Three Simple Rules: First, Do No Harm

Galatians 5:13-15

13 You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. 14 All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. 15 But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!


Thoughts on the passage:

John Wesley organized the original Methodists into classes and societies that were meant to gather to strengthen each other in the faith.  One of the things they would do would be to gather for accountability for as it was put “It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation.”  To this end, people were asked to do three things.

“First, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced … second, by doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men … finally, by attending upon all the ordinances of God.  “

Bishop Rueben Job reduced these to three simple rules: do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.  We will be looking at each of these rules to see how they can help us be better disciples of Christ.

“Do No Harm”

It seems simple enough, and yet it still has profound effects on our lives and is clearly something that all of us struggle with at different times.  Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a great reminder of it with his tongue and check retort, “but if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!”  Clearly the early church struggled with the idea of doing no harm.  Sadly, it is not hard to see that the modern church struggles with it as well.  Gandhi is famous for quipping that “I like you Christ. I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  We all could be better at doing no harm.

For people like me who like action and results, this first rule is hard because it is not about action it is in fact about inaction.  What I can often forget though is it is the critical first step.  It lays the foundation for the two rules that will follow it.  The first thing we need to do is stop doing harm.  Whether that harm is to others, to ourselves, or to God, we need to first stop hurting.  Stop. Breathe. Be.

I took a class on Game Theory in college and so it tends to influence the way I look at things.  One of the things you look at is a simple game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  Each side get two choices, to rat out the other person, or to stay silent.  If you rat the other person out, and they stay silent, you get a point and they lose two points (you are set free and they go to jail).  On the other hand, if you stay silent and they rat you out, the opposite occurs.   Of course if you both stay silent then no one gets a point (you are held on a lesser charge) and if you both rat the other person out, you both lose a point (and go to jail).  Studying this challenge over a series of games, what you find is that a negative strategy tends to go poorly.  Even a “tit for tat” strategy soon results in both people punishing each other over and over for past slights.  The only way to keep the score from getting really negative for both sides is to stop hurting each other.

As a parent I experience this more when it comes to my children melting down.  Once they reach a certain point, you cannot reason with them, you cannot even bribe them.  You have to get them to stop.  You need to hold them and help them to just breathe until they can calm down enough to solve the problem that set them off.  The first thing you do is not try and confront the problem, or look for a solution.  The first thing you do is to calm them down.

When we do a baptism we ask a series of questions, the first is “We get to asking questions about doing good and loving God later but the first thing we ask you to do when you get baptized is to say no to sin, stop hurting others, stop hurting yourself, stop hurting God.

Do no harm is not built into our DNA, it is not our natural response to the world and it is not a part of our culture.  When we get mad, when we feel threatened, our first thoughts are often centered around harm.  Being a disciple of Jesus means trying to reprogram ourselves.  It means that we need to learn to not respond immediately, but to stop, to breathe, to center ourselves with God.  What we do afterward is important, but the first thing we need to do is nothing.  First, we need to do no harm.     

Questions to Ponder:

Who is someone you know who is good at pausing and resisting the urge to cause harm?

What does this rule mean for you?

When are you most likely to cause harm, what sets you off, and how can you avoid it?

Prayer: God, as we seek to follow you in this new year, give us the courage to ask the challenging questions and the strength to follow these simple rules you have us.  Help us to take the time to learn about your will for us, and give us the patience as we struggle to follow it.  Remind us always of your grace in our walk of discipleship. AMEN