The Golden Rule, With Adjustments

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Dear Dawson,

If you are any kind of a Christian at all, you know about the Golden Rule. All kinds of people know about the Golden Rule, in fact, including many unbelievers. What many people do not know is that the Golden Rule is a rule that sometimes requires spiritually sensitive adjustments.

Here is the rule:

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets”

Matthew 7:12 (KJV)

The rule seems simple and straightforward, and so what do I mean by this dark reference to “sensitive adjustments”? The Golden Rule is one that operates mutatis mutandis, which means “after the necessary adjustments are made.” In other words, the Golden Rule is a bad rule, Dawson, when you are shopping for birthday presents for your mom. You don’t buy her what you would like her to buy you for your birthday. Simple, right?

Yes, simple enough. But there are layers, and depths, and swirling currents at the bottom of those depths. George Bernard Shaw put it this way: “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

This is not a rejection of the Golden Rule, despite surface appearances. It is actually an additional application of it. From the Confucian adage, negatively stated “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself” (Confucius, Analects, 15:23) to the Christian version of the same thing, positively stated (“do unto others”), we see different applications of the same basic principle. With that in mind, if we then look at the Shavian example, we see the same thing—the same basic principle, applied while taking certain additional factors into account.

A husband shouldn’t buy his wife a shotgun for Christmas with the idea that is what he would like to get. His wife should not buy him a very nice string of pearls because then she could then borrow them. These are areas where their differences would skew a wooden application of the Golden Rule, and would wreck the Golden Rule if applied.

But if either of them broke a leg, they would both want to have it set and treated by a competent doctor in the same basic way. This is because their broken bones are similar enough to be treated in the same way.

And so why am I giving you all this Golden Rule stuff?

Men and women are really different, from the tops of their heads to the soles of their feet, and this includes all the emotional and spiritual elements along with it. But because we all have been barraged with egalitarian dogma non-stop, we have half-persuaded ourselves that we really are all the same “inside.” With this dogma to sustain us, we then go out into the world, where men and women act in very different ways. How do we account for those differences? Well, we tend to assume that the person who is acting differently must be perverse in some way. There is something wrong with him. This is the basis for so much that is simply masculine being dismissed as “toxic masculinity.”

But it is not all “differences.” What this means is that clunky handlings of the Golden Rule can result in a great deal of hilarity. A man and a woman can sit next to each other in a geometry class, and they can both learn that parallel lines don’t ever meet. Not only so, but they can drill each other on that fact in the study group they both attend. They can both learn the same thing, and they can both answer that question correctly on the test. This sort of illustrative fact is something that we might want to consider as God’s little joke on us, designed to make us think that we both think and reason and respond in the same ways. The only problem is that it is not true. We are still very very different.

We are similar enough that we can communicate. We are different enough that such communication often goes astray. Sinful reactions to this reality, from both men and women, tends to compound the miscommunication. And then bad doctrine about all of this (egalitarianism) results in everybody being mystified. And irritated.

What this means is that men must study women in order to learn what they need to know, and women must study men in order to learn what they need to know. We must do most of this work in our life together with our spouse after we are married, but young men would be well advised to get a head start by studying their mother, their sisters, their aunts, female classmates, and so on. All this is done in a diligent effort to find out what the heck is going on.

If it makes you feel any better, women have to study men too.

“Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.”

1 Peter 3:7 (NKJV)

And the older women need to “train the young women to love their husbands and children”

Titus 2:4 (ESV)

If husbands need to dwell with their wives with understanding, they are going to have get that understanding somehow. If women are to be dedicated to loving their husbands, they will need to be trained by experienced women. Believe me, there are some very important things here to learn, and if you don’t learn them, you won’t know them.

Now all this is building up to something very important. This principle applied to the details of life together is always good for laughs at marriage conferences when you are speaking about the differences between men and women, and doing so to a mixed audience. Men and women are elbowing one another all across the auditorium. But I am not here talking about the fact that women are “more this” and men are “more that.” That is necessary and helpful in its place, but there is something more foundational that must come first.

