Christmas is about expectations. “Come thou long expected Jesus” was the prayer of God’s chosen people as they waited for the Messiah. In celebrating Advent, we enter into those expectations and rejoice in their fulfillment.
Sadly, we often load Christmas down with all kinds of other expectations. When people or presents don’t meet those expectations, we feel disappointed. Unrealistic expectations lead to unhappy emotions.
What should our expectations be this Christmas?
First, we should expect nothing. If we go into the holidays with zero expectations of how our husband will shop for us or how our children will behave or how our sister will treat us, our emotions will be unruffled by other people.
In other words, the best way to prepare our emotions for Christmas is to repent from idolatry. Remember, as John Calvin warned us, the evil of our desires is not so much in what we desire, but that we desire it too much. We often call these desires “expectations.” And where you have “disappointed expectations,” more often than not, you’ll find an idol lurking nearby.
When we do away with selfish expectations–or as the Bible likes to call them, “worthless idols”–we can expect joyful emotions this Christmas.
Secondly, we should expect trouble. For the Christian, trouble around the holidays should not be unexpected. Our Lord has promised that, “in this world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33); and, to paraphrase my dad, “Sin doesn’t take a holiday.”
Expect that your children may be ungrateful or unruly or that your uncle may criticize your Christian convictions. Expect trouble this Christmas and you will be better prepared to handle it emotionally.
Our secular culture tries to ignore the reality of trouble around the holidays, covering their eyes with sentimentality:
“Have yourself a Merry little Christmas,
May your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight…
From now on our troubles will be miles away…”
For the Christian, our troubles will be miles away and out of sight—one day. But that is the promise of heaven, not Christmas. Unless the Lord returns or calls us home, trouble is an ever-present reality, sometimes especially so at Christmastime.
Christmas is about celebrating the fulfilled expectation of Christ come to earth, even as we wait in expectation of his glorious return. As we celebrate the “already” we must also expect the “not yet.”
But our expectations shouldn’t end in despair. Because of Christmas, we can also expect grace. Christ has come! God is with us! Hebrews 2 highlights our spectacular Christmas expectations, made possible because of Jesus Christ:
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
He is able to help! He is able to help us respond graciously and courageously to our antagonistic uncle. He is able to help us train our children. He is able to help us put off worthless idols and find our joy in Him. In our Christmas troubles and temptations, we can expect the help of the incarnate God. God is with us and God is with us to help. He has made propitiation for every sin. He is able to help us to resist every emotional temptation. His presence is our comfort in every trouble.
When we set our Christmas expectations on Christ, we will be full of joy unspeakable.
How does a mature Christian handle her emotions? “Keep a tight lid on them” is the answer many of us might offer. But this intuitive reaction is not God’s prescription. He made us in his image, and he gave us emotions. Suppressing our feelings goes against his good design. That’s why it doesn’t work so well. Instead, God gives us a better way to handle our emotions. We are to pray. Rather than suppressing our emotions we are to express them to God. Instead of denying or ignoring our feelings, we are to bring them to the throne of grace.
The Psalms—indeed all of Scripture—is full of countless examples, but let’s consider one today: the story of Hannah. As you know, Hannah was barren and unkindly treated by her husband’s second wife, Peninnah (1 Sam. 1:5-6). She was overwhelmed by wave upon wave of tempestuous emotions. She was so upset she could not eat (1:7).
Did Hannah bottle up all of those bad feelings and put on a good front? Did she deny the bitterness and pain in her heart? No, Hannah’s painful feelings compelled her to pray.
”[Hannah] was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.” (1:10)
Hannah prayed to the Lord. Her misery drew her to God.
Here we have a vivid illustration of the usefulness of unpleasant feelings. Bad emotions can have a beneficial role in our lives when they compel us to pray.
Charles Spurgeon highlights this point:
“Observe, that through her sorrowful spirit, Hannah had learned to pray. I will not say but what she prayed before this great sorrow struck her, but this I know, she prayed with more intensity than before when she heard her rival talk so exceedingly proudly, and saw herself to be utterly despised….Thus bitterness of spirit may be an index of our need for prayer and an incentive to that holy exercise.”
Hannah’s sorrow was the incentive to pour out her soul before God. Hannah rightly handled her miserable feelings. She didn’t allow her miserable feelings to drive her away from God; instead, they were the impetus to turn to God for help. So too our miserable feelings: they should drive us to God, they should compel us to pray.
