I am reluctant to throw things away. My wife and other family members were once embarrassed by a pair of shoes I held onto for way too long. The shoes weren’t just scuffed and worn. They were falling apart, with huge gashes in the sides, and the tops barely connected to the soles. But these slip-ons, which had at one point been dress shoes, were so comfortable! I thought of those slits in the sides as an improvement, since they let in more air! The shoes were so old that I couldn’t remember when I bought them. When anyone asked, I would say, “They’re twelve years old.” That’s the answer I settled on, but I know they had been “twelve years old” for probably twice that long.
“You don’t have to wear those old things,” my wife insisted. “I’ll happily buy you new ones. Get rid of them.” I was willing to let her buy me new shoes, but then she sprang her unreasonable condition on me: if she got me new ones, I would have to throw away the old ones.
I protested. I wanted to keep the old ones “just in case.” At those words, my wife gave me that look and said, “Those shoes are barely holding together. There is no situation in which you will need them. Throw them away. Start fresh.”
Eventually, even I saw that my reluctance didn’t make sense. I let her throw my shoes away (while I wasn’t looking). I didn’t miss them. I never needed them.
Why do I feel such a pull to hold on to the old and familiar, even when something better is offered? The memory of those shoes was triggered recently when I was studying how much emphasis the Bible places on starting fresh, on moving into the new without diluting it with the old.
Jesus talks about it frequently. He is all about starting fresh, creating a new life.
Jesus talks about it frequently. He is all about starting fresh, creating a new life. He often speaks of it in terms of a choice: you can choose the new life, or you can stick with the old life, but not both. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins” (Mark 2:21–22). Elsewhere he says, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). He keeps making his followers choose—do you want the old, or do you want the new?
The disciples who follow him most closely during his earthly ministry boldly step into this new life, sacrificing everything familiar in the process. Here is what happens when Jesus sees the fishermen Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew, casting their nets in the Sea of Galilee: “‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him” (Matthew 4:19–20). For many people, such a headlong commitment to Jesus feels like too much to ask. They’re interested in him, they’re drawn to him, they would like to think of themselves as Christians, but . . .
The “but” can be followed by many things: But they aren’t too sure about being associated with certain other Christians who seem too troublesome. But they sometimes find it useful to latch onto other ideologies too. But they have a few sinful habits that, really, they just don’t want to give up yet.
In the Gospels, when people come up with excuses for why they can’t make a full commitment to Jesus and leave the old life behind, he is not always very sympathetic. In Luke 9:59, Jesus gives this direct invitation to a man: “Follow me.”
The man hesitates. “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
Jesus’s response? “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).
This story is followed immediately by the call of another hesitant follower, who says, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family” (Luke 9:61).
Once again, Jesus’s response is blunt: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
Stark choice—but Jesus isn’t being grouchy or unreasonable. He knows the dangers of slipping back into the old life if you don’t make a clean break. He wants to make us new. To arrive at new, we have to give up the old—sins, habits, ways of thinking, ways of being. Will we do it?
When we read the Old Testament, it doesn’t take long to learn that God hates when his followers try to follow him and some other god. Unfortunately, we can find dozens of examples of God’s people doing just that. While Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, what do the people do? The people God has rescued from slavery? The people he is leading to the promised land? The people who have seen one miracle after another of God’s deliverance? They get tired of waiting on Moses to come down from the mountain, so they gather their pieces of gold and make a golden calf to worship. Moses—not to mention the Lord!—is furious.
In later years, Israel builds pillars and images to worship, they follow the pagan practices of the cultures that surround them, and they try to combine their worship of the Lord with the worship of other gods. Where does it lead? Destruction. Exile. Chaos. God grieves their betrayal. He also eventually brings redemption and rebuilding, but the double-minded blending of the old with the new is never acceptable to him. That’s why the Ten Commandments start with two commandments that prohibit that very blending—no worshiping other gods, and no making idols.
Jesus’s ultimate statement of the need to throw off the old self and embrace the new comes in his late-night discussion with Nicodemus. Jesus tells his surprised and confused visitor, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3). Talk about new! Life doesn’t get much newer than being born. When we’re born, we don’t bring a lot with us. We don’t even have any clothes on! We also don’t have the power to give birth to ourselves. We can’t rebirth ourselves spiritually either. The Holy Spirit has to do it. With the rebirth that Jesus describes to Nicodemus, we are allowed to start over spiritually—forgiven and restored. With that in mind, why would we want to drag the old self along with the new? As 2 Corinthians 5:17 puts it, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”