of the fundamental moral principles found in nearly all religions is the
concept of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – this is the ‘Golden Rule’. Examples of this
approach to life can be found in many sacred scriptures:
So whatever you wish
that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and
the Prophets. Matthew 7:12
Do not do to others what
you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against
you, either in the family or in the state. Analects
Hurt not others in ways
that you yourself would find hurtful. Udana-Varga 5:18
This is the sum of duty;
do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you.
No one of you is a
believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for
What is hateful to you,
do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is
commentary. Talmud, Shabbat 31a
Accepting the Golden Rule as a principle for living adds a
completely new dimension to the meaning of life. It emphasises that we
should not act in our own interests regardless of others but rather see
ourselves as part of a wider community in which we want to build a
reciprocal relationship with others based on goodwill. And the fact that
this ‘rule’ appears throughout world religious texts encourages us to
see that it should be applied regardless of race, religion or culture.
The American poet Edwin Markham wrote:
“We have committed the Golden Rule to
memory; let us now commit it to life.”
And this is where the difficulty arises. It is very
easy to know we should apply this rule in daily living but another thing
entirely to actually follow it in everything we do. Take a simple
example like driving a car.
Imagine you are driving along an urban road in slow
traffic desperate to make progress (an unfortunately common experience).
You are about to pass a junction on your left from which several drivers
are waiting to join your line of traffic. Do you (a) – ignore them
completely and carry straight on regardless or do you (b) – waive to
them to drive into line in front of you? Now if we are honest with
ourselves we probably adopt tactic (a) far more often than (b) because
we see it as serving our purposes best – after all we want
to get to where we are going! But the Golden Rule asks us to put
ourselves in the other person’s position – what would we want to happen
if we were waiting at the junction. The answer, of course, is very clear
but how often do we act upon it? And where does failing to follow the
Golden Rule in driving lead us to? Well ultimately it can lead to
such problems as
‘road rage’ which can have terrifying implications for those involved.
As we can see from this example, what we need to do
to follow the Golden Rule is often quite simple but actually obeying it
can prove quite difficult.
All spiritual living involves three steps.
Spiritual living starts in simply following some ‘ideal’ or ‘rule’ about
how we should live, such as the Golden Rule. We look at the Golden Rule
and see the sense that it is a good way to live – and then we try to
obey it. In this way we get onto the first step in living spiritually
according to the Golden Rule. This 'first step' is quite basic and 'down
to earth' and has something of self-interest in it – after all we are
“doing for others what we would wish them to do for us”. But we can move
on away from this rather self-interested approach.
As we try harder and harder to follow this ‘first
step’ and obey the ‘rule’ in all aspects of our lives we begin to
appreciate the good this leads to for others. We are
then ready to move on upwards to the ‘second step’ – we begin to follow
the ‘rule’ not because we feel we have to obey it or because we see the
value for ourselves but because we see the
truth that it is a wise way to live. Following it has become easier
because it is now part of the way we think about life and how it should
be lived. We have replaced basic obedience with a developing wisdom.
But there is a ‘third step’ in our spiritual growth –
the step where love takes over. We no longer want to follow the ‘rule’
through simple obedience, nor because we see it is a wise way to live
but because our love for others drives us to live that way.
All spiritual living needs to involve these three
steps of growth from obedience through wisdom to love.
Emanuel Swedenborg commented on the difference
between obedience and love when we are doing good for others:
good from obedience is one thing, and doing good to the neighbour from
an affection of love towards him is another. The difference is like that
between the heat and light by night from the moon and stars, and the
heat and light by day from the sun. Doctrine of Charity 210
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