June 2019   
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Matthew 7:12


            As much as I believe the Bible to be the reliable and authoritative word of God, I’ve got to confess: I’ve found a hole in the Golden Rule.  That doesn’t mean I believe the Golden Rule to be in error.  What I mean is that we should be careful not to draw the wrong conclusions from Jesus’ words.

            Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “So whatever you wish that people would do to you, do so to them, for this is the Law and the prophets.”  Jesus says that doing this is what it means to fulfill God’s law and the teachings of the prophets.  What Jesus means is, “Treat people in a way that shows them the same kind of consideration for their feelings that you would want them to show to you.”

            Lots of folks have garbled the Golden Rule over the years.  We have the one version that says, “Do unto others as they do unto you” (they hit you, you hit them), which leads to the even more garbled version, “Do unto others before they do unto you”!   But the real confusion arises when we get Jesus’ words straight, but we get his meaning wrong.  Too often we take Jesus’ words too literally, as if Jesus was saying, “Do unto others exactly as you would have them do unto you.”

            The big question is: What if what you want from them, is not what they want from you??  There’s the gaping hole in the Golden Rule I’m talking about.  The Golden Rule is not foolproof in itself.  Its value depends completely on our ability to understand what the other person wants.

            And that’s where the confusion begins.  People who pretend or imagine that they always know what the other person wants, without checking it out to be sure, may be embarrassed to discover how often they are wrong.  What may be a kindness to one person may be a kick in the teeth to the next person.  It doesn’t matter whether we had good intentions.  Good intentions do not guarantee the desired results.

            Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, tells us to imagine an eye doctor who listens to us briefly as we describe our vision problem, then takes off his or her own glasses and says to us, “Here, put these on.  I’ve worn these for 10 years and they’ve really helped me.”  We put them on and says, “Whoa!  This is terrible!  I can’t see a thing!”  The doctor says, “Well, what’s wrong?  They work great for me.  Try harder.”  You say, “I am trying.  Everything is a blur.”  The doctor says, “What’s the matter with you?  Think positive.”  You say, “Okay.  I positively can’t see a thing.”  And the doctor responds, “Are you ever ungrateful!  And after all I’ve done to help you!”

            What are the chances we’d want to go back to that doctor the next time we need help with our eyes?  We probably wouldn’t have much confidence in a doctor who fails to diagnose carefully before they prescribe.  But – how often do we make the same obvious mistake in our daily relations with people?

            Stephen Covey goes on to observe that we read our own life stories into what we think other people want or need.  We make tons of assumptions about why people do what they do, or what people want to make them happy.

            The frightening thought for me is: How much of what we do for others do we do because it makes us feel good, regardless of whether it meets the other person’s needs?  The answer could be downright embarrassing.  How many hostesses serve food based on what they like, without stopping to think that what others prefer may be very different?  Not everyone likes sugar.  Not everyone likes butter.  Not everyone likes meat.

            How many toys are bought for children, when maybe it’s more time with Mom and Dad that the kid really wants?  Often toys are designed to appeal, not so much to the kids, but to the parents who buy them.  The kid’s idea of fun may be different from Mom and Dad’s.  We can’t assume that kids will like teddy bears, dolls, or dump trucks, just because we loved them.  People who always think they know what others want may be only fooling themselves.  Shopping for gifts can be very stressful for those who know the pitfalls to the Golden Rule.

            How many flowers and bottles of perfume are bought for wives, when maybe it’s not really flowers or perfume the wife wants?  Both husbands and wives bring carloads full of unspoken expectations into their marriages: assumptions about how to show love and affection, assumptions about what is cruel and insensitive behavior, assumptions about how to define a “mess,” assumptions they were raised with about what makes a real man or a real woman, or how a husband or wife ought to act – assumptions that can be very different for the 2 partners.

            In the church, we could save ourselves a lot of grief if we would quit assuming that everyone knows exactly what we expect.  Take, for example, the job of a pastor.  A church makes a written contract with a pastor.  They spell out certain job expectations.  In addition to what the 2 parties put in writing, there may be verbal agreements about what the pastor will or will not do (such as locking and unlocking the church).  But then there are those expectations that we don’t bother to spell out explicitly because any good pastor ought to know that automatically.

            How often do we expect the pastor to come visit us in the hospital?  Once a day?  Once a week?  Some people don’t want anyone to visit them in the hospital.  How far do we expect the pastor to come?  To the Mayo Clinic?  To Memphis or Louisville?  And how long do we expect the pastor to stay?  Do we expect the pastor to stay all night in a crisis?  We assume the pastor knows exactly what we want.

            It is our unspoken expectations that make us the angriest if they are broken.  We assume that people will wear clothes to work.  If someone came to work naked, we’d be MAD.  We assume certain standards of common decency.  We shouldn’t have to spell them out.  But nowadays it’s risky to assume anything.

            Some folks never spell out what they want in advance, then they go ballistic when you violate their wishes.  Sound like anyone you know?  Is that any way to treat others the way that we would want to be treated?  Could we be doing that ourselves, and we don’t even realize it?  How many of us would work for a boss who won’t tell us what to do, but yells at us when we do it wrong?  How many of you have ever seen someone get up to speak, and nobody can hear, but nobody tells the speaker to turn up the volume until afterwards when it’s too late?

