A Christian’s New Year’s resolutions all boil down to one: I resolve to be more obedient to God’s commandments. I gave up making New Year’s resolutions years ago, not because I think I don’t need to improve, but because I don’t want to confine resolutions to do better to one time of the year. I do notice, though, that people who talk about their New Year’s resolutions tend to resolve the same things over and over. Recycled resolutions! But does God ever recycle his commandments? As a matter of fact, he does.
According to a well-known anecdote, when the apostle John was an old man who had to be carried to church, his message always consisted of a single commandment, “Little children, love one another.” When asked why he essentially preached the same sermon all the time, he replied that if his flock would just do that one thing, little else needed to be said. He probably had something similar in mind when he wrote, “Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command. . .” (1 John 2:7-8a, NIV)
How many times and how many ways has that one commandment, the commandment to love, been presented in Scripture? I don’t know if anyone has counted, but it’s a lot. In a way, it’s the same commandment, recycled over and over again. But recycling entails remaking something old and perhaps worn out into something new. Just a few verses are enough to show how God recycles that one commandment:
- Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:18)
- The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:31)
- My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. (John 15:12)
The commandment as found in Leviticus appears as but one among many. It is easy not to notice it at all and difficult for all but the most spiritually sensitive to notice its significance. In context, “neighbor” meant only other Hebrews. God had not yet revealed to them their place in introducing him to the whole world. As far as the Mosaic law was concerned, they were free to bear grudges and seek revenge against outsiders.
Jesus exalted that commandment, along with the one to love God totally and without reservation, above all others. By that time, most other rabbis also considered those two commandments paramount. But from the parable of the Good Samaritan, we know that Jesus greatly expanded the meaning of “neighbor.” It no longer meant “fellow Jew.” It meant “fellow human.” In this version of the commandment, it is impossible for any of us to encounter a fellow human being that we don’t have to love as we love ourselves.
How well do we love ourselves? We all love ourselves to some extent, but we also suffer from self-loathing to some extent. Whatever our answer is, it puts a limit on our ability to love our neighbor. We may well see good role models among our friends and acquaintances and strive (resolve) to become more loving, but our best role models still fall short of perfection. Jesus removed that limitation in his final teaching to his disciples in Gethsemane. He told them to love each other (and surely their neighbor by his expanded definition) as he himself had loved them.
In a sense, each new restatement of this one commandment demands more of us. And yet each gives a clearer picture of what obedience looks like. I may be able to restrain my grudges and refrain from seeking revenge, but the leap from there to loving seems unbridgeable. I may be able to recognize that I must love other people, but if I must love them the way I love myself, they may not think it looks or feels very loving. I may not succeed in loving anyone else the way Jesus loves me, but at least I know what it looks like and feels like.
And so as God recycles this one commandment, obedience comes closer to the very core of my being. It demands more and more of me, but at the same time it increases my ability to comprehend it. Obedience comes more and more within reach.
When Christians make resolutions, New Year’s or otherwise, they boil down to a resolution to obey God better and to partake more of the character of Christ. If they’re the same resolutions we’ve made before, are we just rehashing them? Or are we recycling them?