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.
This side of the incarnation, we often load Christmas down with other expectations. I could give examples, but it is probably whatever you are thinking about right now. And when people or presents don’t meet our holiday expectations it leads to all kinds of emotional turmoil.
Unrealistic Expectations = Unruly Emotions
What should we expect 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 peaceful 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 will be ungrateful or that your uncle will be rude. 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 Christmas.
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 expect the “not yet.”
Not only must we expect trouble, but because of Christmas, we can also expect grace. Christ has come! God is with us! Hebrews 2 highlights the grace we can expect, because of the incarnation:
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.
In our Christmas troubles and temptations, we can expect the help of God-incarnate. God is with us and God is with us to help. He has made propitiation for every sin, and he is able to help us resist every emotional temptation.
When we set our Christmas expectations on Christ, we will not be disappointed.
“On this side of eternity, Christmas is still a promise. Yes, the Savior has come, and with him peace on earth, but the story is not finished. Yes, there is peace in our hearts, but we long for peace in our world.
Every Christmas is still a ‘turning of the page’ until Jesus returns. Every December 25 marks another year that draws us closer to the fulfillment of the ages, that draws us closer to . . . home.
When we realize that Jesus is the answer to our deepest longing, even Christmas longings, each Advent brings us closer to his glorious return to earth. When we see him as he is, King of kings and Lord of lords, that will be ‘Christmas’ indeed!”
I sat with my friend at the hospital this week while her son underwent a battery of tests. Thankfully, the tests did not reveal anything life threatening, but this is not my friend’s first time in the hospital at Christmastime—over the past few years she has lost her husband, her mother, and her sister, all around the holidays. Life is full of hardship and sadness and it doesn’t take time out for Christmas. In fact, the holidays usually throw our sadness into stark relief, making this a painful time for many.
How do we deal with grief and sadness at Christmastime? How do we celebrate when we feel only pain or fear? Our emotions feel trapped in a kind of no-mans-land where neither sadness nor happiness feel at home.
And yet as Christians living in a fallen world, we can learn what Peter means by “rejoicing in suffering” (2 Cor. 6:10).
These are, as Tim Keller points out, “two present tenses:”
Peter does not pit these things against each other. He does not say that we can either rejoice in Christ or wail and cry out in pain, but that we can do both. No, not only can we do both, we must do both if we are to grow through our suffering rather than be wrecked by it.
To ‘rejoice’ in God means to dwell on and remind ourselves of who God is, who we are, and what he has done for us. Sometimes our emotions respond and follow when we do this, and sometimes they do not. But therefore we must not define rejoicing as something that precludes feelings of grief, or doubt, weakness, and pain. Rejoicing in suffering happens within sorrow.
Rejoicing at Christmastime is not to deny the pain we feel, but to choose to remember, in the midst of the pain, what Christ has done for us. God sent his son into a pain-filled world to redeem us from our sins.
“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them a light has shone…
For unto us a child is born,
To us a son is given…”
(Isaiah 9:2, 6)
Amidst the revelry of the season, we may be full of sorrow; and within our sorrow, we can rejoice.
“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.” ~Martyn Lloyd-Jones
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.
Thanks to everyone for the great children’s book suggestions for Christmas! Our winner is Meredith, who wrote to tell us how a book we know and love is actually perfect for Advent:
My favourite Advent resource for children is Sally Lloyd-Jones’ very wonderful The Jesus Story Book Bible The format of this children’s Bible is such that there are twenty one stories presented from the Old Testament (each of which “whisper Jesus’ name”) and then the Christmas story is presented in the first three stories in the New Testament section. That makes twenty four stories that will paint an Old Testament backdrop to the birth of Jesus and then tell the story of his birth. Twenty four superb readings to do with children - one a day - during the month of December leading up to Christmas. Isn’t that amazing? Made this happy discovery a few years ago.