Rethinking the Bible with Jack Pelham
EPISODE 44: The Golden Rule and Who Is Responsible for Filling Up the Emotional Void You Naturally Have Inside
DESCRIPTION: Jack discusses the common problem of people hoping to fill up their internal emotional voids, and how Jesus’ “Golden Rule” may just provide a lot of the answer to this problem.
A professional therapist told me once that most everybody’s got an emotional void inside, along with some level of drive to fill it. And I suppose this is probably true. At least, it seems consistent with my observations in this world. And people fill it—or try to fill it—with different things—some effective, some ineffective, and some that may temporarily seem effective, but that wear off in time.
Here’s one pitfall, though, that’s worth mentioning. It’s based on this question: Whose responsibility is it to fill up the emotional void that I have inside? The basic choices, of course, are these:
- It’s your own responsibility
- It’s somebody else’s responsibility
- It’s nobody’s responsibility; life just sucks, so get used to being unfulfilled because it’s impossible to fill up the void.
People who believe #1 will generally be active in experimenting—learning what works well and what doesn’t, and altering their life patterns accordingly as they grow. And people who believe in #3 have generally just given up hope of finding a way to fulfillment.
But what about the people who believe #2? What about the people who think it’s somebody else’s responsibility to fill their emotional void?
They will often be dissatisfied, or even angry with those closest to them if they sense that their emotional void is not being filled, because they think it’s the job of those people to fill them up. They can even lash out, attacking the very people who are closest to them, because they are unfulfilled, and don’t know what to do about it. And this, of course, is sadly ironic, yet it’s a very real scenario that breaks lots of hearts in this messy world. And it can make the lives of their loved ones a “living Hell”, as they say.
Now, I’m going to cut to the chase about #3, and we’re going to strike that off the list, because I definitely know some people who are emotionally fulfilled in this world, so that disproves #3. That’s not to say that their emotional lives are always perfect and that they’re happy every minute, and never sad or concerned. But they are generally either happy, or can at least see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. And we should probably talk sometime about those who have given up, but for this episode, I want to table that, and get back to options #1 and #2.
So, which is the better idea?—
That filling your emotional void is:
- Your own responsibility, or
- Somebody else’s responsibility?
Is this me saying that #1 above is definitely the right answer, and that #2 should be ruled out completely? I’m not sure I’m ready to declare that ! (I’ll tell you why in a minute.) But I’ll say that in my opinion, # 1 is probably mostly the right answer. Now, let me clarify—we’re talking about emotions here, but please understand that I’m the same guy who, when it comes to cognition (thinking) has declared this Self-Correction Ethic:
“Self-correction is the rightful duty of all humans.”
Just like I believe we’re responsible for the quality of how we think, I believe we’re also ultimately responsible for how we feel. And that’s certainly a hard idea to sell in this culture that’s fond of saying, “I can’t help how I feel!”. While we may not have much immediate control over how something makes us feel in the moment, we are the ones who set the stage (with our habitual thinking patterns) for what our emotional disposition is like. So, for example, if I never work on patience in my thinking, I may explode when someone interrupts me with an untimely question. And is this their fault? Well, perhaps the interruption is, but whose fault is it that I never work on patience in my own character?
So here we are, each with our own emotional life—our own emotional habit world—our own emotional profile, or disposition. And we must manage it one way or another. So if we try something to fill up our emotional void, and it doesn’t work, shouldn’t it naturally fall to us to figure that out, and to try something else? Why should it be somebody else’s fault that we are trying things that don’t work for us?
What people try to fill up their emotional void with differs somewhat, yet any of these sorts of things seem fairly common among humans (in no particular order):
- Throwing themselves into their work
- Earning lots of money
- The thrill of the hunt in promiscuity
- Recreational drugs and alcohol
- Serving others
- Hatred of others, bigotry, violence
- Joining groups, organizations, cliques, etc.
- Crime and similar thrill-seeking endeavors
- Teaching / Coaching
And let me say that this list is surely not exhaustive. I had hoped only to put together a good-enough sampler for you to bring to mind the sort of activity that I’m talking about in general.
