It wasn’t until after dinner on December 1 that I finally went out to the garage in search of our large, wooden, Advent calendar. All I found was an old, used, cardboard calendar. My search for the traditional Advent candles was equally fruitless, so I grabbed a small, misshapen candle from my bedroom dresser. Let the Advent season begin.
As if the holidays aren’t crazy enough, this year my husband and I are fixing up an old farmhouse and moving in (God-willing) by the middle of December. Right now, we are living in between two houses, making packing lists, carpenter checklists, and Christmas lists all at the same time. Which is why I can’t find my Advent stuff, or anything else for that matter.
You don’t have to be moving to feel like the pressure of the holidays is putting the squeeze on your emotions. We all want to experience the peace and joy of this time of year, but things are so busy. And the busier we get, the more anxious and stressed we feel.
“Your life is so intense right now” my mom sympathized “and that’s just reality. The work isn’t going away. You are, as Paul describes the married woman in 1 Corinthians 7, ‘anxious about worldly things’ (v. 37).”
Then she asked me this question:
“How can you simplify your day so that you can carve out a couple of minutes to contemplate the incarnation?”
Each day, as you make your to-do list, ask yourself this question. What is one task you can eliminate or one tradition you can simplify? How can you turn that extra five minutes or half an hour into time well-spent, focusing on the truth of Immanuel, God with us.
“This is what will make you happy,” Mom reminded me, “contemplating the good news of the gospel.”
She followed her advice with this thought from Martin Luther:
“We must both read and meditate upon the nativity….There is such richness and goodness in this nativity that if we should see and deeply understand, we should be dissolved in perpetual joy.”
The other night, after I had collected our rather pathetic Advent supplies, we gathered our children around the table, turned off the lights (hiding all the dirt and boxes), and lit our solitary candle. Everyone was quiet as my husband helped our youngest, Sophie, read from Luke 2:11:
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
One simple verse, packed with richness and goodness. One tired mom, dissolved in perpetual joy.
The small town in Kentucky where we live grew up about 150 years ago around a train station. Trains still rumble through all day, to the delight of my children who try to count the cars and guess what’s inside.
The other night, though, we came upon an ugly scene. The train had collided with a huge white semi, which lay twisted on the track, illuminated by the glow of emergency vehicles. Thankfully no one was hurt, but it was a dramatic sight.
For some of us, this is where our emotions are headed this Thanksgiving. We are a train wreck waiting to happen.
Maybe we sense a crash ahead. Things haven’t been great with the family lately and a holiday conflict is in the offing. Or we are tense and irritable, unhappy about a lot of things in our life: we’re speeding into the holiday with no emotional brakes.
But maybe we’re totally unaware a semi is ahead on the tracks. We’re happy because the Thanksgiving table will be full this year. We’re energized by all the dinner preparations.
All of us, the excited and the anxious, must consider the source of our emotions this Thanksgiving. Can our happiness be taken away if things suddenly go wrong this Thursday? Is a peaceful holiday or some change of circumstances the only thing that will make us happy?
Tim Keller has a few words of wisdom for the holiday:
Most contemporary people base their inner life on their outward circumstances. Their inner peace is based on other people’s valuation of them, and on their social status, prosperity, and performance. Christians do this as much as anyone. Paul is teaching that (in Eph. 1:15-19 and especially verse 17), for believers, it should be the other way around. Otherwise we will be whiplashed by how things are going in the world.
If our holiday happiness is dependent on what the people we spend Thanksgiving with think about us, or how our children behave, or whether the gravy thickens, we’re headed for an emotional crash. We’ll get whiplashed by how things go.
But Paul wrote in Philippians (4:10-13), that he had learned to avoid such collisions. He had learned the secret to being content (happy!) whatever the circumstances. The strength of his joy was in his Savior.
If we set our joy in God at the beginning of this week, our happiness will be unassailable. It won’t be ruffled by a family member’s put-down or burnt with the rolls.
You know what? We do not need the approval of our family or success in our job or a feeling of significance. We don’t even need to have a conflict-free holiday in order to be happy. Our happiness can really be, as we’ve quoted often here at girltalk, “out of the reach” of all these things. That’s because for those of us who are Christians, our joy is safely and securely in Jesus Christ.
