How the Ten Commandments Can Help Us Grow in Friendship with God and Neighbor
In his bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey identifies the third habit of successful people as “First Things First.” If this habit needs to be articulated, it is likely because we typically and habitually do exactly the opposite! We put first things last, last things first, and more often fail to put anything first and simply live in reaction mode. We react to whatever catches our attention, to whomever reaches out to us, to our latest text, email, or notification. So, to put First Things First means to begin to live lives of great purposefulness and intentionality—to cease reacting to the world and to begin responding to the world in accord with our deeper calling as Christians.
What then should be first? Friendship. Friendship with God! Then, friendship with ourselves and our neighbors. The great saint and common teacher of the Catholic Church St. Thomas Aquinas defined charity as “friendship with God.” From this divine gift of charity comes our friendship with neighbor as we love those whom our friend Jesus Christ loves.
But how do we learn to foster true friendship? Aquinas teaches that the Ten Commandments lay out explicitly how to love God in the first tablet (or first three commands) and how to love our neighbor as ourselves in the second tablet (or the last seven commands). Let’s look at the commandments together to gain some practical insights and concrete tips about growing in friendship to keep in mind as this new academic year begins.
First Things First: The First 3 Commandments
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”
Jesus sums up the greatest commandment in Matthew’s Gospel. So how do we love God as Jesus directs us? God gives us three distinct steps, one in each of the first three commandments.
1st Commandment: “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other strange gods before me.”
God wants to be first in our lives. He wants to be “your God.” What are the “strange gods” that insert themselves between us and God? Money, possessions, fame, sex, and success all certainly can be gods in our hearts. Paul goes deeper by teaching that it is “the love of money that is the root of all evils.” It’s not money per se or the created goods of this world in themselves that bring about our rejection of God. It’s our inordinate love of them, our desire for them, our fear of losing them, and the corresponding smallness of our love of and desire for God. Let’s have the courage to reject the dominant stories our culture offers us: namely, that health, wealth, material justice, sexual self-expression, and a long life will make us happy.
So, in prayer each day, perhaps we might take time to list out by name several “strange gods” that are occupying your thoughts and imagination. Admit these to God. He knows them already and loves it when we admit our weaknesses. “A broken and contrite heart, Lord, you will not reject” (Ps 51:17).
2nd Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
When do we tend to take the name of God in vain, that is, in a state of emptiness? Often when we experience anger or fear, when we let our emotional reactions to the world rule our lives. Consider how often anger and fear work together to help us lose our peace. Although fear and anger are both healthy in themselves, they are typically exaggerated and so unbalanced in our daily lives. Fear is often “False Evidence Appearing Real.” Hebrews 2:14 teaches that Jesus freed us from “the fear of suffering” by which we were subject to the devil. When fear dominates, we fail to trust completely in God’s good providence and forget that “all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). A friend reminded me once that “anger” is only one letter from “danger”. With anger, we can easily supplant God’s providence with our own, demanding and forcing our solutions.
So, in prayer each day, perhaps we might take time to list out some of our fears and resentments and ask God to help us to put ourselves into his hands. Let us take the Lord’s name frequently and always in sincerity and truth. “Jesus, I trust in you.” Or, even more simply, “Jesus” (CCC 2666).
3rd Commandment: “Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day.”
Why do we need to remember? Because we so easily forget. Augustine teaches that we no longer know ourselves but have forgotten who we are created to be: children of God, made in the image of God. This is why the Son of God became incarnate: to restore the image of God in us, to make us children of God (Jn 1:12). Because we’ve lost our identity, we must remember it. Remembering the Lord’s Day is remembering who God is as our Creator and Father and likewise remembering who we are as his creatures and his children. Remembering “to keep holy the Lord’s Day” invites us to reject the illusion that we create ourselves or are in control of this world. Aquinas said that one of the reasons Jesus instituted the Eucharist is that friends want to be in each other’s company, and he does not call us servants but friends. Let us visit him often and ask him to help us be his good friend in return.
So, in prayer each day, and especially on Sundays, let us prepare well for Mass by taking time to list out a handful of the ways we tend to live as though it is “our day” and “our world” and perhaps the shame we feel for not handling either the world or ourselves as we ought. Let us remember that the world is God’s creation, that we are his creatures and his children. Each Sunday, we can quit our unsuccessful attempts to run the universe. “Jesus, I surrender myself entirely into your hands, take care of everything.”
Second Things Second: The Last Seven Commandments
“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’”
Jesus gives us the second greatest commandment immediately after the first. The second is like the first because we can only love our neighbor or ourselves when we have surrendered our ego’s illusory claim to be in control of everything. Only when we love God first, may we love our neighbor and ourselves in a proper balance. Here are seven steps to grow in loving our neighbor.
4th Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.”
