The Golden Hammer: Using The Golden Rule As A Weapon

Let’s share our thoughts on The Golden Hammer essay:

Discussion Questions:

  1. The concept of “The Golden Hammer” highlights the misuse of virtuous language to conceal harmful actions. Have you encountered instances where religious or moral language was used to justify abuse or manipulation?

  2. The essay emphasizes the importance of pairing spiritual formation with active discernment. What practices or resources do you find helpful in cultivating spiritual depth and wisdom?

  3. The essay provides a list of reflective questions to ask when confronted with a request that seems manipulative or abusive. Which of those questions stand out to you as particularly helpful? Are there any other important questions you would add?


2The way of life is this. First of all, thou shalt love the God that made thee; secondly, thy neighbour as thyself. And all things whatsoever thou wouldest not have befal thyself, neither do thou unto another. Didache 1:2

In my morning reading, I was reminded that the Golden rule was likely understood in the negative:
Don’t do to others what you would not want others to do to you.

Your article also prompted me to dig up an essay by Carl Sagan from the Parade Magazine, an insert in the Sunday Morning newspaper from 1996. The essay is titled “A New Way To Think About Rules To Live By”, for contrast Here is the link.
Thoughts or comments?

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Can you explain why? I’m curious to hear what research led you to that conclusion.

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@Carson thank you for sharing your heart and your thoughtful reflection.

Studying through Proverbs 26:4-9 last week, I was struck by the importance of handling wise sayings in a wise manner to prevent the sayings from causing harm. So much of what you shared fit right in with what we studied. So much hurt has been caused by those who use scriptural or moral language as a mask for harm.

  1. Though I have not seen this kind of language used to hide or justify abuse (that I am aware of), I have seen it used for manipulation. Particularly, when spoken in a manner that stirs up shame without giving space for questioning. Often it seems that this is done purposely to cause you to blame yourself so that your shame prevents you from looking to scripture or wise counselors to assess the truth of what is being claimed or the wisdom of what you’re being asked to do.

  2. For me the most helpful practices have been pursuing mentoring and becoming involved in Bible studies. These help me stay immersed in God’s word and His wisdom and surround me with others who are involved with my life, can see beyond any mask I may put on, can point me back to Christ when I start going astray, and can encourage me and equip me to deepen my walk of faith.

  3. The questions that stick out to me as particularly helpful are #1 and #5.

  1. Does this request align with Jesus’ vision for our well-being?

This question is immensely helpful, since it cuts to the heart of the matter. Does it align with the teaching of Christ and the gospel? While Paul certainly applies pressure at times (Philemon 1:17-21), he always does so in alignment with the gospel. Yet, if anyone teaches contrary to the gospel, they are “puffed up with conceit and understand nothing” (1 Tim. 6:3-4), not a path that is worth following - no matter the pressure someone might apply.

  1. What do trusted and wise advisors recommend?

This one sticks out to me because of the many many ways God has used wise counselors in my life. They have been instrumental in keeping me from going down paths I would later regret and in helping me discern the path of righteousness in times where I was unsure what to do. I am so indebted to the many wise advisors God has placed in my life and I would not be who I am today without them.

Since I have been studying Proverbs, it also reminds me of this proverb, “Without counsel plans fail,
but with many advisers they succeed,” (Prov. 15:22).

I think these two questions go a long way towards discerning between the will of God and manipulation that is simply moralistic in tone.


Hi @jimmy! Thanks for sharing this essay, it was an interesting read!

To my understanding, it seems that Sagan believes the Golden rule to mean, compliancy in all respects and never justice or rebuke. Yet, within the full context of Scripture, wouldn’t one desire rebuke rather than false praise (Prov. 27:6) and discipline that leads to the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb. 12:11)? Or as Carson put it,

we increasingly and genuinely want everyone we know to experience the fulfillment of imitating Christ.

Such a desire will require correction at times, not simply compliance. So, I think the Golden rule may be more nuanced than Sagan seems to understand it to be. In the end, it may even look more like his proposed solution than he would think.

Yet, where he says to, “forgive your enemy if he forgives you,” the Bible advocates loving our enemies and forgiving others, not as they have forgiven us, but as Christ has.

One thought in this respect is that, while Sagan only looks to results in this life, the Bible looks to that of the next. This motivates much of the non-violence advocated for in the Bible since, as it is written, “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord,” (Romans 12:19-20). Thus, there is no need to take repayment into our own hands, knowing that justice will come from a faithful God, whether we see that justice in our life or not.


