Are you finding it hard to be happy this Christmas?
Maybe you are lonely at a time when it appears everyone else has someone. Maybe you are dreading another tense and unpredictable family get together. Maybe physical suffering has drained your energy and enthusiasm for the season. Maybe, for a dozen different reasons, you are fretful and discontent.
So often we step into the holiday season on the wrong foot. We abandon the paths of comfort and joy so clearly marked out for us in God’s Word and pursue happiness in the holiday instead. We hope that cookies and carols will somehow numb the pain or distract us from everything we feel is wrong with our lives. Or we just grit our teeth, plaster on a grin, and pray it’s over soon.
But the way to peace and joy hasn’t changed because it’s Christmastime. Rather we have to be all the more intentional about seeking the Savior at a time when the distractions, and sometimes even the trials, are many.
So here are five habits for holiday happiness:
1. Contemplate the Incarnation
Consider the staggeringly glorious news that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5).
If we spend five minutes a day for the next twenty-odd days pondering the wonder of God become man to save sinners, we will be happy this Christmas.
We will be happy because we will have hope.
J.I. Packer, in his chapter on the incarnation in Knowing God, explains:
“The Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity—hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory—because at the Father’s will Jesus Christ became poor and was born in a stable so that thirty years later he might hang on a cross. It is the most wonderful message that the world has ever heard, or will hear.”
Christmas isn’t a temporary band-aid on the pain of life; it is the announcement of the cure for ruined humanity. The Christmas message is hope to the hopeless. Hope for sinners under the curse of the law. Hope for the orphan, estranged from God. And it is a timely hope and certain hope.
This is “the most wonderful message” of Christmas. This is “good news of great joy”! (Luke 2:10)
If we are finding it hard to be happy this Christmas, the incarnation reminds us that our Savior has already purchased our everlasting joy.
2. Consistently Practice the Spiritual Disciplines
Christmastime is a busy time. There are parties to attend, gifts to purchase, wrap, and deliver, cards to send, and cookies to bake. And that’s on top of all the normal stuff we have to do! Something has to give, and sadly, our spiritual disciplines are often the first to go.
We rationalize: “Things will settle down after the holidays. I’ll get back to consistent quiet times in the New Year.” But as the days move closer to Christmas, our hearts become colder toward the things of the Lord. And we wonder why we are so unhappy at Christmastime?
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we give first priority to God’s Word and prayer, we will find our joy renewed each morning. Joy that sticks in the midst of Christmas craziness. For as the Psalmist says:
“The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart...they are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb” Ps. 19:8,10 (emphasis mine).
So as things get busy, let’s keep the spiritual disciplines at the top of our Christmas to-do list. Only then can we experience true holiday cheer.
3. Serve Others
Christmas celebrations—intended to be joyful reminders of the incarnation—can quickly become exercises in selfishness. But selfishness is a one-way ticket to a Joylessville. That’s why the third habit for a happy Christmas is to serve others.
The tricky thing is, I often think I am serving others at the holidays. After all, I am buying presents and throwing parties for other people, right? But my lack of joy when things don’t go according to plan reveals that I’m actually just serving myself. I want everything to go my way, to bring me happiness.
I so quickly forget that the Christmas season is about the Son of Man who came: “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). True holiday happiness is found by rejoicing in his coming, and by his grace, emulating his example of servanthood and sacrifice. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty became rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
J.I. Packer again:
“The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob. For the Christmas spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor—spending and being spent—to enrich their fellow humans, giving time, trouble, care and concern, to do good to others—-and not just their own friends—in whatever way there seems need.”
How can we make ourselves happy this Christmas? By making ourselves poor. By spending and being spent to enrich our fellow human beings. By seeking our own happiness in the happiness of others. If we are rich in serving this Christmas, we will also be rich in joy.
