Recently, I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Three Dimensions of a Complete Life. It was my first time encountering it. He describes life as:
“there are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words of this text: length, breadth, and height. Now the length of life as we shall use it here is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. In other words, it is that inward concern that causes one to push forward, to achieve his own goals and ambitions. The breadth of life as we shall use it here is the outward concern for the welfare of others. And the height of life is the upward reach for God. Now you got to have all three of these to have a complete life.”
First off, I’d never thought of life in those terms before. Have you? To consider that there are three portions:
Length – inward concern for one’s own welfare
Breadth – outward concern for welfare of others
Height – upward reach for God
Length + Breadth +Height = complete life
King adds, “So many people are busy trying to be somebody else. God gave all of us something significant. And we must pray every day, asking God to help us to accept ourselves. That means everything…. This is what we’ve got to say. We’ve got to accept ourselves. And we must pray, “Lord, Help me to accept myself every day; help me to accept my tools….
Great example, King supplies:
…A Ford car trying to be a Cadillac is absurd, but if a Ford will accept itself as a Ford, it can do many things that a Cadillac could never do: it can get in parking spaces that a Cadillac can never get in. And in life some of us are Fords and some of us are Cadillacs. Moses says in “Green Pastures,” “Lord, I ain’t much, but I is all I got.” The principle of self-acceptance is a basic principle in life.”
Application of it, King says – “Now the other thing about the length of life: after accepting ourselves and our tools, we must discover what we are called to do. And once we discover it we should set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we have in our systems.”
Example: “When I was in Montgomery, Alabama, I went to a shoe shop quite often, known as the Gordon Shoe Shop. And there was a fellow in there that used to shine my shoes, and it was just an experience to witness this fellow shining my shoes. He would get that rag, you know, and he could bring music out of it. And I said to myself, “This fellow has a Ph.D. in shoe shining.”
What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.””
Where we get stuck, Kings says is this, “You know, a lot of people get no further in life than the length. They develop their inner powers; they do their jobs well. But do you know, they try to live as if nobody else lives in the world but themselves? And they use everybody as mere tools to get to where they’re going. They don’t love anybody but themselves. And the only kind of love that they really have for other people is utilitarian love. You know, they just love people that they can use.”
We must add breadth + length: “Now the breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others, as I said. And a man has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his own individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
Example of Good Samaritan & MLK’s own comparison: “But you know, when I think about this parable, I think of another possibility as I use my imagination. It’s possible that these men passed by on the other side because they were afraid. You know, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road. I’ve been on it and I know. And I never will forget, Mrs. King and I were in the Holy Land some time ago. We rented a car and we drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho, a distance of about sixteen miles. You get on that Jericho road—I’m telling you it’s a winding, curving, meandering road, very conducive for robbery. And I said to my wife, “Now I can see why Jesus used this road as the occasion for his parable.” Here you are when you start out in Jerusalem: you are twenty-two hundred feet above sea level, and when you get down to Jericho sixteen miles later—I mean you have sixteen miles from Jerusalem—you’re twelve hundred feet below sea level. During the days of Jesus that road came to the point of being known as the “Bloody Path.” So when I think about the priest and the Levite, I think those brothers were afraid.
They were just like me.
I was going out to my father’s house in Atlanta the other day. He lives about three or four miles from me, and you go out there by going down Simpson Road. And then when I came back later that night—and brother, I can tell you, Simpson Road is a winding road. And a fellow was standing out there trying to flag me down. And I felt that he needed some help; I knew he needed help. But I didn’t know it. I’ll be honest with you, I kept going. I wasn’t really willing to take the risk.”
Reversal of the questioning we manage in our mind’s, King says is: “The first question that the Levite asked was, ‘’If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question. Not “What will happen to me if I stop to help this man?” but “What will happen to this man if I do not stop to help him?” This was why that man was good and great. He was great because he was willing to take a risk for humanity; he was willing to ask, “What will happen to this man?” not “What will happen to me?””
Bigger questioning: “This is what God needs today: Men and women who will ask, “What will happen to humanity if I don’t help? What will happen to the civil rights movement if I don’t participate? What will happen to my city if I don’t vote? What will happen to the sick if I don’t visit them?” This is how God judges people in the final analysis.”
Application: “It seems as if I can hear the Lord of Life saying, “But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was sick, and ye visited me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was in prison, and you weren’t concerned about me. So get out of my face. What did you do for others?” This is the breadth of life.”
The world summarized in a paragraph by King: “We are tied together in life and in the world. And you may think you got all you got by yourself. But you know, before you got out here to church this morning, you were dependent on more than half of the world.
You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, and you reach over for a bar of soap, and that’s handed to you by a Frenchman. You reach over for a sponge, and that’s given to you by a turk. You reach over for a towel, and that comes to your hand from the hands of a Pacific Islander. And then you go on to the kitchen to get your breakfast. You reach on over to get a little coffee, and that’s poured in your cup by a South American. Or maybe you decide that you want a little tea this morning, only to discover that that’s poured in your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you want a little cocoa, that’s poured in your cup by a West African. Then you want a little bread and you reach over to get it, and that’s given to you by the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. Before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you’re dependent on more than half the world. That’s the way God structured it; that’s the way God structured this world. So let us be concerned about others because we are dependent on others.”
“But don’t stop here either,” King says at the mastery of length + breadth and never stopping to reach upward.
King says to not deny the third dimension: height.
