How to Do What You Cannot Do
Dr. Jim Denison
Someone has written that you know you are in Texas in July when: the birds have to use potholders to pull worms out of the ground; the best parking place is determined by shade instead of distance; hot water comes out of both taps; you can make sun tea instantly; you discover that in July it takes only two fingers to steer your car; you break into a sweat the instant you step outside at 7:30 a.m.; you realize that asphalt has a liquid state; the potatoes cook underground, so all you have to do is pull one out and add butter, salt, and pepper; and farmers are feeding their chickens crushed ice to keep them from laying boiled eggs.
Nonetheless, despite the hot weather and vacation schedules and all that might distract us this morning, God has brought us to a text of life-transforming significance. How can we be like Jesus? One verse will tell us.
This sentence has been known as the Golden Rule since a sermon by John Wesley in 1750. These are the most famous words Jesus ever spoke. They have been called the “Everest of ethics” (William Barclay), the greatest single statement of ethics in all of literature.
So, what did Jesus really say in this famous text? And how can we put his words into our lives? I am praying that you and I will never be the same for learning the answers from Jesus’ lips today.
Learn what Jesus said
First, what did Jesus really say? Walk through his words with me.
The verse begins with “so,” or “therefore.” This verse sums up the entire Sermon on the Mount, the greatest discourse ever preached.
These words summarize the beatitudes, being salt and light, and God’s word regarding murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retribution, love for enemies, giving to the needy, prayer, fasting, treasure in heaven, worry, judging and gossip, and seeking God. Here is the “capstone of the whole discourse” (Plummer).
“In everything, do to others”—attitudes, thoughts, words, actions. No exceptions.
“What you would have them do to you.”
Jesus here assumes, as with the entire Sermon on the Mount, that we are his followers. These words were preached to believers, and they require a prior faith commitment before they will work in our lives.
If a person wishes evil for himself, this Rule would permit him to wish it for others as well (drug dealers, pornographers, alcoholics). So you must make your heart right with God before you can use this as a Rule by which to live. More of this in a moment.
“For this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus said earlier, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
This one Rule summarizes all God has said to mankind to this point in revelatory history.
Think for a moment about all the ways our world would be different if we lived by this Golden Rule.
Consider the social parts of the Ten Commandments. Do you want others to murder or harm you? To commit adultery with your spouse? To steal from you? To lie to or about you, to gossip and slander about you? To covet what is yours? What if the world practiced this Rule? What would be the consequences for our prisons and jails if there were no more murder or physical assault or theft? For our families if there were no more adultery? For our relationships if there were no more lies or slander or gossip or coveting? What would be the consequences regarding issues such as abortion, pornography, substance abuse?
A century ago, a Great Awakening came to the nation of Wales, and the population began living by the Golden Rule. What were the results? They had to close the jails, for there were no prisoners. The police formed choruses and sang in churches. Coal miners had to retrain their mules, because they had before heard only foul language from their masters. Everything changed.
How different would our personal lives be if we each lived and thought by this Rule? If we didn’t have murderous wishes, or adulterous lust, or desires to steal, lie, and covet? How much more healthy and godly would our minds and souls be?
Admit that his ethic is impossible
Obviously, we should each live by this Golden Rule. But there’s a catch.
The negative form of this rule is found throughout literature. The great Jewish rabbi Hillel taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. This is the whole law; the rest is explanation of it” (cf. Tobit 4:15). Confucius said, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” The Stoics said the same, as did the Greek philosophers.
But Jesus was the very first to state this rule positively. Not just, don’t do what you don’t want done to you; but, do what you do want done to you. This had never been said before in all of recorded literature. It was a new teaching, a new way of looking and life and all its responsibilities and privileges.
And it is a way of life none of us can follow.
You see a car broken down on the side of the road. Hillel tells you not to hinder or harm the person; Jesus tells you to stop and help him. You notice a lonely colleague at work or student at school. Hillel says not to make things worse; Jesus says to befriend her. You learn of someone in financial trouble. Hillel says not to compound the problem; Jesus says to help meet the need. You know someone who is lost spiritually. Hillel says not to make things worse spiritually; Jesus says to pray for the person and win him to faith.
Jesus applies this Golden Rule to “everything.” No exceptions. No parts of life left out. No people to the side. No days off. No moments off. Every dimension of your life—your thoughts, attitudes, private words, public actions—every day of your life is to be lived this way.
C. S. Lewis: “When I was a child I often had a toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother—at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I knew she would take me to the dentist next morning. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists; I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie; if you gave them an inch they took a [mile.]
“Now, if I may put it that way, Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take a [mile]…That is why He warned people to ‘count the cost’ before becoming Christians. ‘Make no mistake,’ He says. ‘If you let Me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through…I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect—until My Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me” (Mere Christianity 171-2).
God means for every part of every moment of every day to be lived this way. And this, you and I cannot do. We simply can’t.
Live in dependence on his Spirit
So how do we do what we cannot do?
First, we go to the only One who can. Jesus Christ was the only person in all of human history to live fully by this Golden Rule. The only one. Begin by establishing a personal relationship with him. Ask him to forgive your sins and failures, to step into your life and make you the child of God. You must have Christ in your heart to live like him in the world.
Next, admit that you cannot live by this Rule.
If you think you are “just fine” spiritually, measure last week by this standard. Measure today by it. Have you prayed for every person you hope will pray for you? Have you given financially as you hope others will? Have you loved those around you as you hope they love you? Have you been the spouse or parent or child you want others to be with you?
See how far short of this Rule you have fallen, as we all have.
Now you’re ready to ask God for his strength and power, for his help and hope.
a. This is a prayer God will always answer. Any time you ask him to help you do to others what you would have them do to you, he will. Claim these promises: “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24); “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3); “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (John 15.7); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
Ask God to fill your heart with his love for your neighbor as yourself, and believe by faith that he has. Then follow Augustine’s advice: love the Lord and do as you will.
Next, apply this Rule to that specific situation where it is needed most. What relationship is most strained in your life this morning? Family, friends, neighbor, fellow church member? Is there someone you have hurt? Someone who has hurt you? What would you want that person to do now? What, therefore, must you do now?
I’m praying for marriages to experience healing, starting today. So many couples are struggling. At Youth Camp there were so many teenagers living in homes where the parents are separated or divorcing. I’m praying for friendships to be restored, for bitterness to be healed, for souls to be saved, for lives to be transformed. I’m praying for miracles as a result of this text today. I’m asking you to join me.
Last, make such dependence on Jesus a lifestyle. Our culture so tempts us to be proud and self-sufficient. “Do to others what you would have them do to you”—I can do that. I can try harder and do better. No, you can’t. Not for long. Not in any way which changes anything. But you can ask Jesus to do this through you. You can ask his Spirit to fill your heart with his love, his forgiveness, his grace, his courage. Every time, every day, when you must live by this Rule, you can depend on the One who gave it. And you must.
This statement by Thomas Merton has challenged me this week: “We are not converted only once in our lives, but many times, and this endless series of large and small conversions, inner revolutions, leads out to our transformation in Christ.”
I am asking God to make this day one of these “conversions.” The morning we asked God to help us live every day by the Everest of ethics, the essence of Christian relationship, the one value which will transform our lives and our entire world. The day he answered that prayer.
Will you join me?