4. Commune While You Serve
Serving is essential for holding on to happiness this holiday season. But if we try to serve without relying on God’s strength, without meditating on His Word, without offering up prayers to Him, we’ll still be lacking joy. We must commune while we serve if we want to be happy this Christmas.
Remember Martha in the Bible? How easily we morph into Martha at Christmastime! All service and no joy. But our Lord did not rebuke Martha for serving; He rebuked her for failing to choose the best thing (as her sister Mary had done): to sit at His feet and listen to Him (Luke 10:38-42).
This doesn’t mean we are to leave the Christmas shopping unfinished and forget about cooking the big meal. We are still called to serve; but, as Charles Spurgeon suggests, “We ought to be Martha and Mary in one: we should do much service, and have much communion at the same time. For this we need great grace. It is easier to serve than to commune.
Martha experienced the consequences of not communing with the Savior. But we don’t have to be anxious this holiday season. By meditating on God’s Word throughout the day, joy can be ours, even amidst the chaos and the crowd.
5. Turn Gifts Into Adoration
Christmas is full of wonderful gifts, and not just those under the tree. We experience gifts of family and friends, food and fellowship, music and memories.
But we often fail to enjoy these gifts as we should because we fail to remember that “every good and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).
C.S. Lewis tells us how to turn presents into praise:
“Pleasures are shafts of glory as it strikes our sensibility….I have tried…to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. I don’t mean simply by giving thanks for it. One must of course give thanks, but I meant something different…Gratitude exclaims, very properly, ‘How good of God to give me this.’ Adoration says, ‘What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!’ One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun….If this is Hedonism, it is also a somewhat arduous discipline. But it is worth some labour” (as quoted in, When I Don’t Desire God, by John Piper).
May every gift we receive this Christmas, every pleasure we experience, cause our minds to run back up the sunbeam to the sun. May we contemplate the glories of the Savior who gave His only Son so that we might enjoy all things through Him.
Happiness isn’t playing hide and seek for the holidays. It isn’t hard to find. Regardless of our difficulty or dread of the Christmas season, we can experience true happiness as we cultivate godly habits. That’s because our happiness is not found in the holidays, but “out of reach” of the holidays, in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
My sister, Kristin, and I both love working in the kitchen, but Kristin loves to cook and I love to bake. Honestly, we should work out some kind of system with each other. She makes all my meals and I make all her breads and desserts. Sounds fair, right? I’ll have to call her about that later.
Recently, I found a bread recipe that I have been really enjoying. It’s called “Crusty Bread” and it’s really simple. Simple ingredients and only a few simple steps to pull off the finished product. And it comes out looking so pretty and professional. I don’t know which I love more, the simplicity or the fact that it makes me feel like one of those Panera Bread makers. It’s not a sweet bread. It’s a bread that you would pair with soup or use to make grilled cheese. And the link below provides many different ingredient combinations that you can use to mix it up and make it unique. I’m trying sharp cheddar next.
Another reason I love this bread is that it would make a really fun gift. Check out the post where I found the recipe. I love how the author wrapped each loaf in a tea towel to deliver to friends. So I’m tucking this idea away for Christmas, but also plotting how I can use it now to bless someone in our new church.
So check out this recipe and see if you get as inspired as I did. I’m off to call Kristin.
Last November I was excited to tell you about an Advent calendar with Christmas Bible study that our family enjoyed. Well, it turns out that announcing it nine days before December 1 wasn’t such a great idea—the publishing company quickly sold out of the calendar and I’m sure many of you missed out on a chance to order. So this year I’m giving you (and our friends at The Good Book Company) plenty of time!
What I love about these Advent calendars is that each day’s “door to open” is connected to a Scripture and a lesson about Christmas and the message of the gospel. The accompanying Bible study booklet includes a short verse followed by a very brief lesson plan including great questions to engage the kids in fun and thoughtfulness about the deep truths of the gospel. They are the perfect length for children and very well done.
