Three Dimensions Of A Complete Life
by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
New Covenant Baptist Church Chicago Illinois, April 9, 1967
want to use as the subject from which to preach: "The Three Dimensions
of a Complete Life." (All right) You know, they used to tell us in
Hollywood that in order for a movie to be complete, it had to be three-dimensional.
Well, this morning I want to seek to get over to each of us that if life
itself is to be complete, (Yes) it must be three-dimensional.
Many, many centuries ago, there was a man by the name of John who found
himself in prison out on a lonely, obscure island called Patmos. (Right,
right) And Ive been in prison just enough to know that its
a lonely experience. (Thats right) And when you are incarcerated
in such a situation, you are deprived of almost every freedom, but the
freedom to think, the freedom to pray, the freedom to reflect and to meditate.
And while John was out on this lonely island in prison, (Thats right)
he lifted his vision to high heaven (All right, He did) and he saw, descending
out of heaven, a new heaven (All right) and a new earth. (Thats
right) Over in the twenty-first chapter of the book of Revelation, it
opens by saying, "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. (All right)
And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, (All right) coming down
from God out of heaven." (Oh yeah)
And one of the greatest glories of this new city of God that John saw
was its completeness. (Thats right) It was not up on one side and
down on the other, (All right) but it was complete in all three of its
dimensions. (Yes) And so in this same chapter as we looked down to the
sixteenth verse, John says, "The length and the breadth (He did,
he did) and the height of it are equal." (Yes, sir) In other words,
this new city of God, this new city of ideal humanity is not an unbalanced
entity, (No) but is complete on all sides. (Yes) Now I think John is saying
something here in all of the symbolism of this text and the symbolism
of this chapter. Hes saying at bottom that life as it should be
and life at its best (Yeah) is a life that is complete on all sides. (Thats
And there are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly
give the words of this text: length, breadth, and height. (Yes) Now the
length of life as we shall use it here is the inward concern for ones
own welfare. (Yes) In other words, it is that inward concern that causes
one to push forward, to achieve his own goals and ambitions. (All right)
The breadth of life as we shall use it here is the outward concern for
the welfare of others. (All right) And the height of life is the upward
reach for God. (All right) Now you got to have all three of these to have
a complete life.
Now lets turn for the moment to the length of life. I said that
this is the dimension of life where we are concerned with developing our
inner powers. (Yeah) In a sense this is the selfish dimension of life.
There is such a thing as rational and healthy self-interest. (Yeah) A
great Jewish rabbi, the late Joshua Leibman, wrote a book some years ago
entitled Peace of Mind. And he has a chapter in that book entitled "Love
Thyself Properly." And what he says in that chapter, in substance,
is that before you can love other selves adequately, youve got to
love your own self properly. (All right) You know, a lot of people dont
love themselves. (Thats right) And they go through life with deep
and haunting emotional conflicts. So the length of life means that you
must love yourself.
And you know what loving yourself also means? It means that youve
got to accept yourself. (All right) So many people are busy trying to
be somebody else. (Thats right) God gave all of us something significant.
And we must pray every day, asking God to help us to accept ourselves.
(Yeah) That means everything. (Yeah) Too many Negroes are ashamed of themselves,
ashamed of being black. (Yes, sir) A Negro got to rise up and say from
the bottom of his soul, "I am somebody. (Yes) I have a rich, noble,
and proud heritage. However exploited and however painful my history has
been, Im black, but Im black and beautiful." (Yeah) This
is what weve got to say. Weve got to accept ourselves. (Yeah)
And we must pray, "Lord, Help me to accept myself every day; help
me to accept my tools." (Yeah)
I remember when I was in college, I majored in sociology, and all sociology
majors had to take a course that was required called statistics. And statistics
can be very complicated. Youve got to have a mathematical mind,
a real knowledge of geometry, and youve got to know how to find
the mean, the mode, and the median. I never will forget. I took this course
and I had a fellow classmate who could just work that stuff out, you know.
And he could do his homework in about an hour. We would often go to the
lab or the workshop, and he would just work it out in about an hour, and
it was over for him. And I was trying to do what he was doing; I was trying
to do mine in an hour. And the more I tried to do it in an hour, the more
I was flunking out in the course. And I had to come to a very hard conclusion.