            Friends, all of us need to lay our unspoken expectations on the table.  We need to spell them out clearly, so we don’t leave people in the dark.  Yes, it may be risky.  It may be easier said than done, but laying our unspoken expectations on the table is the only way we can prevent those painful misunderstandings that can kill relationships.  We cannot presume that others know or share our unspoken assumptions.  We cannot presume that others wish to be treated exactly the same way we do.

            Innocent misunderstandings based on faulty assumptions can cause painful mistakes.  Someday, you may be the one who makes such a mistake.  The pain of such a mistake is often compounded because the other person thinks we were trying to hurt them on purpose.  Assumptions like these can make or break a relationship.  We can choose to assume the worst of one another, or we can choose to assume the best.  Choosing to accept the best is part of what the Bible calls love.  We need to get past false and mistaken expectations. 

The Golden Rule may not be a reliable measure for our expectations.  “I’ll treat your car like it was my own” could be a scary promise if the other person’s car is junk.  Or what if we are asked for financial aid by a person who is squandering their resources in a way that we would never dream of if we were poor like them?  Or what if they demand more love and attention or more special treatment than we would ever expect?  Some people’s demands are unreasonable.  The Golden Rule gives us a bottom limit we can apply.  We are not commanded to do more for others than we would desire from them, but – we dare not do less.

Applying the Golden Rule can be a very sticky cultural issue.  Some might say, “Just treat everyone with common courtesy.”  Who defines what “common courtesy” is?  God did not write the rules of etiquette.  They are based on cultural assumptions that change drastically from culture to culture.  Take Japan, for instance, where it is impolite to say No or to express disagreement to someone’s face.  In Japan, don’t take Yes for your final answer!

Or keep in mind that some of the friendly gestures we use can be insults to others.  Whatever you do, don’t do this (friendly hand wave) to a Greek, don’t do this (A-OK sign) to someone from Spain, and don’t do this (thumbs-up sign) to an Australian.  Those are all insults.  We have to remember: Not everyone thinks the way we do!  How silly to think that the whole world revolves around our point of view!

Following the Golden Rule is not as simple as it sounds.  By now I’ve probably got you thoroughly confused.  You’re probably wondering, “What does God want us to be, mind-readers?”  No, the only guaranteed way to know how others wish to be treated is to ask, to do our homework, to get to know others the way we would want to be understood.  There are no shortcuts.

As much as each of us wants to look like the magic swami who always knows instinctively what pleases others without asking, fulfilling the Golden Rule only happens by accident unless we take the trouble to understand others the way we would want to be understood.  And most of us are too lazy to do that effectively enough to learn the truth.  Knowing the hole in the Golden Rule should not lead us to give up trying.  It should lead us to put on our thinking cap more, not less.

But despite all the pitfalls I have spoken of, let me concede that more often than not, the Golden Rule does work.  I can guarantee you at least these two cases in which it is true: no one wants to be ripped off, and no one wants to be lied to.

If someone has unknowingly hurt us, we need to ask ourselves: What would we want them to do if we had unknowingly hurt them?  Would we want them to badmouth us to everyone and leave us in the dark?  Or would we want them to come straight to us and tell us, so that we can avoid repeating our mistake?

In our business, if we are negotiating prices or contracts, we must consider not only “What can I get out of this deal?”, but “What would I consider fair if I were in their shoes?”  If the customer knows they’ll get a fair deal from you, you’ll come out ahead in the long run.  Successful businesses will always to try to see life the way the customer sees it.  As a consumer shopping for clothes, many times I’ve wondered, “Does the clothing industry know that I exist?  Do they know or care what I want or need?  How often do they take the trouble to even ask?

As we seek to reach out to people outside the church, we need to remember that what would attract them into a church is not necessarily what we would want.  The successful fisherman is the one who thinks like a fish.  What matters is not how much we like the bait, but what the fish are looking for.  Taking the trouble to understand is the key to reaching the hearts of our non-church neighbors.

Placing ourselves in someone else’s shoes can be an eye-opening exercise: taking off the blinders of our own assumptions, taking the trouble to consider the way they feel, what they have grown up to expect, what’s going on in their lives at the moment.  Once we’ve done that, most of the time we will be able to understand how others want to be treated.  The trick is being sensitive enough to recognize when our wishes may not be the same as our neighbor’s.

Jesus teaches us to treat people in a way that shows them the same kind of consideration that we would want them to show to us.  Putting that teaching into practice is not as easy as it sounds, but Jesus says that’s what it means to fulfill God’s law and the teachings of the prophets.

Jesus is the only one who ever lived who practiced what he preached.  All of us fall short of the standard that Jesus has set for us by his sinless life, and the Bible says that he is the one by whom we will one day be judged.  Friends, we need a Savior.  Only Jesus Christ, by his saving death on the cross, can save us and put us right with God.  The Golden Rule is a reminder to us of how much we need a Savior.  It also shows us that God took the trouble to think of our needs long before we knew we had a need.

Let us pray.  Lord, help us to be more sensitive to the needs that others feel.  Open our eyes to see.  Give us ears to hear, that we may learn to see the world as others see it, and that we may respond the way that we would desire to be treated.  We ask for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

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