suspects are presented

  • be nicer
  • pass more loving laws
  • get rid of religion or ignorance
  • share feelings
  • hug
  • volunteer at a homeless shelter
  • do what feels good

Mostly what we tend to believe in is

  • admit my failures
  • fell badly about them
  • promise to try harder

Jesus’ Big Command

Given this is how we are, Jesus’ command seems to fit right in.

John 15:9–17 (NET)

9 “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; remain in my love. 10 If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete. 12 My commandment is this—to love one another just as I have loved you.13 No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I no longer call you slaves, because the slave does not understand what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because I have revealed to you everything I heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that remains, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. 17 This I command you—to love one another.

Now there is what is written and there is what we hear and what sinks into our heads. If you are like me you read and this sounds like “blah blah blah ‘love one another’ blah blah blah…”

If we read a bit harder we experience some dissonance “if you obey my commandments” and right there we being to see the fly in the religious ointment. Isn’t it all this law stuff and rule stuff that gets in the way of love? This is where we go wrong. Get rid of the law, just love. Love is my law. Love is my religion. Love is love.

The Golden Rule

What lurks in our mind is in fact the golden rule. Isn’t this the greatest expression of love?

“Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”

Jesus himself said this. It’s right there in Matthew 12.

Now to either burst your Christian exclusivist bubble, or to enliven your “unity of all mankind” pluralist bubble I should inform you that this rule was not original to Jesus. The rule is sometimes know as the rule of reciprocity. You can find it in ancient China, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, India. Go ahead, look it up.

If all of the world already had this command why should Jesus bother to come? If all the world already had this command why are people so bad at love?

Applying the Golden Rule

Let’s apply this rule. Let’s imagine that you wish to love me. This means that you will bind your behavior in the universe of my perception to my will. Your project of loving me makes my will a law to you and for you, and if you violate my will you violate love. Now how does this project sound?

Now I’m sure you’re internal lawyer will quickly jump into action.

  • My love for you must be limited because your view of me can be universal and all encompassing! Let’s imagine that your desires and your wants start to look upon whom I will love, how I will spend my time and my money, how I will live my life. You should back off and give me MY space.
  • Fairness than demands that you LOVE me back making YOU totally under my will by this law of love too, so there!
  • My love for you must only be limited to what is good for you, and if you and I disagree on what is good for you then I must default to what I imagine is good for you, not what you think is good for yourself. This of course, violates the golden rule, however. Hmmm.

You can see this gets complicated very quickly.

Now you might begin to see why this “love one another” is very quickly followed up by all of this talk of commandments. Read back to the beginning of chapter 15 about the vine and the branches, or back to 13 with the foot washing where this law is given for the first time, or back to the beginning of the Gospel of John.

“Love” as some blanket, easily resolution to human differences is not looking quite so easy after all.

The Four Loves

Part of our dilemma is that in English we have the world “love” which really means a lot of things. CS Lewis wrote a book The Four Loves  where he parses out affection (storge), romantic love (eros), friendship (phileo) and self-giving love (agape). Its a classic on the subject and well worth your time. What we begin to see is that not all love is the same. To love someone well may become the most difficult and costly thing that you can do. This is why it is also true that to love is to suffer. The opposite of love is not hate but indifference, and choosing not to love is actually inviting hell to come into your life.

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket— safe, dark, motionless, airless— it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

Lewis, C. S. (1971-09-29). The Four Loves (Harvest Book) (p. 121). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Remaining in Love

You might have also noticed the strangeness of Jesus’ language here.

John 15:9–10 (NET)

9 “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; remain in my love. 10 If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.

And you might notice how it echoes, in fact the Greek word that we translate “remain” which old translations render “abide” which has a sense of “live”, what is found in the vine imagery that opens the chapter.

John 15:4 (NET)

4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.

What we see is that this imagery of the vine in the previous verses opens up an imaginative picture of love and that this love has everything to do with wanting to please the other and live within the will of another.

Not A Symmetrical Union

Now for some of us this is sounding very scary indeed. The thought of surrendering so much of ourselves sounds not only threatening but unhealthy. Words like “enmeshed” come to mind, or even “co-dependent”. If the Golden Rule is actually thoroughly applied as an ultimate law towards other human beings we can quite easily look at this as a recipe for disaster, and many relationships can bear that out. But the invitation here is into a relationship not with another sinful, broken, selfish human being but a relationship with someone with whom we are not equals. That changes the relationship.

We might imagine this is something we might flee from, and that certainly makes sense, but only if we imagine that we could flee from this being AND keep all of the things we need and want. The imagine Jesus gives, however, is that in fact we are, at this moment, completely indebted to this being for not only the physical needs we have, air, food, water, but also the emotional needs, other human beings, and the platform upon which we experience these needs, our physical selves, our relational selves, and our emotional selves. In Biblical terms the place we can find to divorce ourselves from our dependence from this being would be called hell. It is a place where none of the goodness he offers or gives is available to us.

In imagining such a being, the source of all goodness, being, love and light we might ask why such a being would in fact what to have communion with us? We get suspicious and frightened that this being will abuse us and take from us and do harm to us. When we think this way we, however, are forgetting that in fact all good that we have ever known has come from him, and it was given freely to us out of no obligation from himself. We also begin to recognize that the reason we can’t fully and freely love other people is because it is other people that are the source of our miseries.

What Does this God Want for us? 

You might have noticed a lot of repetition in the text. Scholars have pretty much figured out that this was a way of communicating designed to give emphasis and help us appreciate the parts and how they work together. Consider how scholar Raymond Brown helps us be making this little diagram.