Prayer is absolutely essential if we are to rightly handle emotions. If we expect to keep our emotions from wreaking havoc on our lives, then we must pray!
Dr. R.C. Sproul makes this assertion about prayer: “Prayer does change things, all kinds of things. But the most important thing it changes is us… Prayer changes us profoundly.”
Prayer changed Hannah profoundly. God changed her heart through prayer and subsequently her feelings changed. And as we know, Hannah’s emotions changed rather dramatically. She went from being “deeply distressed” at the outset of her prayer to being “no longer sad” by the end (1:18).
Pour Out Your Soul
Hannah’s prayer wasn’t some lifeless, dutiful, half-hearted prayer. It was an honest, fervent, “meet God where you are” kind of prayer. There were tears with this prayer. Lots of tears.
As the tears spilled out, Hannah spilled out her soul to the Lord. So emotional was Hannah’s prayer that Eli, the high priest, mistook them for drunken mutterings and wrongly accused Hannah of being intoxicated (1:13-14).
Hannah assured Eli that she was not under the influence of alcohol, but in a state of prayer: “I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord” she told him.
Did God condemn Hannah for her emotional prayer? Quite the opposite! He put her in Scripture as an example of a woman we should follow. It was Eli—the one who looked down his nose at Hannah’s emotional prayers—with whom God was displeased.
Hannah unburdened her soul before the Lord. She did, as Charles Spurgeon put it: “Turn[ed] the vessel of [her] soul upside down in [God’s] secret presence, and let [her] inmost thoughts, desires, sorrows, and sins be poured out like water.”
She poured out everything to God.
We can only imagine the lightness of soul Hannah must have felt after she poured out all the grief and resentment that had been pent-up in her soul for so long!
When we suppress our emotions, it weighs us down. It’s as if we are lugging around a heavy bag with us wherever we go. We all know what happens if we have to carry that bag for an extended period of time: The longer we carry it, the heavier it feels.
So it is with an overwhelmed soul. The longer we bear it, the heavier it feels.
The longer we ignore our sin and suppress our sorrow, the more weighed down we become. The bitter emotions only grow stronger. The depressing feelings only get more intense.
That’s why we should pray. There is no simpler, better way to find help for our overwhelmed souls than to pray. There is no other means whereby we experience relief from our sorrows and forgiveness for our sins than to pray.
That is why James instructed the believers to whom he was writing with these words: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (5:13)
Let me turn James’ question on us: Is there anyone here suffering? Is there anyone here whose soul is weighed down? Maybe you are burdened by a severe trial you are walking through. Possibly you are distressed about a particular sin you can’t seem to overcome. Or maybe you feel depressed and you are not even sure why.
If so, may I encourage you to pray?
Let’s pour out our souls before God. No matter how we are feeling, God wants to hear from us. He wants us to tell Him everything that’s on our hearts—to hold nothing back.
Many of us have the impression that emotions are bad. Some were raised in families where people didn’t express much emotion. No one ever said it was wrong to cry or to get too excited about something. But then again, no one ever did.
Quite a few people are raised in a culture where “too much emotion” is frowned upon. Like one woman from the UK who says she is speaking very generally, but “I’m British so we have a stiff upper lip that is part of our DNA. Anything else would seem false or forced to us.”
Maybe you were made fun for crying on the playground, or mocked for your exuberance or your laugh. Whatever the situation, we all know what its like to get the message from other people: your emotions aren’t welcome here.
Even if you grew up with a more positive view of emotions from your parents and culture, you may still have gotten the idea from some Christian books or sermons that feelings were a sign of immaturity.
No matter what our background, most of us don’t realize that negative views of emotion have an ancient history. Aristotle and the Stoics believed that “if you feel good about something you have nullified the virtue of it.” These ideas have profoundly influenced the history of emotional thought.
While more recently, freedom of expression is celebrated in popular American culture, it is also seen as a hindrance to success. In particular for women, whose emotions are particularly unwelcome in the workplace. And it is often frowned upon in the church where a legitimate fear of excessive emotionalism leads many to avoid emotion all together.
“You almost get the feeling,” writes Matthew Elliot of philosophers, “that emotions should be kept in cages, like lions at the zoo—nice to walk past and look at, but better left locked up.”
Lock ‘em up is what many of us do. We press them down, stifle our feelings, suppress any emotional expression. We tell our friends to do the same. Keep calm and carry on. Chill. Relax. Keep a stiff upper lip. Put on your game face. Try to be cool.