Families matter. It is fascinating that the shift in the commandments from love of God to the love of neighbor necessarily involves the family. The family is the foundation for our relationships with our friends and with the wider society. Pope Leo XIII calls the family “the basic cell of society.” Yet, families are also wounded and broken and filled with unresolve issues and resentments. Some people are estranged from family members; others are overly dependent. Yet, as Aquinas teaches, grace does not destroy but heals our nature. So, our Christian life and commitments might also heal our families and relationships even if we do not always see the immediate results.
In prayer each day, perhaps we might take time to practice honoring our mothers and fathers by thanking God for the various members of our family and extended family. Gratitude overcomes hurts since we remember that our families are themselves only fellow creatures and not God. “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice in it and be glad” (Ps 118:24).
When we turn to the final six commandments, we discover a natural paring: the 5th, 6th, and 7th address external actions; the 8th, 9th, and 10th call for an accompanying internal conversion in the same areas.
5th Commandment: “You shall not kill.” / 8th Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
These address how we speak about and act toward our friends and our enemies. The word “kill” here really means “murder”, but perhaps we might think of an intent to harm someone without necessity. Consider how sometimes we want bad things to happen to those who have hurt us or to those who hurt others or promote anti-life and anti-Christian agendas. Consider our speech and what kind of witness it bears. How often do we fall into speaking about such people in ways that move from criticizing the positions to demeaning the persons? How often do we find ourselves gossiping about others and then feeling awkward or having to apologize later when they find out? How much easier not to have said it at all. Speaking about others when they are not present often falls into bearing false witness. Even secular media knows this truth about friendship as seen, for example, in the show Stranger Things, when the character Eleven again and again repeats, “Friends don’t lie.” Let it be so with us.
So, in prayer each day, perhaps we might take time to ask God to help us see how we have thought about and spoken about our neighbors—and even about ourselves. Let us also avoid scrupulosity here and in all matters since Our Lord knows we are weak and delights in us. Let us not “grieve the Holy Spirit” by our “corrupting talk” as Paul cautions, but instead speak that which “is good for building up” one another (Eph 4:29-30).
6th Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” / 9th Commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.”
Jesus teaches that “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” It stands to reason, therefore, when we fail in purity, our vision of God even more blurred. And, today, we live amid a persuasive culture that exalts sexual expression and immediate gratification only to fall into a cycle of sexual exploitation and addiction. Unsurprisingly, such a culture fails to see the body as the means through which we give ourselves to God and to one another in service, worship, love, and marriage. Let us ask God to free us from unhealthy thoughts and habits—and have the courage to find support groups and accountability partners. Moreover, let us be understanding of the many wounds, sexual and otherwise, in ourselves and in so many others whom we will meet.
So, in prayer each day, perhaps we might take time to remember that we too need healing of our hurts and the wandering desires of our hearts, that we too need the gift of “purity of heart” as promised by Jesus. Let us admit our own blindness and with the blind man Bartimaeus, say to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” and when Jesus asks us, “What do you want me to do for you?” let us answer, “Lord, that I might see” (Mk 10:47-52).
7th Commandment: “You shall not steal.” / 10th Commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.”
It is hard to look at our phones or our computers without seeing ads for more things to buy. We may feel pressured by society to reward ourselves by buying things or splurging on ourselves—perhaps even by going into debt. As a globe, as a country, as a society, and so often as individuals, we fail to live within our means. These commandments invite us to make a decision to get off the train of consumption—to get off the train of wanting more money and of being annoyed and resentful that we don’t have enough. I suggest that the antidote is found in finding meaning in the duty of each day—in our work, in our studies, in our recreation. By shifting our perspective, and ceasing to work for money, or to study so I can have money in the future, I can begin to find purpose by focusing on the work I do today. In a fallen world we must earn our daily bread “by the sweat of our brow.” Yet, work itself is not a curse but a gift. God placed us in the garden “to till it and keep it” (Gens 2:15), to work for six days and then to turn and offer our work and our lives to him on the Sabbath.
So, in prayer each day, perhaps we might take time to list out some of the work we can do today and offer it to God our Father, through his Son Jesus Christ, and with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We might try to recover the joy with which a child brings its efforts to its mother and father. “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands,” (Ps 90:17).
In the upper room, Jesus says to his apostles, “I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15). When directed to God, relationships of love and friendship motivate us and bring joy to our lives. Just consider how when we achieve something for which we’ve worked hard, we want to share it with another person who can share our joy.
As you begin this year, I highly encourage you re-committing yourself to friendship with Jesus Christ and with one another and to be willing to let God change you by removing defects in friendship and replacing them with his love. First things first. Take to prayer—for a few minutes each day or each week—the first three commandments as ways of recognizing how we go astray and how Jesus invites us to make a decision to trust in him and in him alone. Second things second. Take to prayer—for a few minutes each day or each week—the latter seven commandments as ways of discovering how we fall prey to looking at others and at the world as means to the gratification of our egos. Again, let us make a decision—with specific resolutions—to trust in Jesus and in him alone to be the foundation of our friendships.