Raymond Brown, the Gospel of John, Anchor Bible

Raymond Brown, the Gospel of John, Anchor Bible

God’s motivation is not that he wants to get something out of us, as if he needed something or that he could somehow add to himself at our own expense. What he wants, and what Jesus wants, is to share his joy with us.

But how can we believe him.

How The Evening Started

Again, we are impoverished here by only taking a small snippet of the book. Let’s go back to the part where this all started.

John 13:1–17 (NET)

1 Just before the Passover feast, Jesus knew that his time had come to depart from this world to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now loved them to the very end.2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, that he should betray Jesus.3 Because Jesus knew that the Father had handed all things over to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 he got up from the meal, removed his outer clothes, took a towel and tied it around himself.5 He poured water into the washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel he had wrapped around himself. 6 Then he came to Simon Peter. Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not understand what I am doing now, but you will understand after these things.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet!” Jesus replied, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus replied, “The one who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean. And you disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 (For Jesus knew the one who was going to betray him. For this reason he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”) 12 So when Jesus had washed their feet and put his outer clothing back on, he took his place at the table again and said to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and do so correctly, for that is what I am.14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example—you should do just as I have done for you. 16 I tell you the solemn truth, the slave is not greater than his master, nor is the one who is sent as a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

John 13:31–35 (NET)

31 When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and he will glorify him right away.33 Children, I am still with you for a little while. You will look for me, and just as I said to the Jewish religious leaders, ‘Where I am going you cannot come,’ now I tell you the same. 34 “I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.35 Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.”

What you see from this is that Jesus and the Father are showing us what love is, how to love and what love costs. Our command to love one another is the outward manifestation of our welcome into their communion and the witness of their communion.

Our Implicit Naive Assumption about Love in this Age

When we hear this stuff part of us gets excited about it because we believe we’ve found the key. This is the excitement I hear in the class at the Art Institute.

“Love is the answer. Love redeems! All you need is love! All you need to do is return someone’s evil with kindness and they will suddenly see the error of their ways and start being kind back to you and then love wins!”

That’s a lovely sentiment and it is one that has been shared by many people. It is something that has been propagated by the success of the civil rights movement in America. The further we get away from that movement the more this myth propagates. Some of this myth comes from Gandhi who believed that the Jews should have practiced his non-violence against Hitler.

In the shadow of Treblinka and Auschwitz or even Kristallnacht, Gandhi’s remarks seem extraordinary, even obscenely naïve. In the same vein, his ambivalent views on Hitler shocked even his supporters. On July 23, 1939, he had written an open letter to Hitler begging him to renounce violence. “It is clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state,” it read. “Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war?”9

Hitler, of course, did not. But that did not stop Gandhi from sending the dictator more letters in May and June 1940, or from telling Linlithgow that same month, “Hitler is not a bad man.” As Hitler’s panzers roared across France, Gandhi wrote that future generations of Germans would “honor Herr Hitler as a genius, as a brave man, as a matchless organizer and much more.”10 In his last missive to Hitler, written the day before Christmas 1941, Gandhi praised “your bravery [and] devotion to your fatherland…Nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents”—one of the most vocal being Winston Churchill.

Herman, Arthur (2008-04-29). Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (Kindle Locations 8622-8631). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

So on one hand we can get all excited about the potential power of love but on the other we are cynical. We know it doesn’t “work” like we want it to or need it to.

We should look at this and tell Jesus “you know if you practice this stuff they will kill you.” which is of course exactly what they did. If you keep reading in John 15 the next line is “if the world hates you remember that they hated me first.”


This is the world that we live in. While there are glorious things in it it is controlled by us and this is what we do.

4 Q. What does God’s law require of us?

A. Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22–

Love the Lord your God
with all your heart
and with all your soul
and with all your mind
and with all your strength. 1 *
This is the first and greatest commandment.

And the second is like it:
Love your neighbor as yourself. 2

All the Law and the Prophets hang
on these two commandments.

5 Q. Can you live up to all this perfectly?

A. No. 1
I have a natural tendency
to hate God and my neighbor.


Jesus comes and loves us because we can’t love him. He shows his disciples by washing their feet. Then he shows them by his death on the cross.

At this moment we realize what love costs and we are crushed.

Then he rises from the dead and again, invites us into his love. He rescues us and then invites us to follow.


Now how will you respond? Do you wish to live in his love like the branches abide in the vine? Apply the Golden Rule in your relationship to him. He did all of this so that we may share in his joy. This is his invitation to us.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Why the Golden Rule is both Dysfunctional Tyranny and Invitation to Joy

  1. Neal Plantinga says:

    This is a wonderfully thoughtful entry on love. I’ve savored it.

  2. Dave Vroege says:

    Hi Paul,
    I appreciate this post. I’m having trouble understanding the first paragraph and the following 3 bullets in section titled “Applying the Golden Rule.” Can you elaborate – better, might be to give an example – on what you mean by “This means that you will bind your behavior in the universe of my perception to my will”? Also, I’m a bit confused in the 3 following bullets as to which character is speaking, and so there, too, am having a hard time grasping the point. Would you be willing to elaborate or explain (or punctuate differently?) that section? Thanks!

  3. Pingback: Why the Golden Rule and Lesbians in a Canadian Jewelry Shop | Leadingchurch.com

  4. Pingback: Jesus at Twelve, Submissive and Disruptive | Leadingchurch.com

  5. Pingback: The Golden Rule | BibleOpia Blog

  6. Warren Mills says:

    Dear Paul.

    Greetings from Down Under. I am very much informed and encouraged by you and your comments re Jordan Peterson. Thank you.

    I am writing a book, How Good is the Golden Rule? Are you interested to read the MS?

    I am also starting a Jordan Peterson discussion group at my Anglican church in Melbourne, commencing with the Easter series, Any suggestions?

    Best regards
    Warren Mills

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