We suppress our feelings because it feels like the safe thing to do. It provides protection from the ridicule and rejection of others. It makes us feel a little bit like we are in control of our confusing emotions, which frankly, can be a little frightening at times. It feels like the mature or godly thing to do. Telling us we shouldn’t suppress our feelings is like opening up the cages and letting all the wild animals escape. How can that be a good thing?
“The response of some Christians” writes theologian D.G. Benner “has been to suppress emotional expression. However, such emotional suppression is not only the cause of many psychological problems, it should probably also be seen as a sinful response to emotion in that it violates God’s intentions.”
Emotions aren’t bad. Suppressingemotions is bad because it “violates God’s intentions.” You see, God, is an emotional Being who created us to be like him, to reflect his image (Gen. 1:27). He is not glorified when we suppress or stifle our emotions. He is not pleased when we view feelings as inherently bad or defective.
Stifling emotions is not only wrong, it is dangerous. It is the cause, as Benner points out, of “many psychological problems.” AW Tozer agrees:
“Be sure that human feelings can never be completely stifled. If they are forbidden their normal course, like a river they will cut another channel through the life and flow out to curse and ruin and destroy.”
Because emotional suppression runs contrary to God’s design, it wreaks havoc in our lives. Feelings that are suppressed do not disappear; they burst their bonds and rush forth to ruin and destroy.
We all know the mess a burst emotional pipe can make. Ulcers and migraines. Family feuds. “She finally snapped,” we say. Emotions that are stifled and suppressed—contrary to God’s design—are the source of significant trouble in our lives. Sometimes, after years of stuffing their emotions way down inside, people either “lose it” altogether or instead lose the ability to feel much at all.
Be comforted that God has not left us at the mercy of our emotions. He didn’t give us a gift that is wild and uncontrollable and then tell us we’re wrong to try and tame it. No, he has given us all the wisdom and instruction we need in his Word to help us deal with our emotions in a manner that glorifies him.
So often, and especially with our emotions, we choose a course of action based on past experience instead of God’s Word. We have bad experiences with emotions and so we decide that feelings must be bad. We get rejected because of our emotions and so we conclude that feelings are best kept under wraps. But God wants us to set aside our experiences and return to his Word to learn how to deal with our emotions.
For those of you who have found some degree of safety in suppressing your emotions, God wants you to know that he has a better way. He wants to put faith and courage in your heart. He is the one who gave us emotions and he has told us how to handle them, in a way that results in freedom and in joy.
Others of you may worry that we are opening up all the cages to wild and uncontrolled emotions. Are you really advocating that everyone just express how they feel whenever they feel it? Of course not! If you’ve been reading our blog for any length of time you know us better than that. Rather, we want to encourage everyone to take a fresh look at what Scripture says about our emotions. In the next couple posts we’ll consider one way God helps us to properly handle our emotions.
We see them when we walk into a room or stroll through a crowd: the women who are prettier than we are. They are everywhere, aren’t they?
Women have special powers of observation that enable us to instantly spot a woman with a prettier face, a more attractive figure, cuter clothes, or more of a flair for style than we do. We tend to rank everyone we meet on our own private beauty scale—placing them somewhere above or below ourselves.
Comparison is a common trap for women, and it can quickly turn into complaining. I wish I had a gorgeous head of hair like she does. I wish I were as skinny as her. She always wears such attractive clothes. I wish I could afford to dress like that. If only I were tall like her. If only I had her pretty face. Obsessive comparing and complaining leads to envy, and envy, as we know, makes us bitterly unhappy.
Why are we so unhappy that we don’t have so-and-so’s figure or that other girl’s face? It is most likely because we want the attention she receives for ourselves.
Instead, we must repent and choose to trust God. We must recall that it is God has decided what we look like and what every other woman looks like too. When we remember that He has ordained our beauty “lot” we can receive it as truly pleasant (Ps. 16:5–6). We can cease stressing, striving, and comparing.
In 1 Peter 3, God teaches us to trust him by giving us a different group of women to look at. Instead of picking out the prettiest girls in the room and marking them for resentment, we are to look to the godliest women:
These are the heroines, the company of holy women of the past who trusted in God. Instead of comparing our physical appearance to other women, we should be measuring our hidden beauty next to these women, and striving to be like them.
For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening (1 Peter 3:5–6).