We have used Christmas Opened Up in the past and loved it, but I’m looking forward to trying a new one this year. I am really excited to use one of these calendars for Jude and Sophie’s first Christmas season in the Whitacre family.
We are off to a 4th of July picnic—the first gathering of our Louisville church planting team! Here are some wise thoughts about patriotism to ponder today. Happy 4th!
”...I am not ‘proud to be an American.’ To be precise, I am not proud because I am an American. I am not proud because pride is for those things that we accomplish, those achievements for which we deserve credit. How did I end up an American? I was born one, and I would be a fool to be proud of something for which I can take no credit. My Americanism was granted to me and is a gift, not a status. That does not make me unpatriotic. Patriotism ought not to be a prideful touting of our country’s greatness but rather a joyful exclamation of it. My parade going and grilled-meat eating are not hypocritical. They are expressions of thankfulness. I am thankful…In all, we ought to be humbled on this Independence Day. This American life we lead is an undeserved opportunity, and for most of us, one that we did not choose. We did not find it, neither did we claim the right to it—we were given it as a gift.” ~Barnabas Piper, “Thankful and humble to be an American”
Is the truth about Easter too violent for children? Russell Moore answers this question in a recent column:
Our children need to hear the Gospel. They need to see Jesus. That means they need to see both sides of skull place. That’s graphic, sure. It’s confusing, of course. And not just for kids. But it is the only message that saves. It’s the only message that prepares one for salvation. It is, as Paul says, that which is “of first importance,” the message he received from Jesus Himself (1 Cor 15:3-4).
The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is the Gospel. That’s the first word. If we cannot speak of that, we would be better off not speaking of Jesus at all, rather than presenting another Christ, one who meditates but does not mediate, who counsels but is not crucified, who is accessible but not triumphant over sin and death.
The apostle Paul told us the word of the cross would be folly to those who are perishing (1 Cor 1:18). He didn’t warn us that it would sometimes also be folly to those who are publishing. No matter. It is still the power of God
This Easter, preach the Gospel… to the senior citizens, to the middle-aged, to the young adults, to the teenagers, to the seekers, to the hardened unbelievers, to the whole world. And, yes, preach the Gospel to the preschoolers.
Happy Spring y’all! This is always the time of year that I rush to the grocery store to stock up on those candy coated malted eggs. Kate wrote in last week because she remembered something about a tradition (not the tradition of me raiding the store for malted eggs) in our family to celebrate the first day of Spring. She was right. While we’re a little late in getting this up—the first day of Spring being today—it’s not too late to celebrate. We often held our Spring Celebration anytime during the first week of Spring.
The first day of spring was this past Monday—although it doesn’t feel like it here in Maryland. The yearly arrival of spring was greeted with much excitement in the Mahaney house during our growing up years. This was because of a unique Mahaney family tradition known as “Spring Celebration.”
Every March, on the Saturday following the first day of spring, my mom prepared a special breakfast. There were individual boxes of cereal, not just any cereal mind you, but “sweet cereal.” (For girls raised on Grape Nuts and Raisin Bran, Fruit Loops and Cocoa Krispies were a big deal!) There were also cinnamon roll bunny rabbits. Check out the picture below.
(A small disclaimer here—this sample bunny was made by Nicole and does not look exactly like the original. For example, Mom’s icing was light pink, not fuschia, her bunny face didn’t have icing, and she didn’t burn her cinnamon rolls.)
Mom created these delicacies by using those pre-made cinnamon rolls that come in the little tube. After cooking the rolls, she would decorate them. A few drops of food coloring made the icing pink. Two halves of one roll made the ears. Raisin eyes, a cherry nose, and little almond whiskers completed the project.
In addition to the special breakfast, each place at the table had a basket filled with candy.
We weren’t allowed in the kitchen until everything was ready, so we waited at the top of the stairs, yelling down every thirty seconds or so to find out if it was “time yet.” When Mom FINALLY gave the word, the party began!