Given the fact that a man with characteristics abc is going into a relationship with a woman with characteristics xyz, it is necessary for him to have an a priori demeanor towards those characteristics xyz, and that demeanor has to be one of a settled sympathy. And if he finds a woman who has a settled determination to be sympathetic towards his characteristics abc, what is taking shape in that relationship is what people used to describe as a “match made in heaven.”

When Paul tells husbands to love their wives as they love their own bodies, this is nothing less than an application of the Golden Rule to marriage (Eph. 5:28). Do as you would be done by. But remember the Shavian qualification. Do as you would be done by if you were a woman in her position.

Now questions might crowd into your mind. How on earth am I supposed to know that? The answer is that you must study. You must read. You must ask your dad questions. Talk with your sisters. And when you ask your sisters a question, and you get some answer that throws you into a state of nonplussedness, do not use the occasion to mock and sneer. Compliment your sister on her sage approach to life in general, and studiously take notes with a furrowed brow. This is stuff you need to know.

Now I used the word sympathy above, as distinct from the more trendy word empathy. As I am distinguishing these words. Here, the man must sympathize with the woman, and he must do so intelligently, but he must not forsake his basic orientation as he does so. Empathy has the connotation of a complete relinquishment of your own perspective, in order to complete identify with the other. This is why empathy demands that we make no judgments at all, while sympathy can maintain an outside perspective that is frequently a helpful corrective.

Earlier I said, “Do as you would be done by if you were a woman in her position.” But if you were a woman in that position you would want a man step in to help—so you never stop being that man. But you should be a man who sympathizes with her. If a woman is drowning in a river of sorrow, empathy would mean you throw yourself in next to her so that she can drown together with you, her new girl friend. But if you sympathize, your heart goes out to her, and you keep your foot on the bank to extend a hand, or to throw a rope. You can identify with her without ceasing to identify with yourself. Your own interests and perspective do not evaporate—you love your neighbor as yourself, which together with loving God, is the law and the prophets.

It goes the other way also. A wise woman will sympathize with her man in his situations, despite the fact that she has no natural inclination that way herself.

Let me give you one test case, a very practical one, and then on to a final illustration. This is a generalization, but in a married relationship, the man is usually more interested in frequent sex than the woman is. For the sake of this illustration let us say that a husband would like sex to occur twice as frequently as she would like it. After the honeymoon, which distorted expectations for both of them, they eventually settle into a married routine, with him wanting more than she does. So how is this to be navigated?

My only point here has to do with the demeanor that each of them should have. That demeanor is that the woman needs to sympathize with (not resent) his desires. She married a man and everything that comes with that.

That demeanor means that he needs to sympathize with (not resent) her level of desire. He married a woman, and everything that comes with that. Part of the allure of being with a woman is found in the fact that her thinking about sex is different. When you find a sex partner who thinks just the same way, you are in a homosexual relationship—which of necessity is vacuous, monotonous, and sad. The flamboyance of gay men is not a natural ebullience, but is rather an attempt to shout down how dull it is.

So she thinks to herself, “Of course he wants more. He’s a guy. Poor baby.” And he thinks to himself, “The twins are still toddlers and are putting demands on her body all day long. And then I come home with bedroom eyes, the last of the toddlers . . .”

This is a Golden Rule relationship. It is characterized by sympathy and mutual forbearance. They meet in the middle.

This how harmony is supposed to work. A man sings his pitch, and it is a completely different note from what the woman sings. Sin is not when we act like men, or when the women act like women. Sin is when we sing our assigned note flat or sharp. And when both man and woman sing flat or sharp, or both, the results are horrendous. When they are completely different, but on pitch, the result is harmony.

So as you are taking this girl out, and are not married to her, you are not yet in a position to practice all this. So what basic demeanor should you be looking for in her? What can you look for now? And if I were advising her, I would ask the same thing. What should she be looking for in you? The answer to both questions is the same.

You should both be looking for the obvious capacity to sympathize with people who are not very much like you at all. Because, after all, that’s just the kind of person you will marry, whoever it is.

Your uncle,