When you can honestly say, “My worst fears about this holiday may come true, or it may be the best holiday ever, but either way, I know I will be happy this Thanksgiving” you know you’ve discovered Paul’s secret. Here’s praying we all will find it.
Today the girltalkers are sitting down over lunch (maybe leftover chicken and orzo or a couple of roast beef sandwiches from Arby’s—Janelle’s still deciding on the menu) to plan Thanksgiving. Yes, we’re a little early on the Christmas music and late on the Thanksgiving planning this year, but we’ll pull it together.
Holiday planning is essential. We plan menus and seating arrangements, we make lists of gifts to get and to give. But there’s one holiday event we often fail to plan for, and that is our feelings.
The holidays stir up feelings we thought were ancient history, feelings that only seem to surface this time of year and if we aren’t prepared, our emotions can end up running (even ruining) the holidays.
Anxiety spikes over the holidays. Will the children like their presents? Will the turkey be moist and will the gravy thicken? Is the family going to get along?
When life is hard and we are down, we feel bitter and resentful of holiday cheer. Maybe Scrooge had a point.
Disappointments litter the holiday season. Your daughter couldn’t come for Christmas. The party wasn’t a huge success. Your husband wasn’t as excited about his present as you’d hoped.
Envy and jealousy rear their ugly heads this time of year. You were reasonably content until you had to spend an evening listening to your cousin talk about her new house and her amazing church and her wonderful kids.
We feel stressed about all the work and irritable because no one is helping us do it.
Feelings of judgment and anger (you thought you’d repented from) are rekindled along with the yuletide fire. Guilt is served up like a side dish.
Many of us feel happy and excited over the holidays, only to get hit with a bad case of post-holiday blues.
For some, the holidays bring a sharp stab of pain and sadness from the loss of a loved one.
How do we deal with our holiday feelings? There’s a ton of advice out there, but as Christian women, we have a higher goal. We want to glorify God with our holiday feelings. We want to rejoice in our Savior’s birth. We want to have hearts full of gratitude for the gift of salvation.
We have a higher goal, and we also have a greater hope. Our hope is in our Savior, who has rescued us from the wrath of God and forgiven us from our sins. Our hope is in the Holy Spirit who is active in our hearts this holiday season to help us rejoice in Jesus Christ.
How can we experience God-glorifying emotions this holiday? Let’s receive wisdom from God’s Word to make a plan.
“[T]ake the…sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6:17-18).
To fight fear we are to “pray at all times.” But we have another weapon in our arsenal: the promises of God. We are to wield the Word against the onslaught of mothering fears.
We are to ”take” the Word of God and use it. To do this, we need to have it nearby. This means we need to be daily reading the Word and consistently meditating on it.
And we need to pull out the promises and put them into action. We have to pick up the sword and fight. A sword must be swung in order to deliver a blow.
We have a legacy of faithful, fear-fighting, women to follow: “And you are [Sarah’s] children if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Pet. 3:6).
John Piper writes: “[T]he daughters of Sarah fight the anxiety that rises in their hearts. They wage war on fear, and they defeat it with the promises of God.”
Let’s be daughters of Sarah and fight our mothering fears with the promises of God.
To conclude: Our two, fear-fighting, strategies are:
Prayer: “...do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).
Promises: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
Saints throughout the centuries have leaned on God’s promises and called out to Him in prayer. And each and every time, they have found Him to be faithful. “I sought the Lord,” David tells us, “and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears” (Ps. 34:4).
So, let’s follow the example of David and that great cloud of witnesses. Let’s seek God through constant prayer, and in the space of His promises, let’s park our souls.
When feelings of fear for our children overwhelm our souls, we often look for something “new” to help us deal with them. But instead, we must rely on the true and the tried strategies from God’s Word. The first, never-failing, fear-fighting, strategy is prayer.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7 ESV).
For the anxious mother, God has provided a solution in His Word. It is simple: Pray. Give Thanks. Repeat.
It covers all of life: Don’t be anxious about ANYTHING. Pray about EVERYTHING.
And it comes with a promise: God’s peace will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
As we pray and give thanks IN EVERYTHING, our trust in God deepens and His peace pervades our lives. Anxious thoughts don’t have the same sticking power.