I am currently reading. In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity by Oskar Skarsaune. It was on the recommended reading list for a course on Hebrews that I took recently. That’s a hold another discussion.
The book is a survey of the arguments for and against the Hellenization of the early church over and against the argument for the church being more Jewish that Greek in foundational beliefs and practices.
What prompted my reply was chapter 18 of the book Conversion, Baptism & New Life. In this chapter, the author compares Christian Baptism with Jewish proselyte baptism.
Christian v Jewish Baptisim.pdf (162.5 KB)

Two characteristics separate this summary from corresponding summaries by Jesus in the Gospels and unite it with Jewish parallels: (1) The “golden rule” is given in a negative, not positive, version; and (2) the golden rule is presented as an explanation of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18). According to the rabbinic sources, Hillel the elder used the negative golden rule as a summary of the whole Torah precisely when addressing a prospective proselyte: “Whatever is hateful to you, do it not unto your fellow. This is the essence of the Torah, the rest being just its corollary; now go and study that!” (TB Shabbat 31a). That this principle is really a free quotation of “love your neighbor as yourself”, is made plain in Targum Jonathan. Here Leviticus 19:18 is rendered: “Love your fellow man: what you dislike, do not unto him”

Skarsaune, O. (2002). In the shadow of the temple: Jewish influences on early Christianity (pp. 361–362). InterVarsity Press

From Kenneth Bailey’s book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, on the same story about Hillel, he said this;

This is easily recongnized as a neagative form of the Golden Rule, Jesus apparently took Hillel’s reply and turned it into a positive.
(p. 286)

I hope this helps.


I hope you understand that I linked the essay for contrast more than anything else. But I did find it interesting that in his conclusion, he did list a few good neighbor points, all of them skewed from the Christian understanding of the right response in light of the Gospel.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a very simple game. Real life is considerably more complex. But its central lessons are striking: Be friendly at first meetings. Do not envy. Be generous; forgive your enemy if he forgives you. Be neither a tyrant or a patsy. Retaliate proportionately to an intentional injury (within the constraints of the rule of law). And make your behavior fairly (although not perfectly) clear and consistent. What would the world be like if more of us, individuals as well as nations, lived by these rules?


Hi, yes, thanks so much!

I wasn’t sure if you meant that the Golden Rule, as Jesus taught it, was understand as a negative.

Or if you were saying that the Golden Rule was understood in a negative sense, and Jesus turned it into a positive.

I am now clear that you meant the second statement, as Kenneth Bailey explains in his book.


For sure, Sagan doesn’t speak from a biblical point of view and he certainly isn’t advocating for a wise application of the Golden Rule, living with truth and love as Carson did.

However, what you shared is exactly what I found so interesting about his essay as well.

Even following an entirely secular framework, the conclusion that he came to was fairly close to a Biblical response, though as you note definitely skewed in important ways.

I also thought it was interesting that his misconceptions about the golden rule, seem to be the same as those who would twist it for abusive or manipulative purposes. As Carson shared,

When predators see someone prepared to humbly serve others, they spot an opportunity to take advantage.

If the Golden Rule truly did mean to always respond with servile compliancy as Sagan seems to understand it, then he would be correct in assuming it would incentivize bad behavior in others and it would in fact enable the predators of whom Carson speaks to use it as a Golden Hammer.

So, in that way Sagan’s exploration of the prisoner dilemma really helps to highlight the danger of misunderstanding the Golden Rule in such a way that it becomes a Golden Hammer.

That’s one of the reasons why I like Carson’s first question so much:

  1. Does this request align with Jesus’ vision for our well-being?

Understanding the rule in the whole of Scripture, makes it clear that what we are to desire is true love that rebukes and corrects when necessary rather than enabling us when we go astray. Thus, practicing it well will not result in a Golden Hammer predators can use for their own wicked purposes, but rather seeks the best of all involved. And I find this question so helpful in clarifying what that best would be and what a wise application of the Golden Rule would look like.

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I understand this as the Rabbinic way to explain how to love your neighbor as yourself, not a list of good things but behavior or circumstance that you would not wish on yourself. If you follow the thread from its likely source in the Scriptures Lev 19:18 and assume that the rendering of that same verse in Targum Jonathan in the negative “Love your fellow man: what you dislike, do not unto him” accurately reflects the desire of the Rabbis to understand how to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” it makes sense. Also, consider the "thou shall not"s of the Decalogue.
I used to think that this was a no-brainer, but to folk today, the positive side of Loving your neighbor as yourself can get complicated. Look around us.
For me, this does not dilute or contradict the power of Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbors in the positive, but it does give me pause to consider how someone in Jesus’ day might think through what was for some motivated by a desire to follow God’s word.