Whenever I read the words of Dr. King, I am struck by how clearly he understood the world’s problems. I also stand in awe of his belief in the power of the individual to do right and change the world. In one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lesser read works, The Measure of a Man, he says this:
“Therefore whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good check-up at Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.”
“This is the way our world is made. … We are interdependent.” If only we remembered these words as we remember Dr. King and his legacy. Think of how different our world would be if we recognized that no nation, no segment of society, and no individual is more important than the whole human race.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dimensions of a Whole Life
In The Measure of a Man, King does what a good reverend would do (he was foremost a pastor) and preaches the Bible. From the Bible and philosophy, King speaks of three dimensions of a complete life:
- Your inner being (or inner life).
- Other people, whom we serve by using our calling, skills, and gifts.
- God himself, who is above all.
King describes this as a triangle:
“These are the three dimensions of Me, and without the three being correlated, working harmoniously together, life is incomplete. Life is something of a great triangle. At one angle stands the individual person, at the other angle stand other persons, and at the top stands the Supreme, Infinite Person, God. These three must meet in every individual life if that life is to be complete.”
According to Dr. King’s The Measure of a Man, the complete life would look like this:
Dimension One of Life: Me
While there are some people whose lives seem enviable, because they have acquired wealth and power, they lose what King calls “the breadth of life.” Even a life with cultivated skills and a honed inner life will lack meaning. The cultivation of skills and the honing of gifts is essential, but a true and deep inner examination should lead a person to look beyond themselves.
Dimension Two of Life: Us
Some people learn to care deeply for other people and that gives their lives “breadth,” a meaning beyond themselves. And King has in mind here much more than just care for one’s family and inner circle: “we are [all of humanity] interdependent … we are all involved in a single process, … we are all somehow caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
The inner life then becomes something cultivated for larger purposes: It is not for my gain but the betterment of humanity.
Humanity is made by God to be interconnected. This is why the second greatest commandment is to love my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:36–40). What is good for you is also good for me. What is good for them is also good for us. What is good for humanity betters my life even (and perhaps especially) when it requires personal sacrifice.
Dimension Three of Life: God
“Seek God and discover him and make him a power in your life. Without him all of our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest nights. Without him, life is a meaningless drama with the decisive scenes missing.”
In the end, life without God and his community, the Church, is lacking. It is God who moves to create lasting change and God to whom we look for the grace required to do the work of making our world a better place. It is God who can break down national, racial, ethnic, and economic barriers.
The Full Life According to MLK: Love God + Love People + Love Self
King remarks that if one is to measure a life’s success at accomplishing God’s purposes, we need simply to remember three things:
“Love yourself, if that means rational, healthy, and moral self-interest. You are commanded to do that. That is the length of life. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that. That is the breadth of life. But never forget that there is a first and even greater commandment, ‘Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind.’ This is the height of life. And when you do this you live the complete life.”
The work of Dr. King has been a deep inspiration to me. In many regards, his work inspired me to change my entire life and dedicate it to serving the impoverished and people yet to hear Jesus’ name. King’s views on the interconnected world and the centrality of the church influenced me as I wrote my recently released book, Jesus’ Economy: A Biblical View of Poverty, the Currency of Love, and a Pattern for Lasting Change.