The Golden Rule: Helpful, Hurtful, or Impossible to Implement?

Two separate discussions took place in my circle this week about the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, treat others the way you want to be treated. Both conversations had the same end goal; if we as individuals would just employ this simple yet difficult principle, then our society in general would be a better place to live. The mess of politics, systemic racism, riots, and mask-wearing fights wouldn’t be happening. But there was also a snag. In both discussions, the definition of “the way I would want to be treated” came into question. Everyone has a different moral standard for the way they want to be treated, or the way they want to treat people.

The first example given was by the friend of a woman whose wedding necessitated postponement for a year due to COVID19. This friend felt bad for the bride and in an attempt to make her feel better, the friend hosted a Zoom bridal shower complete with gifts. The bride was devastated and angry. She did not want a Zoom bridal shower. An argument ensued. The friend explained that if the roles were reversed and she was the bride, she would want all the fuss of a shower on Zoom. In other words, the friend treated the bride exactly as the friend would want to be treated and it backfired. The Golden Rule made the bride angry instead of happy. What went wrong?

The second example given was from a woman whose older child did not appreciate her “wisdom.” She frequently stepped in and intervened before the son had a chance to make his own decision, thus saving him time from costly mistakes and unnecessary rabbit trails. There’s more to that particular story, but, in a nutshell, she did this because that is “the way I would want to be treated. I would want to be kept from making the wrong decisions.” Again, the Golden Rule backfired.

The third example, was from a man who opened the door for a woman and she retorted with a negative comment about being able to open the door herself. The man thought he was being polite. The woman thought his action was rude. And again, the Golden Rule backfired.

Or, so it seems.

The Golden Rule in the bible is found at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:12. The Message Version puts it this way: “Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.” Without going into a full-blown dissertation, let me point out a few things. The Sermon on the Mount, delivered by Jesus, and found in chapters 5-7 in the book of Matthew, is a teaching on moral standards in personal character and relationship. How to be a humble, upright servant, in relationship with ourselves, each other, and with God. If the Golden Rule is found within this sermon, within the teachings of Jesus, within the gospels, and within the bible, then we must surmise it has something to do with our character and the way that we love others rather than performing a specific task for someone. To put it another way, it’s more about a way of being than a way of doing.

Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church has said a hundred times if he’s said it once, “God is more interested in your character than he is your comfort.” The bible is full of lessons on character from beginning to end. A scribe asked Jesus, “Of all the commandments in the bible [at that time, only the old testament was in print], which one is the most important? Jesus answered him, ‘The first is to love the Lord God with all your passion, prayer and intelligence and energy. And here is the second: Love others as well as you love yourself. There is no other commandment that ranks with these’”(Mark 12:28-31 MSG). Jesus is saying that our time on earth is about growing our character, about being in relationship with God and others.

Some final juxtapositions. In the new testament, in a letter written by Paul to the Galatians, Paul gave them a list of character traits as a rubric to determine who were the real followers of Jesus and who were the false teachers: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such there is no law”(Galatians 5:22-23 NKJV). Jesus said in Matthew 7:20, “Therefore, by their fruits you will know them.” In John 15:7-8, Jesus said, “If you abide in me and I abide in you, you will ask what you desire and it shall be done for you [a topic for another blog post]. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit [i.e. love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control] (emphasis mine).” If these character traits mark a “Christian” as the real-deal, in conjunction with the rest of the character traits that Jesus possessed and taught—forgiveness, gratitude, humility, grace, mercy, justice, truth, obedience, trust, servitude, empathy, compassion—then we can conclude that the Golden Rule is about giving others what we have received from the Spirit of God.

The biblical definition of “love others as well as yourself” is about the above two lists of character traits, not my personal preferences or comforts. I am forgiven; therefore, I forgive the person who hurt me. I am showered in grace to complete tasks that seem to me to be out of my league; therefore, I give grace to others who are learning. Love is the choice to protect others when it is not convenient for me or if I’m inclined to be stubborn. Kindness is the opposite of making excuses when I disagree. Empathy chooses to put myself in the other person’s shoes to see the world from their vantage point. Gentleness allows a person to grow and make mistakes without my judgment or shame. Peace (peacemaker) brings people together, shows people how to cooperate, rather than defending my personal point to prove that I’m right. Justice stands up for what IS right, not just what is right for me.

This is how I want to be treated. Not focusing on tasks that ultimately, I want people to perform for me, or to appreciate what I did for them, but in giving people their dignity, in serving one another, in listening to understand, in giving grace, in working as a peacemaker. And, yes, I suspect that if we all lived by this moral standard and we decided to be responsible to each other with these character traits, that our society would, indeed, be a better place to live.

If you go to the “Podcast Video Library” tab on my website, you can watch the YouTube version of Episode 31, “Treating Others How We Want To Be Treated,” by @TwoStepsAheadPodcast  Highlighting the stuff we’ve stepped in so you don’t have to. Listen on all major podcast platforms and watch on TV in Long Beach and Pasadena, California.

Tara Hoke Schiro is a Los Angeles based author, podcaster, blogger, and designer for Wear Your Character. All can be found at