Now, some of these, I typed in boldface because they tend to involve relating to other humans. And that’s where this particular sort of harm I have in mind comes into play. If a guy tries movies to fill up his emotional void, and it doesn’t work, he can get mad or sad about the failure of the movies, and yet not be hurting anybody. But suppose he gets a girlfriend and he realizes in time that she can’t fill his emotional void? How he handles that realization could be very harmful to his girlfriend. If he takes it out on her, as if his emotional fulfillment is primarily her responsibility, then he’s got her in quite an unfair predicament, because I don’t think any human has the power to provide a rich and permanent fulfillment for someone else’s emotional void. And the girlfriend may have fallen unwittingly into a trap she did not realize was there. He liked her, among other reasons, perhaps, because she provided something new and intriguing, that seemed at first like it might finally fill up his emotional void for good. But now, as long as he considers his emotional fulfillment to be her responsibility, if she doesn’t want to risk a breakup, she’ll have no other choice but to push herself more and more to try to fill up his emotions. She’ll wear herself out, and on top of that, he may well take it out on her in some fashion, whether subtly or by some flagrant attacks.
If I’m right about what’s at the core of this classic unfortunate scenario, it’s in how the man answers the question I posted above: Whose responsibility is it to fill up the emotional void that I have inside?
If he truly thinks its his own responsibility, then he won’t have to get mad at other humans when he realizes that he has emotional needs/deficits/wishes beyond the ones they seem to be able to meet. And even if they do disappoint him, he can realize that it’s just a simple disappointment of life, and that it’s not a personal attack or an insult aimed at him. He’ll see that it’s not something to launch counterattacks over. He can be sad without it having to be somebody else’s fault in his mind.
And though I’ve used romance as an example here, please don’t think that this is only about romance, because it’s simply not. To give another example, a fear years back, I founded a nonprofit school to help facilitate homeschoolers with some subjects that I’m pretty good at teaching. As it turns out, there was not enough interest in my small market area to make the school thrive, so after the fourth year, we shut it down. But along the way, I saw that while I truly had some authentic altruistic motives, and enjoyed the emotional high that it gave me sometimes, I was also frequently disappointed by the poor behavior of some of the students and/or parents. And it became quite an emotional burden, despite there being several high-character people involved in the program, too. But along the way, in all the ups and downs, I’m pretty sure that I discovered at least some occasions in which I was pinning responsibility for my emotional well-being on the participants in the program. I wasn’t completely off in that ditch of thinking, but I did have at least one foot in that ditch from time to time, I could see.
So, there’s a difference between reasoning that it’s my responsibility, and being fully persuaded in my beliefs and emotions that it is indeed my responsibility, and mine only. And it makes me wonder whether I’ll ever get all the vestiges of that trained out of myself in this lifetime!
Is No One Else Responsible for My Emotions?
I said above that I wasn’t ready to declare that self-responsibility for emotions is 100% the right and only way to go. And here’s why the hesitation. Other people can be immensely helpful in this life. They can teach you things, correct you, inspire you, challenge you, and set a great example for you in ways your life can still use some building up. And this often gives you an external boost—something you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have done for yourself. They can build you up cognitively or emotionally, or even with help on some chore, or with financial help. And if they really love you, and are willing to take the risk of laying it on the line, they can grab you by the lapels and talk some good sense into you when you are being blockheaded. And I want to talk about this some more later in this episode, when we get to talking about the Golden Rule, because depending on what type of person you are, this can be a total blessing, or it can seem like an unwarranted personal attack. So we’ll get to that, but let me finish talking about how we need help sometimes.
Sometimes, we get emotionally stuck. We reach a plateau, or get in a rut. Or we even get into a funk or depression. And sometimes we can pull ourselves out of it. But sometimes, the help of other people can pull us out—or help us out—even if they weren’t trying to help us with our funk. Just the good-faith interaction can be emotionally uplifting. If they have really good people skills, they can draw us out and get us to talk about what we’re feeling—what we’re frustrated about, or scared of, or mad about—or about obstacles we just can’t seem to get over by ourselves. And this kind of help from mature people can be life-changing for us. And it can definitely have a huge impact on our emotional lives—both short-term and long. It can definitely help full up our emotional void somewhat. And even if it does not do it completely, we can realize that we ought to get some more of that, and we look for ways to keep on having genuine interactions with genuine and authentic people who can help us like that.