Here’s the good news: while most of us will never be the prettiest girl in the room, we can, by the grace of God, become like these holy women. When we cast off comparison and clothe ourselves with a gentle and quiet spirit, we can become beautiful children of Sarah.
We are lovin’ the new Sovereign Grace Music album here at girltalk. Sooner Count the Stars makes great writing, painting, cleaning, washing, laundry-folding music. “Blessed Assurance” is currently our favorite track, but they are all creative and Christ-centered. Thanks to Sovereign Grace Music we have a cd to give away today to one of our readers. Simply retweet on Twitter or share this post on Facebook to enter. Winner announced tomorrow. Hope all of you enjoy this new album!
UPDATE: Congratulations to Mim from Edinburgh—you won a free copy of Sooner Count the Stars!
Our dear friend, Lauren, recently shared this testimony at Grace Church and we thought it would be a great encouragement to many of you who are experiencing “trials of various kinds” (Ja. 1:2).
After over 2 years of trying to conceive, I was still motherless and crying out to God in the midst of the heartache of wanting a family but not knowing if He would ever make it happen. I felt like Hannah in the Bible, who desperately wanted a child but could not conceive. The Scriptures say that Hannah “was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.”
Although I was happy for my friends who got pregnant easily, I struggled with hopelessness and loneliness each time I saw another pregnancy announcement. When I saw happy moms with their babies, it felt like a small stab in my heart. I wrestled with God over prayers that seemed to go unanswered. I was tempted to feel like God had forgotten me. I was humbled at my inability to make everything right. I struggled to believe that God was still good when my circumstances said otherwise. I had nowhere else to turn except to his Word where He reminded me of who He is.
Up until this point in my life, I hadn’t experienced much hardship or suffering. God used my inability to become pregnant to really humble me and show me his perfect sovereignty and wisdom. I thank God that he blesses us when we hide his Word in our hearts so that when trials come, we are not left to buoy out at sea alone. We have his Word as a strong and sure anchor for our soul. Charles Spurgeon says, “When you can’t trace God’s hand, you must trust in God’s heart.” I found that God’s heart for me, in his Word, was one of tender, compassionate love. He deals gently with those who are suffering and like Isaiah 42:3 says, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”
Scripture like Psalm 145 nourished my soul:
“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made…. The Lord is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works. The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing. The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them.”
When we began the process of adoption, I actually became pregnant a few months later! We were shocked and over the moon excited. But only a few weeks later, God called that baby home. I was faced with yet another opportunity to reaffirm that my foundation was on the one and only solid Rock, and that in His precious sovereignty, He knew what was best and good.
Lamentations 3 was a lifeline:
“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth…. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart.”
Charles Spurgeon also says, “Delayed answers to prayer are not only trials of faith; they also give us opportunities to honor God through our steadfast confidence in Him even when facing the apparent denial of our request.” When facing the apparent denial of my request, God gave me the opportunity to honor him by trusting His Word. There were many times when friends and family would send me Scripture or excerpts from books that were exactly what I needed to hear to remind me of God’s sweet promises. God utilized the body of Christ, his church, to remind me he was there for me and knew me intimately and would never forsake me.
Looking back, I wouldn’t change that season for anything because He taught me so much and I love Him and trust Him more now. And, because God is so kind, He not only satisfied me with Himself, He gave me the desire of my heart to be a mother. It wasn’t the way we planned it when we got married almost 9 years ago, but it is more perfect than we could have planned! As I look into the faces of my three beautiful children, and at the sonogram picture of our glory baby, I can’t help but thank God for being so much wiser than me and answering my prayers in His perfect timing in blessing me with all four of their precious lives. I echo Mary’s song of praise: “He who is mighty has done great things for me!” (Luke 1:49) And for those of you who might be in the place I was 4 years ago in wanting a child, or maybe you are in the middle of another perplexing and painful trial, may my story and the trustworthy words of Psalm 68:2 encourage you: “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”
I’ll end with yet one more quote from my hero, Charles Spurgeon:
“Why yield to gloomy anticipations? Who told you that the night would never end in day?.... Who told you that the winter of your discontent would proceed from frost to frost, from snow and ice and hail to deeper snow and yet more heavy tempest of despair? Don’t you know that day follows night, that flood comes after ebb, that spring and summer succeed winter? Be full of hope! Hope forever! For God does not fail you. Do you know that God loves you in the midst of all this?.... You will yet, midst the splendors of eternity, forget the trials of time, or only remember them to bless the God who led you through them and works your lasting good by them. Come, sing in the midst of tribulation. Rejoice even while passing through the furnace. Cause the desert to ring with your exulting joys, for these light afflictions will soon be over, and then forever with the Lord, your bliss shall never wane.”