I had to sit down and say, "Now, Martin Luther King, Leif Cane has
a better mind than you." (Thats right) Sometimes you have to
acknowledge that. (Thats right) And I had to say to myself, "Now,
he may be able to do it in an hour, but it takes me two or three hours
to do it." I was not willing to accept myself. I was not willing
to accept my tools and my limitations. (Yeah)
But you know in life were called upon to do this. A Ford car trying
to be a Cadillac is absurd, but if a Ford will accept itself as a Ford,
(All right) it can do many things that a Cadillac could never do: it can
get in parking spaces that a Cadillac can never get in. [laughter] And
in life some of us are Fords and some of us are Cadillacs. (Yes) Moses
says in "Green Pastures," "Lord, I aint much, but
I is all I got." [laughter] The principle of self-acceptance is a
basic principle in life.
Now the other thing about the length of life: after accepting ourselves
and our tools, we must discover what we are called to do. (Oh yeah) 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. (Yeah) And after weve
discovered what God called us to do, after weve discovered our lifes
work, we should set out to do that work so well that the living, the dead,
or the unborn couldnt do it any better. (Oh yeah) Now this does
not mean that everybody will do the so-called big, recognized things of
life. Very few people will rise to the heights of genius in the arts and
the sciences; very few collectively will rise to certain professions.
Most of us will have to be content to work in the fields and in the factories
and on the streets. But we must see the dignity of all labor. (Thats
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." (Thats right)
What Im 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; (Go ahead) 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."
If you cant be a pine on the top of a hill
Be a scrub in the valleybut be
The best little scrub on the side of the hill,
Be a bush if you cant be a tree.
If you cant be a highway just be a trail
If you cant be the sun be a star;
It isnt by size that you win or fail
Be the best of whatever you are.
And when you do this, when you do this, youve mastered the length
of life. (Yes)
This onward push to the end of self-fulfillment is the end of a persons
life. Now dont stop here, though. 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? (Yes) And they use everybody as mere
tools to get to where theyre going. (Yes) They dont 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. (Well)
A lot of people never get beyond the first dimension of life. They use
other people as mere steps by which they can climb to their goals and
their ambitions. These people dont work out well in life. They may
go for awhile, they may think theyre making it all right, but there
is a law. (Oh yeah) They call it the law of gravitation in the physical
universe, and it works, its final, its inexorable: whatever
goes up can come down. You shall reap what you sow. (Yeah) God has structured
the universe that way. (Yeah) And he who goes through life not concerned
about others will be a subject, victim of this law.
So I move on and say that it is necessary to add breadth to length. Now
the breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others,
as I said. (Yeah) 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. (All right)
One day Jesus told a parable. You will remember that parable. He had a
man that came to him to talk with him about some very profound concerns.
And they finally got around to the question, "Who is my neighbor?"
(All right) And this man wanted to debate with Jesus. This question could
have very easily ended up in thin air as a theological or philosophical
debate. But you remember Jesus immediately pulled that question out of
thin air and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho.
(He did, he did) He talked about a certain man who fell among thieves.
(Right) Two men came by and they just kept going. And then finally another
man came, a member of another race, who stopped and helped him. (Oh yeah)
And that parable ends up saying that this good Samaritan was a great man;
he was a good man because he was concerned about more than himself. (Oh
Now you know, there are many ideas about why the priest and the Levite
passed and didnt stop to help that man. A lot of ideas about it.
Some say that they were going to a church service, and they were running
a little late, you know, and couldnt be late for church, so they
kept going because they had to get down to the synagogue. And then there
are others who would say that they were involved in the priesthood and
consequently there was a priestly law which said that if you were going
to administer the sacrament or what have you, you couldnt touch
a human body twenty-four hours before worship. Now theres another
possibility. It is possible that they were going down to Jericho to organize
a Jericho Road Improvement Association. Thats another possibility.
And they may have passed by because they felt that it was better to deal
with the problem from the causal source rather than one individual victim.
Thats a possibility.