And so, the question is whether other people are responsible for being kind and helpful to us. And that answer to that one depends on whom we’re asking. If you ask the world in general, you may well hear that no one owes you anything. But if you ask the wisdom of the ages, you’ll hear teachings like the Golden Rule come up often:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”The Golden rule
Think about it! The idea here is that people are supposed to treat other people the way they want to be treated themselves. And this is really interesting, because we are not perfect people, and we may in fact want people to treat us in ways that are odd or off in some way. But even so, the idea seems to be that whatever we think is good treatment, we ought to extend to others in good faith. And we’re going to talk in a few minutes about what happens when we’re thinking wrongly about what is good treatment and what is not. But for now, just think about it—
If everyone were doing this, the world would be so different as to be unrecognizable to us, I imagine! Indeed, if even 10% were doing it, I’m not sure we could imagine the difference it would make in this beautiful/ugly world. Yes, there would be some hiccups, and there’d be some disagreements about what good treatment of self and others should look like, but there would definitely be a lot more good will on this planet than there is right now.
And we certainly could stop at this point and pout that more people are not Golden Ruling us with all kinds of kind and helpful behaviors. And we might have a point. But whether other people are Golden Ruling us has nothing to do with whether we ourselves are Golden Ruling them! And this, by the way, is where the quicksand of politics normally traps people. That is, the Demublicans fuss about what all the Republicrats are doing wrong, and the Republicrats fuss about what all the Demublicans have got wrong, but neither side works to clean its own house—to perfect is own behavior—to see that it’s not cheating or being neglectful or causing undue harm in its duties. It’s such a trap, and it’s so against the Golden Rule. As if by excuse. “Well, we could do what’s right, but they’re doing worse, and they need to cut it out first.” And, “Indeed, what we may be doing wrong—that we would not want anybody else to do to us—well, that’s trivial compared to what all they are doing wrong to us!”
It’s a dodge of our own responsibility to do right. With an excuse that we’re OK, since they’re not fixing themselves first. And it’s not too far from this idea that “I’d be better if only other people would behave differently.” And this can get pretty subtle, but there’s a nasty trick rolled up into this kind of thinking. It’s a dodge of responsibility. It is blameshifting. And I hope you see how it’s at least a little bit related to putting somebody else in charge of filling up our emotional voids, instead of learning to do it ourselves.
If you can sweep your own front porch, why not do it? Even if you want to fuss about how messy the neighbor’s porch is, and what a pig he is not to sweep it, couldn’t you at least be sweeping your own porch while you’re fussing about his? Does “his porch is worse” really make your own messy porch OK? Or, to my #3 possibility at the beginning of this discussion—to the uber-negative person who says it’s all a waste of time and that nothing can ever get better—isn’t it funny how people like that can get dirt on their porches and how they can use a broom—because of basic physics, of course—and how they would indeed enjoy it if their porch were swept? And isn’t it funny how they have to work pretty hard to discount these facts in order to maintain their uber-negative view that all good efforts are a waste of time?
What the Golden Rule Can Do For Us
So here’s what I really wanted to talk about in this episode. It’s a bonus that I see hard at work in my kindest friends. When they love and serve others in various ways, they find that it is an emotional blessing to themselves. It gives them a boost—an emotional boost. And I’ve even seen this (rarely) in people who live with substantial difficulties in life—as with strained relationships or financial hardship or extremely unruly and wayward children. Even when life is hard, some people almost always seem to have something to give, and some interest in giving it. And even if they are mourning about their troubles, they’re still emotionally free to rejoice with you about your blessings.
Now, let me be clear that what I’m talking about seems to be fairly rare. Many may think a little bit about serving others when they themselves are feeling down. But some people actually thrive on it; they dig in to serve. And they find that this rescues them from getting completely bogged down in their own pain. And so they have two needs: Yes, they need to talk it out and process it completely. And often, they don’t get this done very well, so they don’t recover as quickly as they could. But secondly, they have learned that they can generally always obey the Golden Rule, even when they are extremely sad or tired or depressed or otherwise in doubt or troubled. And they will see this as a need, too. In fact, they will tend to see it as the priority need—over the need of processing and talking it out.