“No one is exempt from suffering, but not every Christian is prepared for suffering. And if you aren’t prepared, you will be blindsided by suffering. It will feel as if God is distant from you and indifferent to your pain. Therefore, you will need your best theology for your darkest moments. [The book of] Job is one of the best gifts from God to man to prepare us for suffering and sustain us in the midst of suffering. In this book, Job reaches out in agony to God and God graciously reveals himself to Job.”
Some of you may be suffering right now. Others may need to be prepared for suffering. Either way, your soul will be strengthened by this remarkable book of the Bible. The God who graciously revealed himself to Job wants to reveal himself to you as well. We hope you will follow along with us in this series. You can subscribe to the Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville podcast feed or visit the church website each week for a new sermon.
Also in this sermon you will hear CJ mention the commentary Job: The Wisdom of the Cross by Christopher Ash. This book may be the most encouraging and helpful book on suffering I have ever read. I highly recommend you read it for yourself.
“Few things frighten me more than the beginnings of barrenness that come from frenzied activity with little spiritual food and meditation.” John Piper
Fall and the start of school means frenzied activity. So why do I forget this every year?
In those final, lazy days of summer break, when my kids get bored and restless, I start to long for the structure and schedule of school. Then I get what I wished for and wonder, “What was I thinking?!”
I’m running on cold coffee and stale brownies, struggling to keep up. The laundry is turning sour in the washing machine, we’re already a week behind our homeschool schedule, and yesterday I discovered that my son went into science class unprepared because I forgot to give him his homework. Let the mistakes begin! Mornings are the frenziest (and the time that I’m most likely to make up words). Getting a family of six prepared for takeoff and launched into the day is a challenge. Doing it without sinning against anyone and everyone? Extreme challenge.
And so my Bible reading and prayer have been pushed off to later and later in the day—so late that it isn’t happening. I’m not being lazy and I really want to spend time with the Lord. It’s just that I can’t send my son to school without a lunch, or give up teaching my kindergartner how to read, can I?
But I’m starting to feel it. The beginnings of barrenness. I need God’s Word. I need His presence. More than anything. (John 15:5)
So where do we find the time? Finding the time to spend with God each morning often begins the night before. We have to get practical in order to prioritize the spiritual.
Here are some practical ideas that are helping me right now, along with some suggestions the other girltalkers threw in as well:
I’ve started making lunches before I go to bed at night. No matter how tired I am, or how late it is, I don’t go to sleep until my husband’s and son’s lunches are ready in the fridge.
Mom used to empty her dishwasher before she went to bed, that way it was ready for dirty dishes each morning.
Make your coffee the night before. Set out your Bible, reading material, and supplies (pen, blanket, tissues etc.).
Train your children to stay in bed each morning until you come and get them.
We are still talking and reminiscing about our mother-daughter-granddaughter trip to Chicago to attend Elisabeth Elliot’s memorial service. It was a profound experience to hear from so many of Elisabeth Elliot’s close friends and family about her joy, humor, trust in God, and love for others. We are so thankful someone has posted the entire service online for all to see. It’s hard to imagine two hours of your week better spent than watching this service and learning from the godly life of this amazing woman.
Last Thursday morning, we received the agonizing news that our friend Rebecca’s husband, Wade, went home to be with the Lord after being killed in a car accident. Since that day, our church family has been grieving with Rebecca and her children. Our hearts are breaking for their loss. Wade was a godly man who served alongside our husbands in the church, a man who was greatly respected for his passion for God, his faithful and sacrificial service, his humility, and his kindness. He is already missed so very much.
On Sunday, my father and pastor, CJ Mahaney, sought to care for Rebecca, her children, and our church family, as we “made our way to the house of mourning together” (Ecc. 7:2-4). He shared words of comfort from Scripture as well as instruction on how to care for those who have lost a loved one. May these words serve your soul as well.
We have a Savior who not only feels the effect of death in our lives and weeps with us, we have a Savior who was willing to bear God’s judgment for our sin so we will be forgiven of our sin and spared judgment for our sin. “Death is swallowed up in victory.” And the one who wept by the tomb of Lazarus will one day personally wipe away every tear from the eyes of His people.