“And you know, there are two kinds of atheism. Atheism is the theory that there is no God. Now one kind is a theoretical kind, where somebody just sits down and starts thinking about it, and they come to a conclusion that there is no God.
The other kind is a practical atheism, and that kind goes out of living as if there is no God. And you know there are a lot of people who affirm the existence of God with their lips, and they deny his existence with their lives. You’ve seen these people who have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. They deny the existence of God with their lives and they just become so involved in other things. They become so involved in getting a big bank account. They become so involved in getting a beautiful house, which we all should have. They become so involved in getting a beautiful car that they unconsciously just forget about God. There are those who become so involved in looking at the man-made lights of the city that they unconsciously forget to rise up and look at that great cosmic light and think about it—that gets up in the eastern horizon every morning and moves across the sky with a kind of symphony of motion and paints its technicolor across the blue—a light that man can never make. They become so involved in looking at the skyscraping buildings of the Loop of Chicago or Empire State Building of New York that they unconsciously forget to think about the gigantic mountains that kiss the skies as if to bathe their peaks in the lofty blue—something that man could never make. They become so busy thinking about radar and their television that they unconsciously forget to think about the stars that bedeck the heavens like swinging lanterns of eternity, those stars that appear to be shiny, silvery pins sticking in the magnificent blue pincushion. They become so involved in thinking about man’s progress that they forget to think about the need for God’s power in history. They end up going days and days not knowing that God is not with them.”
“And I’m here to tell you today that we need God. Modern man may know a great deal, but his knowledge does not eliminate God. And I tell you this morning that God is here to stay.
A few theologians are trying to say that God is dead. And I’ve been asking them about it because it disturbs me to know that God died and I didn’t have a chance to attend the funeral. They haven’t been able to tell me yet the date of his death. They haven’t been able to tell me yet who the coroner was that pronounced him dead. They haven’t been able to tell me yet where he’s buried.
You see, when I think about God, I know his name. He said somewhere, back in the Old Testament, “I want you to go out, Moses, and tell them ‘I Am’ sent you.” He said just to make it clear, let them know that “my last name is the same as my first, ‘I Am that I Am.’ Make that clear. I Am.” And God is the only being in the universe that can say “I Am” and put a period behind it. Each of us sitting here has to say, “I am because of my parents; I am because of certain environmental conditions; I am because of certain hereditary circumstances; I am because of God.” But God is the only being that can just say, “I Am” and stop right there. “I Am that I Am.” And He’s here to stay. Let nobody make us feel that we don’t need God.”
He adds: “I want to say that we should search for him. We were made for God, and we will be restless until we find rest in him. And I say to you this morning that this is the personal faith that has kept me going. I’m not worried about the future. You know, even on this race question, I’m not worried. I was down in Alabama the other day, and I started thinking about the state of Alabama where we worked so hard and may continue to elect the Wallaces. And down in my home state of Georgia, we have another sick governor by the name of Lester Maddox. And all of these things can get you confused, but they don’t worry me. Because the God that I worship is a God that has a way of saying even to kings and even to governors, “Be still, and know that I am God.” And God has not yet turned over this universe to Lester Maddox and Lurleen Wallace. Somewhere I read, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, and I’m going on because I have faith in Him. I do not know what the future holds, but I do know who holds the future. And if He’ll guide us and hold our hand, we’ll go on in.”
King’s example of height exemplified: “I can still hear Sister Pollard’s words: “God’s going to take care of you.” So today I can face any man and any woman with my feet solidly placed on the ground and my head in the air because I know that when you are right, God will fight your battle.
“Darker yet may be the night, harder yet may be the fight. Just stand up for that which is right.” It seems that I can hear a voice speaking even this morning, saying to all of us, “Stand up for what is right. Stand up for what is just. Lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world.” Yes, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I’ve felt sin-breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. And I go on in believing that. Reach out and find the breadth of life.”
Truth about the matter of understanding, knowing the ways of God, King says,: “You may not be able to define God in philosophical terms. Men through the ages have tried to talk about him. Plato said that he was the Architectonic Good. Aristotle called him the Unmoved Mover. Hegel called him the Absolute Whole. Then there was a man named Paul Tillich who called him Being-Itself. We don’t need to know all of these high-sounding terms. Maybe we have to know him and discover him another way. One day you ought to rise up and say, “I know him because he’s a lily of the valley.” He’s a bright and morning star. He’s a rose of Sharon. He’s a battle-axe in the time of Babylon. And then somewhere you ought to just reach out and say, “He’s my everything. He’s my mother and my father. He’s my sister and my brother. He’s a friend to the friendless.” This is the God of the universe. And if you believe in him and worship him, something will happen in your life. You will smile when others around you are crying. This is the power of God.”
Action mirroring the Great Commission, King concludes:
“Go out this morning. Love yourself, and that means rational and healthy self-interest. You are commanded to do that. That’s the length of life.
Then follow that: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that. That’s the breadth of life.
And … “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy strength.” I think the psychologist would just say with all thy personality…
And when you get all three of these together, you can walk and never get weary. You can look up and see the morning stars singing together, and the sons of God shouting for joy. When you get all of these working together in your very life, judgement will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
When you get all the three of these together, the lamb will lie down with the lion.
When you get all three of these together, you look up and every valley will be exalted, and every hill and mountain will be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh will see it together.
When you get all three of these working together, you will do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.
When you get all three of these together, you will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.”
May we live with all three of these dimensions combined, working together, for our days together.
Brian L. Tucker