First things first—we ate and ate some more. After the food was taken care of, it was on to the activities. There was an egg hunt with those little plastic eggs that you can fill with candy or some other treasure. We would dye hard-boiled eggs, and play games together.
My mom always worked hard to make it a day to remember, and her efforts were not in vain. As you can imagine, for three little girls, this day was one of the highlights of our year. Actually, writing about Spring Celebration makes me a little nostalgic. I just might throw myself my own little party to welcome spring this year!
It’s a girltalk tradition to recommend a sermon to listen to while taking down your Christmas tree and trappings (if you haven’t already!). I listened to an excellent series of sermons today as I was packing away our Christmas decorations. These messages on the life of Joseph (of the OT) were preached by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson over a few months this past year. I’m only part way through and already greatly encouraged. So while you’re putting away those ornaments and lights, listen and enjoy.
“So the truth of the Incarnation is not just good theology; it is practical comfort and assurance. Jesus identifies with us in our humanity, and now we know that God is for us in Christ. He can be trusted. He went through torture too. When we see Jesus on the cross we can come to trust God with an unutterable trust that never for a moment considers He will not stand by us in our sufferings.” ~Os Guinness
We are very mindful that there are many people who experience grief and sadness during the Christmas season. My sister-in-law Sharon is one of them. Today we want to reprint some thoughts she shared with us several years ago. Here is how I first introduced Sharon to the girltalk audience:
On July 8, 2003 Sharon lost Dave, her husband of 32 years, to a brain tumor. We all desperately miss Dave’s joy, his impeccable sense of humor, his servant’s heart, and his delicious cooking. However, the intense grief that Sharon and her five children have experienced these past two and a half years is a testimony to the love they had for Dave, and his love for them.
And yet, through this unimaginable hardship, Sharon’s faith in God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and goodness has remained strong. She has truly grieved with hope. While not a day goes by that she does not desperately miss “Her Bud” (as she and Dave would call each other) she displays a selfless strength in serving others that only comes from knowing Jesus Christ.
For this reason, we asked Sharon to share about both the pain, but more importantly the comfort she experiences at Christmastime. We pray her thoughts will provide hope to those of you who have lost a loved one. And for the rest of us, may we extend discerning care to those we know who are grieving this Christmas.
I believe there is only one answer to the question of how I experience God’s comfort at Christmastime, and that is for me to be on my knees basking in and staying grounded in the Word of God. His words touch my heart and soul, as he is the ultimate comforter. And from him come all other forms of comfort, as well.
Of course, snags are everywhere this time of year. If you’ve ever driven through the mountains, you’ve probably seen signs that read, “Beware of falling rocks.” For me as a widow, the holidays can be full of “falling rocks” in the form of that invitation or Christmas card addressed to only one name, traditions that are no longer an option, having to pass by the men’s department no longer looking for that annual sweater or tie, or even getting a whiff of my husband’s favorite cologne in the crowds of shoppers. Like a thorn on a rose pricks the finger, these reminders of a love lost prick my fragile, already bleeding heart. The challenge becomes surfacing from the pain of the past and wanting to live joyfully in the present with a hope for the future.
Although I have yet to get through the season without heartache and tears, and this will be my third Christmas without my husband, my Lord is faithful to supply the needed comfort. I should add here that I must choose to be comforted, as the temptation can be to fall into the sin of self-pity. If you are a widow, you know you can feel the pain of loneliness even when you’re in a group—even a group of family and friends. Those who help me to surface from the pain are not afraid of my sudden tears that may spill over in an instant unexpectedly, as they realize that may be the only language I can speak at the moment. They respect my need to talk at length about my current grief, or my desire not to talk at all. They give me much-appreciated hugs and tell me they care. They sometimes share remembrances of my husband that make me smile through the tears, knowing the memories may cause pain but are certainly treasured. Comfort has also come in the form of e-mails and phone calls and cards, all with words of love and encouragement. This past Sunday, I was comforted by a word shared during worship from one of the pastors with an encouragement for widows and single parents.