But you know, when I think about this parable, I think of another possibility
as I use my imagination. Its possible that these men passed by on
the other side because they were afraid. You know, the Jericho Road is
a dangerous road. (Thats right) Ive 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 roadIm telling
you its 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." (Yes) 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 laterI mean you have
sixteen miles from Jerusalemyoure 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. (All right)
They were just like me. I was going out to my fathers 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 nightand 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. [laughter] But
I didnt know it. Ill be honest with you, I kept going. [laughter]
I wasnt really willing to take the risk. (Thats right)
I say to you this morning that the first question that the priest asked
was the first question that I asked on that Jericho Road of Atlanta known
as Simpson Road. The first question that the Levite asked was, If
I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" (Thats right)
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?" (All right)
This is what God needs today (Yes): Men and women who will ask, "What
will happen to humanity if I dont help? (Oh yeah) What will happen
to the civil rights movement if I dont participate? (Yes) What will
happen to my city if I dont vote? (Oh yeah) What will happen to
the sick if I dont visit them?" This is how God judges people
in the final analysis. (Oh yeah)
Oh, there will be a day, the question wont be, "How many awards
did you get in life?" Not that day. (Yeah) It wont be, "How
popular were you in your social setting?" That wont be the
question that day. (Yeah) It will not ask how many degrees youve
been able to get. (All right) The question that day will not be concerned
with whether you are a "Ph.D." or a "no D." (Thats
right) It will not be concerned with whether you went to Morehouse or
whether you went to "No House." (Yes) The question that day
will not be, "How beautiful is your house?" (Thats right)
The question that day will not be, "How much money did you accumulate?
How much did you have in stocks and bonds?" The question that day
will not be, "What kind of automobile did you have?" On that
day the question will be, "What did you do for others?" (Thats
Now I can hear somebody saying, "Lord, I did a lot of things in life.
I did my job well; the world honored me for doing my job. (Oh yeah) I
did a lot of things, Lord; I went to school and studied hard. I accumulated
a lot of money, Lord; thats what I did." It seems as if I can
hear the Lord of Life saying, "But I was hungry, and ye fed me not.
(Thats right) I was sick, and ye visited me not. I was naked, and
ye clothed me not. I was in prison, and you werent concerned about
me. So get out of my face. What did you do for others?" (Thats
right) This is the breadth of life. (Oh yeah)
Somewhere along the way, we must learn that there is nothing greater than
to do something for others. And this is the way Ive decided to go
the rest of my days. Thats what Im concerned about. John,
if you and Bernard happen to be around when I come to the latter-days
and that moment to cross the Jordan, I want you to tell them that I made
a request: I dont want a long funeral. In fact, I dont even
need a eulogy (No) more than one or two minutes. (All right) I hope that
I will live so well the rest of the daysI dont know how long
Ill live, and Im not concerned about thatbut I hope
I can live so well that the preacher can get up and say, "He was
faithful." (Yes) Thats all, thats enough. (Thats
right) Thats the sermon Id like to hear: "Well done my
good and faithful servant. Youve been faithful; youve been
concerned about others." (Thats right) Thats where I
want to go from this point on the rest of my days. (Oh yeah) "He
who is greatest among you shall be your servant." I want to be a
servant. (Yes) I want to be a witness for my Lord, to do something for
And dont forget in doing something for others that you have what
you have because of others. (Yes, sir) Dont forget that. We are
tied together in life and in the world. (Preach, preach) And you may think
you got all you got by yourself. (Not all of it) But you know, before
you got out here to church this morning, you were dependent on more than
half of the world. (Thats right) You get up in the morning and go
to the bathroom, and you reach over for a bar of soap, and thats
handed to you by a Frenchman. You reach over for a sponge, and thats
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 thats poured in your cup by a South American. (Thats right)
Or maybe you decide that you want a little tea this morning, only to discover
that thats poured in your cup by a Chinese. (Yes) Or maybe you want
a little cocoa, thats poured in your cup by a West African. (Yes)
Then you want a little bread and you reach over to get it, and thats
given to you by the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention
the baker. (Thats right) Before you get through eating breakfast
in the morning, youre dependent on more than half the world. (Thats
right) Thats the way God structured it; thats the way God
structured this world. So let us be concerned about others because we
are dependent on others. (Oh yeah)
But dont stop here either. (No, sir) You know, a lot of people master
the length of life, and they master the breadth of life, but they stop
right there. Now if life is to be complete, we must move beyond our self-interest.
We must move beyond humanity and reach up, way up for the God of the universe,
whose purpose changeth not. (Right)
Now a lot of people have neglected this third dimension. And you know,
the interesting thing is a lot of people neglect it and dont even
know they are neglecting it. They just get involved in other things. 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. (Thats right) Youve 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. (Yeah) 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. (Oh yeah) 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 itthat 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 bluea light that man can never
make. (All right) 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 bluesomething
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 mans progress
that they forget to think about the need for Gods power in history.