And this can be a tricky balancing act—and I don’t suppose I know anybody who always gets the balance just right. But there’s a fundamental disposition of priorities in play here: Is my own mental health the priority, or is doing unto others as I would have them do unto me the priority? It’s like a toggle switch. It’s set to either A or B—either to self, or to others. And in some people, it stays set pretty well, while others may be constantly flipping it back and forth.
And I think that God knows this is a struggle for us. He also knows that those who wait tables—who serve others, are also in need of eating. It is a peculiar puzzle of our existence here in this life. And the very best at being kind and loving struggle with getting this right day to day, while those whose priority is always self are actually depriving themselves of something they need very deeply. That is, they need that special kind of edification that you can only get from serving others. If they have got themselves in me-only mode—or something closer to that end of the spectrum—they are in a terrible trap that many never seem to escape. And what’s worse is that this kind of a life not only fails to serve others as God intended for us to do, but it becomes very harmful to others. It is not only unproductive in God’s eyes, but is counterproductive, and even destructive.
And here’s something ironic: the person who has prioritized love and kindness has got to deal with the harmful behaviors of the selfish people who make themselves the priority of their lives.
I hope you see what an important choice this is—this prioritization choice.
The Reset Button
Like everybody else, the people whose priority is love and kindness toward others need to have a meltdown of some sort, and to hit the reset button from time to time. And this is quite OK. Sometimes, they just have to stop and cry. Sometimes they have to stop and pour their hearts out to a friend. Sometimes they have to pour their hearts out to God about it. And I suspect that most of us need to do this more often than we do, but if nothing else, you know it’s time to do it when you’re overwhelmed and at the end of your rope!
But if you look at their overall lives, you’ll definitely see where serving others is pretty much their top default habit, whether or not they’re in physical or emotional pain or discomfort themselves. To me, this is an amazing thing, and I am certainly not there myself. I’m not on that extreme end of devotion to serving others as some are. Instead, I’m in the middle somewhere, and really want to get farther over toward that extreme. But even so–even though I don’t understand it all myself—I think I see in it a certain genius that would help anybody who’s down to pick themselves up a little bit at least, and to help make somebody else’s life a little better in the process. It seems like the very design.
So this all makes me wonder if this very world were designed such that the more we give unselfishly—simply because it is the right thing to do—the more we are personally enriched emotionally. For many, this may seem an oversimplified approach, or for some, it may seem like mere feel-good psycho-babble, but let’s look at the source here. This Golden Rule appears in various forms throughout the wisdom of the ages, and among the 50+ sages on record as having taught it, Jesus himself acknowledged it. So maybe there’s some wisdom to it after all, eh?
So, what if we are responsible for loving others—what if Jesus actually expects that of us? And what if loving others tends to fill up our own emotional void somewhat? Then maybe it’s reasonable, anytime we’re feeling empty, to start trying to fill the void by loving others more, as we’d like to be loved ourselves.
Perhaps this was the very plan for how to make happy humans!
And we could do this selfishly, of course—and surely some do. That is, they try to “do the right thing”, but not because it is the right thing, but because it will make them feel better. That is, even though it seems loving, it’s really for self-centered reasons that they do it. And some, of course, do such things to be seen doing it, because they like the idea of having the reputation of being loving. And some do it to manipulate others in various ways. But people like these have not really accepted the yoke. That is, they have not really yielded themselves to the duty of godliness, but are simply enduring it in hopes of finding some other payoff than the godliness itself. And if they ever get the idea that their desired payoff isn’t coming, they’ll quit the godly behavior, because being godly is not a reward to them. Instead, it was something like having the good reputation, or receiving kudos or gratitude, or being mentioned in the church newsletter for their good works.