“Prayer is the unfailing resource of anxious mothers,” to paraphrase Charles Spurgeon:
“If they are driven to their wits’ end, they may still go to the mercy-seat….Let us never forget to pray, and let us never doubt the success of prayer… Mirth and carnal amusements are a sorry prescription for a mind distracted and despairing. Prayer will succeed where all else fails.”
We are often “at our wits’ end” with our children. We feel like we’ve tried everything and we don’t know what else to do. So we worry and fret.
Instead of giving way to fear, we must cry to the Lord on behalf of our children. We must pray. We must never forget to pray. And we must not doubt the success of prayer. We must believe that prayer works.
Prayer will succeed where all our mothering efforts fail.
“They…were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” Ps. 107:27, 28
What do our mothering fears have in common? They are all in our imagination. Our fertile minds generate countless scenarios whereby one calamity or another befalls our children: What if my son rebels when he hits the teenage years? What if my daughter doesn’t want to be my friend when she grows up? What if my son gets in a car accident? What if my daughter is diagnosed with leukemia?
After thirty-eight years of mothering, I’ve discovered that most of the bad things I imagined never actually came true. But there have been other trials—ones I never anticipated.
That’s why Elisabeth Elliot’s wise advice has been invaluable to me in fighting fear: “There is no grace for your imagination.”
God does not sprinkle grace over every path my fear takes. He does not rush in with support and encouragement for every doomsday scenario I can imagine.
No, instead He warns me to stay off those paths: “Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil” (Ps. 37:8).
There is no grace for our imagination. That’s why our fearful imaginings produce bad fruit: anxiety, lack of joy, futile attempts to control.
There is no grace for our imagination. But God does promise sufficient, abundant grace for every real moment of our lives. That’s why the Proverbs 31 woman can “laugh at the future in contrast with being worried or fearful about it” (ESV Study Bible note on Pr. 31:25)
There is no grace for our imagination. But there will be grace for our mothering future, the moment it arrives.
There is not grace for our imagination. But there is grace for today’s mothering trials. Not tomorrow’s imaginary trouble or next year’s envisaged problems. Just for today.
That’s why Jesus tells us: “[D]o not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:34)
Moms of all people know this to be true: each day really does have sufficient trouble without adding tomorrow’s worries!
But for today’s sufficient trouble there is God’s more-than-sufficient grace: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
“As your days” it says in Deuteronomy, “so shall your strength be” (33:25).
What’s more, for the Christian mother, goodness and mercy are behind every moment of today’s trouble. Our trouble isn’t meaningless. God is pursuing us with goodness and mercy today and all the days of our lives (Ps. 23:6).
“Courage, dear friend” encourages Charles Spurgeon, “The Lord, the ever-merciful, has appointed every moment of sorrow and pang of suffering. If He ordains the number ten, it can never rise to eleven, nor should you desire that it shrink to nine” (emphasis mine).
God is busy working today’s mothering trouble for our good. So do not worry about tomorrow but look to Him today.
Our mothering fears are conceived with our children. We see two little blue lines, and we are tempted to worry. We worry about eating something bad, lifting something heavy, sleeping in the wrong position.
Then our baby is born, and we fret about her life outside the womb—her eating, sleeping, talking, walking, developmental progress.
Our child starts school and we fear he will never finish. Will he make friends, make good grades, make something of himself? No sooner does high school start and we begin to worry about college.
We worry about our children’s health, their education, their friends, and above all, the state of their souls.
But once our children leave home, get a job, get married—then we can stop worrying, right?
Not so fast. Instead of leaving with our children, new worries move in. In my case, I now have nineteen people (including sons-in-law and grandchildren) to worry about instead of four! And the world in which my grandchildren are growing up seems much scarier than the one in which I raised my children.
What mothering fears have you battled lately? Whether you are pregnant with your first child or trying to steer your youngest child through the teenage years, temptations to fear (or to its opposite: self reliance) litter the mothering landscape. Scripture seems to bear witness to this. While all Christians are frequently urged to trust God, women are specifically exhorted in 1 Peter 3:6: “do not fear anything that is frightening.”