They end up going days and days not knowing that God is not with them.
And Im here to tell you today that we need God. (Yes) Modern man
may know a great deal, but his knowledge does not eliminate God. (Right)
And I tell you this morning that God is here to stay. A few theologians
are trying to say that God is dead. And Ive been asking them about
it because it disturbs me to know that God died and I didnt have
a chance to attend the funeral. They havent been able to tell me
yet the date of his death. They havent been able to tell me yet
who the coroner was that pronounced him dead. (Preach, preach) They havent
been able to tell me yet where hes 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." (Thats right) 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 Hes here to stay. Let nobody make
us feel that we dont need God. (Thats right)
As I come to my conclusion this morning, 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. (Oh yeah) And I say to you this morning that this is
the personal faith that has kept me going. (Yes) Im not worried
about the future. You know, even on this race question, Im 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. (Yes) And all of these things can get you
confused, but they dont worry me. (All right) 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 Lords and the fulness thereof, and
Im going on because I have faith in Him. (Oh yeah) I do not know
what the future holds, but I do know who holds the future. (Yes) And if
Hell guide us and hold our hand, well go on in.
I remember down in Montgomery, Alabama, an experience that Id like
to share with you. When we were in the midst of the bus boycott, we had
a marvelous old lady that we affectionately called Sister Pollard. She
was a wonderful lady about seventy-two years old and she was still working
at that age. (Yes) During the boycott she would walk every day to and
from work. She was one that somebody stopped one day and said, "Wouldnt
you like to ride?" And she said, "No." And then the driver
moved on and stopped and thought, and backed up a little and said, "Well,
arent you tired?" She said, "Yes, my feets is tired, but
my soul is rested." (All right)
She was a marvelous lady. And one week I can remember that I had gone
through a very difficult week. (Yes) Threatening calls had come in all
day and all night the night before, and I was beginning to falter and
to get weak within and to lose my courage. (All right) And I never will
forget that I went to the mass meeting that Monday night very discouraged
and a little afraid, and wondering whether we were going to win the struggle.
(Oh yeah) And I got up to make my talk that night, but it didnt
come out with strength and power. Sister Pollard came up to me after the
meeting and said, "Son, whats wrong with you?" Said, "You
didnt talk strong enough tonight."
And I said, "Nothing is wrong, Sister Pollard, Im all right."
She said, "You cant fool me." Said, "Something wrong
with you." And then she went on to say these words, "Is the
white folks doing something to you that you dont like?"
I said, "Everything is going to be all right, Sister Pollard."
And then she finally said, "Now come close to me and let me tell
you something one more time, and I want you to hear it this time."
She said, "Now I done told you we is with you." She said, "Now,
even if we aint with you, the Lord is with you." (Yes) And
she concluded by saying, "The Lords going to take care of you."
And Ive seen many things since that day. Ive gone through
many experiences since that night in Montgomery, Alabama. Since that time
Sister Pollard has died. Since that time Ive been in more than eighteen
jail cells. Since that time Ive come perilously close to death at
the hands of a demented Negro woman. Since that time Ive seen my
home bombed three times. Since that time Ive had to live every day
under the threat of death. Since that time Ive had many frustrating
and bewildering nights. But over and over again I can still hear Sister
Pollards words: "Gods 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, Ive seen the lightning flash. Ive heard
the thunder roll. Ive 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.
You may not be able to define God in philosophical terms. Men through
the ages have tried to talk about him. (Yes) 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 dont need to know all of these high-sounding
terms. (Yes) Maybe we have to know him and discover him another way. (Oh
yeah) One day you ought to rise up and say, "I know him because hes
a lily of the valley." (Yes) Hes a bright and morning star.
(Yes) Hes a rose of Sharon. Hes a battle-axe in the time of
Babylon. (Yes) And then somewhere you ought to just reach out and say,
"Hes my everything. Hes my mother and my father. Hes
my sister and my brother. Hes 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.
Go out this morning. Love yourself, and that means rational and healthy
self-interest. You are commanded to do that. Thats the length of
life. Then follow that: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are
commanded to do that. Thats the breadth of life. And Im going
to take my seat now by letting you know that theres a first and
even greater commandment: "Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
(Yeah) with all thy soul, with all thy strength." I think the psychologist
would just say with all thy personality. And when you do that, youve
got the breadth of life.
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
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 youd 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.
When you get all three of these together... [recording ends]