How the Golden Rule Can Hurt our Relationships

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:31

Golden Rule

The Golden Rule. Everyone knows this! And I think everyone generally agrees that it’s a great philosophy for life. Treat others how you would want to be treated. What could be wrong with that?

What we don’t realize is that somewhere deep down, we inadvertently translated the Rule to mean this: “If you do unto others as you would have them do to you, then you should expect them to do the same.”

Without knowing this, we proceed through our daily lives, trying to treat others in a kind, fair, and loving manner. But then it happens: someone breaks the Rule. Someone doesn’t treat you the way you ought to be treated. They don’t play fair and you feel like they owe you something.

I mean, it makes sense that we feel jipped! If this Golden Rule is so universally agreed-upon, we have a right to judge fairness by it, and a right to expect fairness! Or do we?

Somewhere along the way, the Golden Rule becomes our reasoning behind a keeping-score mentality in our relationships. “If I do this, then you should do this.” But this way of thinking has no place in a healthy relationship, especially in the life of a Christian.

Did you know that this keeping-score translation of the Golden Rule is actually the complete opposite of what Jesus intended? We see this when we read the Golden Rule in its context in the Bible:

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” Luke 6:27-35

To Jesus, the Golden Rule means that we are to love those who don’t deserve it and give without expecting anything in return, in fact likely expecting that the other person can never pay us back.

Huh? How is that fair?! To truly love others as Jesus loves us means that we don’t always get what’s “fair.” Was it “fair” that Jesus died on the cross for sins he never committed? True love means that we put others before ourselves. True love means we are willing to die to ourselves and our needs. It’s that kind of love that the Golden Rule calls us to have in all our relationships. There’s no keeping score, there’s no “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” There is only true love, modeled by God, himself.

This kind of love is tough! It’s so much easier to live by the non-biblical Golden Rule!!! I know that a keeping-score mentality is something that I fall into very easily. In my marriage, I can be quick to think that I’m the one who has done more housework or that I deserve to be the one to get to relax. Or with my friends, I can feel like I’m the only one who is putting effort in the relationship. When I start to feel that way, the resentment starts boiling over and I feel cheated. Do you ever feel this way?

So what does God’s version of the Golden Rule look like in our relationships?

It means we mentally commit to living by his standard, not by our own standard. And then, we follow through! We give, give, give. We love, love, love. And we don’t expect anything in return. I once read about a married couple that purposely tried to “out-nice” each other.  They would seek any way they could show kindness to each other: even little things like putting toothpaste on their partner’s toothbrush before the spouse got out of bed. THAT’S the kind of love we should be seeking after in our marriages, our families, and our friendships.

For some, the first step to tangibly live out God’s Golden Rule may need to be forgiveness. Someone once told me that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. If you have felt cheated or unfairly treated for a while now, you may have developed a grudge against the other person. But the grudge you hold is hurting you more than anyone else. Forgiving that person will actually free you. Forgiving them doesn’t make what the person did right, and it doesn’t downplay the hurt you feel. But it does mean you aren’t holding it against them anymore. We must choose to forgive the slights of others in order to be able to live out the Golden Rule as God calls us to. Remember the verses we read: “bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”. Maybe the reason why that person hurt you is because love is what they need most.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to keep allowing ourselves to be hurt in the same way, however. If your friend or spouse is the one who makes you feel unfairly treated, there is nothing wrong with having some open communication about it. In love, have an honest conversation with your spouse or friend and tell them what things trigger your feelings of unfairness – you may find that they weren’t even aware of how they were hurting you!

BUT you have to commit to listening to their side of the story, too, which means trusting their intentions and being willing see ways that maybe you have accidentally treated them unfairly. Depending on the state of your communication, this may need to take place with a pastor or counselor to mediate. As you discuss, don’t attack them, just explain how their action makes you feel. Use “I” messages instead of “You” messages. Say “I feel this way when you…” instead of “You always do this and this”. For example, tell them that it makes you feel cheated when you are the one vacuuming while they are playing games in their iPhone. Remember, this isn’t about keeping score, it’s about treating each other in a Christ-like way. Once there is transparency in your relationship, you will feel even greater freedom and desire to love each other as Christ loved us.

And just as a quick caution: what does God’s version of the Golden Rule NOT look like? It doesn’t mean we allow ourselves to be in an abusive relationship. We don’t allow others degrade or demean us in the name of love.

When we misconstrue the Golden Rule, we can certainly destroy our relationships with a skewed mindset of “fairness.” Only when we commit to the Golden Rule challenge to love like Christ – self-sacrificially, without expecting anything in return – will we do unto others as God says we should.

How will you live out the Golden Rule this week?

  1. Choose to “out-kind” your friend, spouse, or family member this week.
  2. Choose to forgive and let go of a long-held grudge. We can forgive because Christ first forgave us. Embrace the freedom you get from forgiveness – the freedom to love others in the same way that Christ does!
  3. Pursue honest communication with your partner about your feelings, solely for the purpose of reconciliation. It’s ok if you need the help of a trusted counselor to do this. Discuss with them (in “I” messages) actions that seem unfair, and purposely ask them if there are any behaviors of yours that seem unfair to them. Commit to see each other’s point of view and ask for forgiveness. Remember, this isn’t about “winning,” this is about resolving a conflict in order to love each other better.
  4. Purposely give to someone you know can never pay you back. This could mean anonymously donating money to a person or a cause. Or giving a hot meal to a homeless person. Use your imagination! Take time to reflect on how it feels to love others with no pay-back.
  5. Every time you feel cheated or jipped (maybe someone cut in front of you in line at the grocery store), purposely stop and remember this verse: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Before lashing out in anger, think of one way you can show great love to this person. Now DO IT! And then, let it go – choose to keep no record of wrongs.

Related reading:

Romans 12:17 (Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.)

Philippians 2:3-4 (Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.)


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