But Jesus never really seemed to have a very positive message for people who are inauthentic like that. Indeed! Even the angels who announced Jesus’ birth to the world said something very intriguing about the blessing that Jesus would be. And you have to really pay attention to get the point here. Listen to what he said:
Luke 2:13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
They were decreeing peace—which is certainly related to a certain emotional state of well-being—to some people. But if you look really closely, you’ll see that the promise may not have been to everybody, because this peace was for “those on whom his favor rests”. And we have to ask ourselves “what does that mean?” And to be fair, it could possibly mean any of several different things. It could be interpreted in various ways. And we should probably look at this in depth —maybe even for a Christmas episode—but I think—and I have some reasons for this—I think that this blessing of Jesus was only for certain people that God was pleased with, and not for every single human on the Earth, because God was most certainly not pleased with everybody. And this is very obvious if you study it out. In fact, in the angels’ prophecy to Mary later in Luke 2, it says this:
Luke 2:34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,…
So, while Jesus may have been fantastic news for some, he was not good news for everybody! He would cause some to rise—and I assume that this is ultimately about rising up to Heaven–to eternal life. But he would also cause some to fall—and I assume this is ultimately about being judged into the Lake of Fire. Jesus, like God, is both kind and stern—and this is such a stumbling block to so many of us, who don’t think that those two characteristics can go together!
So back to Luke 2:14, there’s this idea of the blessing of Jesus coming only to those on whom God’s favor rests. That was the NIV we were reading before. But let’s look at how the ESV translates it:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Now, I’m no Greek scholar, but I understand that this passage is a tricky one to translate well. But I want you to see that even a lot of the more traditional versions have a qualifier regarding what kind of people were to receive this peace. Here’s the Douay-Rheims 1899 translation, which comes to English from the Greek by way of the Latin translation—but even it picks up on this qualification about who was supposed to receive this peace:
Luke 2:14 Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition
Who was to get the peace? Well, it was people “of good will.” And apparently, the promise of peace was not for those who did not have this good will–or on whom God’s favor did not rest, as some of the other versions have it.
And so we have to ask ourselves whether God’s favor would rest on somebody who was not following Jesus’ Golden Rule—who was not loving his neighbor as himself—who was not regulating his treatment of others such that he himself would approve of that behavior if he were on the receiving end of it himself.
And I think the answer is no. I think that if we were interested in doing the homework, we could build quite an argument from scripture that Jesus is not pleased with people who lack that love and respect for others and for God, who created those others.
And I think that we get ourselves in a really dangerous bind when we get self-focused and selfish like that. For some, it’s about anger. For others, it may be about disappointment. And for some, it’s probably about fear—and particularly, the fear of getting hurt or disappointed, or of being rejected by others. And in some, it may be because they were conditioned in the past by fear or neglect or abuse; they may just be running in autopilot. But here comes Jesus with this very fundamental teaching about how we should live, and it offers a way out of that selfish rut. And I think it comes down to whether we’re really going to trust him or not—to whether we’re going to take it to heart and obey him—to embrace this instruction from him—to lay it on the line and put it into practice—to let it rip—or whether we’re going to keep putting ourselves above everybody else, and counting our own needs as more important than theirs—whether in general, or even in the moment-to-moment decisions of the day.
My dad’s mom used to scold him about his deep insecurities as a kid, “You wouldn’t be so scared if you weren’t so mean!” And I wonder if she might not have got some of this thing figured out. That is, his insecurities—his fear of being hurt or rejected—were somehow related to his refusal to be kind to people as he knew he should have been doing. And there’s a certain vulnerability here that is scary, to be sure. But I do wonder if this is not, in part, why so many of us find ourselves having such a hard time filling our own emotional voids—because we are ultimately unwilling to trust Jesus’ teachings and to obey him in the particulars of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
So there’s something to ponder!
And this may well be why some find Christianity unfulfilling—why it doesn’t seem to fill them up. And I think it’s because they’re unwilling to dive in, and to embrace the whole program, so to speak. And it comes down to this one very basic fear or hesitance to give themselves to loving others fully.
And I see another case in which the Golden Rule gets bogged down, but I think I had better save that for another episode.
So I hope you have found this helpful, with plenty of useful things to ponder.
Thanks for joining in!