The Golden Rule, Youth Ministry & Raising Psycopaths

Jesus said it. Billions have quoted it. Even non-Christians know it. Few of us really live it. I learned it like this:

“Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” That’s sort of a KJV/NIV mash-up. But the quote is from Matthew 7:12 and Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. Here it is straight from the English Standard Version:

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

So not only is this the Golden Rule, but it is Law and the Prophets in one, tweetable verse. The Torah in a sentence. It’s faith lived out; the attitude of how we should live.

Key word: should.

When someone cuts us off in traffic, we unleash what we feel is justifiable rage. When we’re forced by circumstances to make a similar, sudden maneuver behind the wheel, the anger of our fellow drivers seems unjustified. When someone wrongs us, we view it one way. When we wrong someone else, we view it differently.

It’s not The Golden Rule. More like The Golden Principle….ish.

Recently my son went on my daughter’s tablet and used up some of her coins in a game she liked (the horror!). She was ticked. He didn’t think it was a big deal, of course.

Then I asked him if he’d like it if she had done it to him.

“I guess not,” he admitted sheepishly. The Golden Rule strikes again!

The sad truth is, most of us think about other people so long as it serves our interests. When it becomes more advantageous to think only of ourselves, we’ll surrender our selflessness in order to accommodate ourselves. It’s not only inappropriate for a Christ follower.

It might also be ruining the world.

My tiny, everyday examples of traffic and tablets are indicative of a much larger problem.

I have talked to more than one professional counselor who told me we are raising a generation of psychopaths. The reason: a complete loss of empathy. Most people spend very little time thinking about how their actions impact other people. We are so wrapped up in our own desires that we don’t seek good for others. Our ability to share and feel the emotions of others has all but vanished from our society. The consequences are obvious.




It is conceivable that the recent rise of mass killings may be related to this. Perhaps it is the front of the wave of a generation of people who have no regard for others and how they think and feel and behave and prioritize. Maybe when you view people as objects from which you derive pleasure or gain an advantage it’s much easier to eliminate them when they don’t serve your purposes.

I’m not using the word psychopath lightly. I know it evokes imagers of violence. But one can be socially violent (hating, discarding, manipulating, using, etc.) without being physically violent. We each go about our day leveraging people toward our own end. We may not end up behind bars for this, but perhaps we’re just as psychopathic.

When I think about the biggest problems plaguing our society, they all share a common theme. They are all easily explained by a fundamental lack of empathy on the part of most people. In place of empathy we are empty, so we go around seeking to use each other instead of seeking to understand each other. It doesn’t take a trained psychologist to conclude that will cause big problems.

Obviously there are huge implications in parenting, but I also think about how youth ministry can work to instill empathy into our faith communities. Not sure I have it all figured out, but here are some thoughts:

  • Small groups are huge. A simple question like “how was your week?” can result in kids making social leaps of empathy. “Oh, they’ve felt that way, too.” I think that’s a win.
  • Getting kids out of their bubble helps them feel new feelings and see the world in new ways. Short-term missions, service projects, even volunteering within the church family all help them understand how other people exist and emote and struggle. I think that’s a big deal.
  • Intergenerational ministry helps students feel less isolated. It pushes them out of their adolescent sub culture. Story telling from gray-haired people makes them think more broadly about their own existence. It makes them less myopic. They become more emotionally intelligent and sensitive.

Professionals debate whether or not empathy can even be taught, but I think we have to at least try. If you really are raising a generation of psychopaths, it’s incumbent upon those who work with youth to foster and feed an attitude of other-ness and empathy.

As it turns out, “doing unto others” isn’t just a refrain for children. It’s an attitude we should all employ in daily living.

The health and decency of our society may just depend upon it.