I love Scripture’s honesty! It admits right upfront that there’s stuff that is frightening. In fact, Scripture often predicts we will face much trouble and hardship in this life. And nowhere is this more true than with our children. Where else in life do we have more significant responsibility (eternal souls), face such daunting challenges (sinful heart, hostile world), and feel so inadequate and ineffective?
But we are not to fear anything that is frightening. We are to trust in God.
Trusting God is not a one-time decision or something we can accomplish in a month. We will have to fight to trust. Some days we must fight hourly, even on a moment-by-moment basis. Like raising children, growing in trust is a life-long effort.
But we are not alone. We have the Holy Spirit inside of us to guide us into all truth. We have our Sovereign Father ruling wisely and graciously over all. We have our Savior’s righteousness to run to when we fail. Many things are frightening, but we have many more reasons to trust God than to fear.
Mothers, we will never outgrow our need to trust God for our children, but neither will we outgrow the faithfulness of God: “the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children” (Ps. 103:17).
I once saw a Family Circus cartoon that showed three children leaning on the edge of their parents’ bed, watching them while they slept. The caption underneath was one child’s remark: “They look so sweet and peaceful when they’re asleep. You wonder how they could ever yell at us during the day.” Do you ever wonder if this happens in your home? That your kids think of you as a mean mom? That your failures as a mother define you and determine your children’s future?
When you add the feeling (or reality) of a mothering failure to the exhaustion, the endless work, and the temptation to compare yourself to other moms, you have a perfect motherhood storm.
This happened to me countless times when I was raising my children. I would fail in my mothering—either by something I did, or something I didn’t do—and I was sure it was a sign I would ultimately fail. That was it. My kids would never “turn out.” I had ruined them forever.
I remember one time I got angry at one of my daughters. Although I had repented before God and asked my daughter’s forgiveness, I still felt terrible. I berated myself for treating my child in such a manner. I was convinced the damage was irreparable.
But my husband encouraged me: “Because of your humility in asking her to forgive you, she feels close to you now than before.” And he was right. This daughter and I were experiencing the sweet closeness that follows repentance in a relationship.
Now I’m not issuing a free pass to sin! I am not saying, “It’s okay to be unkind to your children. They’re tough. They can handle it.” Sin is always the wrong choice. It does have consequences. So by the power of the Holy Spirit, we must work tirelessly to eradicate it from our lives (Rom. 8:13). When we sin we must not make excuses, we must confess our sin to God and humbly ask our children for forgiveness.
But we must not succumb to despair or live with low-grade condemnation or guilt. This maligns the gospel and does not produce the fruit of repentance or serve our children. Rather we must return to Scripture. We must remind ourselves of the truth that God is faithful and just to forgive us from our sins and to cleanse us from unrighteousness (1 John 1:9), that he is busy conforming us to the image of His Son (Rom 8:29), and that he works all things (even our mothering failures!), for our good and the good of our children (Rom 8:28).
Then there is mommy-guilt. Few emotions put a stranglehold on our mothering joy like feeling guilty and condemned over our sins and shortcomings.
Guilt has a thousand little voices that whisper in your ear all day long: You’re a failure. You’re going to ruin your kids. How could you do that? How could you NOT do that? Look at all those other moms. They are doing a much better job that you are.
It’s like the radio in our head is set on a guilt frequency and we can’t tune it out. As moms we need biblical truth to cut through the voices of guilt if we are going to maintain our joy.
How do we deal with mommy-guilt? First, we need to learn the difference between biblical guilt and self-imposed guilt.
Scripture’s parenting commands are simple: Teach. Discipline. Love. (Dt. 6.7, Pr. 13:24, Tit. 2:4) If I have fallen short of these commands (which I do all the time!) then I must approach the throne of grace. We’ll talk more about this in the next post.
But genuine guilt often gets mixed up with self-imposed guilt. You see, we’ve got this bad habit of making our own Mother’s Rulebook and adding to it all the time. We read an article about the dangers of such and such, talk to a mom who does this, that, and the other thing, and we scribble down another rule. No sooner have we added one rule than we break three more. Citizen’s arrest! Citizen’s arrest!
When the motherhood bar is set at cultural approval or another mom’s abilities, we’re going to feel the constant condemnation of falling short. So how do we deal with the demoralizing emotions of self-imposed guilt? Again, Scriptures answers are simple.
