New Year’s Day brings with it some interesting traditions.
People in Romania wear bear costumes and dance around. In Scotland, they make balls from wire and paper, light them on fire, and swing them while walking through the streets. In Italy, people throw pots, pans, and old furniture from their windows as the clock strikes midnight.
In Turkey, they wear red underwear to bring luck to their loved ones. In Latin America, people wear red underwear if they’re looking for love, and green underwear if they’re seeking wealth. I wonder what you wear if you’re looking for both.
One of the most ancient New Year’s customs has to do with resolutions. Babylonians apparently began this tradition four thousand years ago; they vowed to return borrowed farm equipment. If I have borrowed your tractor, I promise to return it this year.
Statistic Brain Research Institute has compiled some interesting facts regarding New Year’s Resolutions:
• 45 percent of Americans usually make New Year’s resolutions
• Only 8 percent are successful in achieving them
• However, 49 percent have at least infrequent success
• Only 24 percent never succeed in fulfilling their resolution each year.
Here’s a fact I found particularly interesting: People who explicitly make resolutions are ten times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make resolutions.
So it’s clearly a good idea to have goals, whether they take the form of New Year’s resolutions or not. What should ours be?
According to a 2016 survey by Money magazine, the most popular New Year’s Resolutions were:
• “Enjoy life to the fullest”
• “Live a healthier lifestyle”
• “Lose weight”
• “Save more, spend less”
• “Spend more time with family and friends”
• “Pay down debt.”
How many of them focus on us? How many on others? How many on God?
What New Year’s resolution does our Father want us to make?
As I prayed about that question, a passage came immediately to mind. Let’s explore it together, and see how it can guide us into God’s best plan and purpose for us in the new year.
Know God’s resolutions
On Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus was teaching in the Temple area, where his enemies lined up to debate him. In two days Jesus will be betrayed; in three he will be crucified.
So it is that the Pharisees “gathered together” (v. 34) to plot against our Lord. Then “one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?'” (vv. 35-36).
Let’s understand his trick question. The Jewish authorities counted 248 positive commandments, as many as the members of the body; and 365 negative commands, one for every day of the year; for a total of 613, as many as the Hebrew letters of the Ten Commandments. Which is most important? If Jesus chooses one, he’ll be accused of denigrating the others.
Jesus turns the debate into a proclamation for the ages. Here we find God’s two resolutions for our lives. The first: “And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment'” (vs. 37-38).
“Love” translates agape, the unconditional commitment to place the other person first. It is not a feeling, but a decision, a lifestyle. In this case, it is choosing to honor God in all you do, to put him first in every dimension of your life.
In Jewish theology, your “heart” is the will, your practical dimension. Your “soul” is your intuitive dimension. Your “mind” is your rational dimension. These are the three ways we know everything we know: practical, intuitive, and rational. We use a cell phone practically, since most of us don’t understand the technology rationally. We like people intuitively; we do math rationally.
Jesus tells us to love God with “all” your heart, soul, and mind. Put him first with your decisions, your attitudes, and your thoughts. There is to be no part of your life that is not his, no part where you do not value him first, seek relationship with him first, please him first.
Imagine a world where everyone sought to please God with every thought, decision, and attitude. That’s God intention for our culture today.
The second resolution: “And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commands depend all the Law and the Prophets” (vs. 39-40). We are to agape our neighbor, the next person we meet, as much as we do ourselves. What does this mean?
We have an instinct for self-preservation; we must seek the preservation and good of that person as we do for ourselves. We tend to excuse our own mistakes—after all, we know what we meant to say, or do. We must do the same for others. We think first about how this will affect us—we must think first how this will affect our neighbor. This is not a suggestion, but a command.
It is human nature to judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by our actions. When we love our neighbor as ourselves, we give them the same benefit of the doubt that we give ourselves. We extend to them the same forgiveness, the same understanding, the same compassion we extend to ourselves.
Imagine a world where everyone loved their neighbor as themselves. That’s God’s intention for our culture today.
When we put God first, we position ourselves to receive all that his grace intends to give. He can lead us in his “good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). He can bless us, use us, redeem our lives, and make our present obedience count for all eternity.
When we put neighbor first, we position ourselves to bless others as God has blessed us. We become conduits of the Holy Spirit in the world. We lead others to Christ, because they see Christ in us. We become change agents in a fallen culture desperate to see God’s love in ours. We become salt and light, and our lives change the lives we touch.
Live by God’s resolutions
Here’s the problem: You and I are fallen people. The only person who has ever lived perfectly by God’s life resolutions is the one who taught them to us. So what do we do?
Four simple steps are vital.
One: Resolve to put God and neighbor first in all you do.
To love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength is to put him first in every area of your life. Ask before every word or action, will this honor Jesus? Will it help my neighbor? Make this your New Year’s Resolution, your lifestyle commitment.
Two: Begin the day in God’s word.
You need God’s word to fulfill God’s will. J. I. Packer was right: the Bible is “God preaching.” Hebrews 4: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (v. 12).
God will speak to you through his word, if you will listen. So set aside time at the beginning of every day to meet him in his word. Get a good study Bible: I recommend the ESV Study Bible or the NIV Study Bible. Get a notebook so you can record what you hear from Scripture. Make a plan for Bible reading, whether you read through the Bible in a year, or a chapter a day, or whatever seems best to you.
As you read, ask the Spirit who inspired Scripture to speak from it to you. Define your challenges or questions for the day, and ask God to answer them from his word. Make time for God’s word, and God’s word will change your life.
Three: Walk through the day in his presence.
When you face challenges, pray about them. When you have decisions to make, pray about them. When God blesses you, thank him.
Then make specific times through the day to be with him. The psalmist prayed “evening and morning and at noon” (Psalm 55:17). From then to today, the Jews have typically set aside three times a day for prayer and worship. We should do the same.
Four: End the day with him.
Take a moment to look back over your day. Thank God for all that was good. Ask his forgiveness for any sins you recognize. Commit yourself to him for the evening and the day to come. Begin and end the day with your Father, and he will bless all you surrender to him.
It’s often said that today is the first day of the rest of your life. That’s obviously true. But this day could be formative for the rest of our lives, if we choose today to live by God’s New Year resolutions. If we choose to put God and neighbor first in all we do. We could be catalysts for a spiritual awakening in our lives and through the lives we touch, where we live and around the world.
Jonathan Edwards began every day with these two commitments: “Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I will.” And God made him the greatest theologian in American history and used him to spark the First Great Awakening.
William Barclay once wrote, “A man will never become outstandingly good at anything unless that thing is his ruling passion. There must be something of which he can say, ‘For me to live is this.'” And God made his biblical commentaries the most popular in the English language.
I was once speaking at a university in Kentucky and made time to visit Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace near Hodgenville. There’s a plaque at that location that records the following conversation:
“Any news down t’ the village, Ezry?”
“Well, Squire McLains’s gone t’ Washington t’ see Madison swore in, and ol’ Spellman tells me this Bonaparte fella has captured most o’ Spain. What’s new out here, neighbor?”
“Nuthin’, nuthin’ a’tall, ‘cept fer a new baby born t’ Tom Lincoln’s. Nothin’ ever happens out here.”
How will God view the importance of this moment in eternity?