I think it is important to note here that we should not assume someone is no longer grieving, or not grieving as much, because a number of years have passed. I am among those who, before I became a widow, mistakenly thought that the one-year anniversary marked the end of the grieving process, that somehow things became easier and got back to “normal.” Where did that idea come from? That’s not accurate. I believe grieving is actually a gift, a good and necessary gift, a process, and a journey that, because of the depth of our love, may last until I see my Bud again. And, yes, the severity of my grieving is increased during the holidays. But as I respond to the pain and embrace with gratefulness the comforts he sends, I learn endurance and perseverance; and I realize that everything is part of the process of sanctification. And I am overwhelmed—not by my grief—but by his love for me.
“The incarnation is the supreme example of fulfilled prophecy, the supreme example of God’s faithfulness to his promises….
What God did when he sent his Son into the world is an absolute guarantee that he will do everything he has ever promised to do.
Look at it in a personal sense: ‘All things work together for good to them that love God’—that is a promise—‘to them who are the called according to his purpose’ (Rom. 8:28, KJV).
‘But how can I know that is true for me?’ asks someone.
The answer is the incarnation.
God has given the final proof that all his promises are sure, that he is faithful to everything he has ever said. So that promise is sure for you.
Whatever your state or condition may be, whatever may happen to you, he has said, ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’ (Heb. 13:5, KJV)—and he will not. He has said so, and we have absolute proof that he fulfills his promises.
He does not always do it immediately in the way that we think. No, no! But he does it!
And he will never fail to do it.”
D. Martyn Lloyd Jones
from Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, ed. by Nancy Guthrie
Just wanted to pass on this Christmas gift idea in case (like me!) you are nowhere close to finishing your Christmas shopping. The Gathering is the new Sovereign Grace album recorded live at WorshipGod11 and it contains 15 songs that progressively tell the story of the gospel and our apprpopriate response. Here’s a more complete description from the website:
The songs on The Gathering can be sung apart from each other, but together they form a progression that reflects the gospel and our response to it. A call to worship (There is One Reason) leads to proclaiming God’s greatness (Greater Than We Can Imagine, Come Praise and Glorify). In view of God’s glory, we more clearly see our sinfulness and need for mercy before his holiness (Shine Into Our Night, Have Mercy on Me). We then rejoice in the good news that God has forgiven us and reconciled us to himself through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Now Why This Fear and Unbelief, Isaiah 53). A fresh awareness of God’s mercy in Christ makes us grateful for his generosity and kindness in every way (Generous King), which leads to eagerly asking for more of his grace (When You Move). A desire to know God’s will through his Word (Your Words of Life, Show us Christ) is followed by expressions of commitment and communion (All I Have is Christ, We Hunger and Thirst). Having rehearsed and celebrated the gospel and its effect in our lives, we want to take this good news to the world (Lift High the Cross). A final song reminds us that we leave relying not on our own strength, but on the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the power of the Spirit (As You Go).
“We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks, for your name is near.” Psalm 75:1
“Never let us neglect thanksgiving…As the smiling flowers gratefully reflect in their lovely colours the various constituents of the solar ray, so should gratitude spring up in our hearts after the smiles of God’s providence….We should praise God again and again. Stinted gratitude is ingratitude. For infinite goodness there should be measureless thanks. Faith promises redoubled praise for greatly needed and signal deliverances. For that thy name is near thy wondrous works declare. God is at hand to answer and do wonders—adore we then the present Deity. We sing not of a hidden God, who sleeps and leaves the church to her fate, but of one who ever in our darkest days is most near, a very present help in trouble. “Near is his name.” Glory be unto the Lord, whose perpetual deeds of grace and majesty are the sure tokens of his being with us always, even unto the ends of the world.” Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David