Trust – God has given me to my children and my children to me. He didn’t match moms and kids like a game of Memory and lose a couple under the couch. He put each child and mother together in perfect love and wisdom. When I view motherhood through the lens of God’s sovereignty the whole scene changes. God designed me to be the ideal mother for my children. There are not some moms who are better suited for motherhood and others who just get by. If you are a mom, you are the one person best suited to your child. God has given you just the right gift-set, the strengths and abilities, and the over-abundant grace to parent your child. Through Christ, you lack nothing your child needs you to give.
Obey – God’s commands are not burdensome (1 Jn. 5:3). We have a mothering responsibility, but it is not burdensome. The rest and peace we long for is found when we simply follow Christ, resisting the distractions of man-made rules or cultural commands and single-mindedly striving to obey God’s law by God’s grace. Through faithful obedience to God’s Word, we will receive power, conviction, mercy, grace, peace, joy and all the best mothering emotions.
When we trust and obey, we get freedom from guilt and freedom to grow. Instead of retreating in resentment or flaunting our flaws, we are free to appreciate the gifts of other moms, free to get their help and advice. And only the guilt-free mother can laugh. We can laugh at ourselves, our mistakes and our shortcomings, and we can invite our children to laugh along with us. Who doesn’t want a mom who laughs?
As I watch my daughters care for their children, I am freshly amazed by the demands of motherhood. Mothers must daily sacrifice their own comforts and pleasures in order to devote themselves to menial, repetitive, and (appearances might say), futile tasks.
So we should not be surprised that our mommy-emotions are so easily depleted, as if someone pulled the plug on our happiness and all we hear is the gurgling noise as the last of it goes down the drain.
Christopher Ash once said that “it is not suffering that destroys a person but suffering without a purpose.” The same can be said about motherhood: It is not motherhood that destroys your happiness but motherhood without a purpose.
You know what it’s like. When you have a clear sense of purpose, when you believe that God has called you to a task, that it glorifies him, that he is at work, then you have the stamina to endure hardship, the strength to overcome obstacles, joy and peace even when the going gets tough.
But if we’ve become resentful of the demands of motherhood, discouraged and depressed in our routine, irritated and impatient with our children, chances are, we’ve lost sight of our God-given purpose as a mother.
Few things are easier to forget than a biblical conviction of the importance of motherhood. All it takes is a prick of doubt: What’s the point of all this? Why don’t I feel fulfilled? Why work so hard to train my children if I don’t seem to make any progress? What’s the use of repenting if I’m only going to sin again? Is it fake to put on a happy face when I feel so miserable inside?
So many of these questions flow out of the selfish cesspool of our culture, which tries to measure success in motherhood by personal fulfillment. We must be wise and alert to the unbiblical thinking that breeds unhappy questions such as these.
When we allow these questions to fester, without applying truth from God’s Word, we will inevitably lose the joy, contentment, and strength that flow from a firm biblical conviction of the significance of our mothering task.
For me, when I was struggling with my emotions as a mother, it was often because I had lost sight of my purpose. That is why, in the early years of mothering, I read every good, biblical book on mothering that I could get my hands on. I needed constant infusions of truth in order to survive emotionally.
“We are naturally prone to keep slipping into not knowing what we know,” adds Christopher Ash, which is why we must constantly, daily, hourly remind ourselves of what we do know to be true about motherhood.
We know that children are a blessing and a heritage from the Lord, an undeserved gift from God to increase our delight in him (Ps. 127:3).
We know that God has called mothers to train up their children in the way they should go, to discipline and instruct them, to love them tenderly (Prov. 22:6, Eph. 6:4, Tit. 2:4).
We know that those who sow in tears will reap with joy, that those who are faithful to do good will see God act on their behalf, that those who water and tend will see fruit that God gives (Ps. 126:5, Ps. 37:3).
We know that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for him. Motherhood is for him. Motherhood has dignity and glory because of the dignity and glory of the One for whom we mother. When we care for our children, we do it for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (Matt 10:43).
These are the truths we must not slip into not knowing. When we remind ourselves every day, in every way we can, of God’s purpose for our mothering, we’ll find the empty tub of our mothering emotions filling up and overflowing with joy.