For those of you who routinely bask in joy on Christmas and other family-centered holidays, I’m sincerely glad for you. Perhaps you may not have the means to buy all the presents you like, but you are able to buy some. Likely, you have the day off and can actually be at home, because working at a convenience store or nursing home or being thousands of miles away from home for work (perhaps because of military duty, like I’ve experienced) are generally not positive experiences. To enjoy yourself as people normally do, you also have enough cash for a decent meal and your family in addition enjoys one another’s company–because in some families getting everyone together only increases tensions and is more unpleasant that joyous. If your Christmas really has been nothing but joy for as long as you can remember, this post is not really for you, though you probably know someone who is in the situation this article describes.
But I think a great many people find disappointment in holidays, at least at times. I think a particularly common form of holiday disappointment will be felt today, the day after Christmas, because many people had high expectations for Christmas and may have worked hard to provide for those expectations as in working in a kitchen to prepare food or were self-sacrificially gift-giving or something else along those lines, only to find the actual day fell short of all the hopes and efforts that had been invested in it.
But again, that post-frenetic-activity-but-was-it-really-worth-it-holiday-heaviness is by no means the only kind. Perhaps a precious loved one was in the hospital on Christmas. Perhaps there even was a serious accident on the holiday, or today. Or perhaps unkind, unloving, and unappreciative people have soured what otherwise would have been good. Among other potential issues.
I remember a particular time when I was overseas during a holiday–in this particular case the holiday was actually Thanksgiving and I happened to be in Afghanistan–and I attempted to make a video call home to see and talk to my family. The Internet connection was terrible, so poor that the call never really functioned. It barely connected, glitched the entire two minutes or so I was connected, and I couldn’t really see anyone or talk the way I’d wanted to. Eventually the call cut off and I couldn’t initiate it again, though I tried, in spite of how badly as it had functioned in the first place, leaving me alone and unsatisfied. So something as basic as losing an Internet connection was a crushing event for me. So I know these things happen to other people too: You want or expect something good to happen, you need it to happen and when it doesn’t–or when something horrible happens instead–you walk away more emotionally hurt than if you’d never hoped for anything good at all.
This can be especially crushing if you used to have holiday times of warm feelings, surrounded by family and friends, but have them no longer for whatever reason. Nothing makes the present seem so bitter as when the past was clearly better (though at times the past seems better in memory that it actually was).
Someone might respond to this kind of problem by lowering all expectations. And perhaps in some situations that’s realistic–because maybe you shouldn’t expect people who act one way year after year over Christmas to act any differently than how they always act. But I don’t think that’s a good solution to the problem of holiday disappointment, generally speaking.
Doesn’t part of the actual joy of any holiday, or any future event even that turns out well, lie in the anticipation of it happening? As in, chocolate tastes good, but tastes better if you’ve been longing for it before you get any, assuming receiving what you’ve longed for meets the expectation of your desire. So lowering all expectations for joy at all times, maybe even to the point of feeling something is inherently wrong with joy, as would an ancient Stoic like Marcus Aurelius or the fictional Mr. Spock, isn’t the answer. Why should we reduce the possibility of joy permanently because of problems that are temporary?
And with my last statement I find I’ve wandered into a rhetorical minefield of potential issues. Some Christians believe joy isn’t important–God cares about our holiness, therefore if we feel bad we shouldn’t care, we need to “suck it up and drive on” (as we say in the US Army). Others think joy is all-important and therefore (even if they usually don’t say it directly) if you are not experiencing joy right now then you are therefore somehow disobedient to God. I mentioned last week how Satan can attack our emotions, which may lead someone to think I meant (as some Christians actually say) that all our negative emotions are of the Devil, therefore we should never experience them if we are following God as we should. Though that’s not what I meant.
I unfortunately have to gloss over these issues compared to the time and attention they deserve due to the limitations of the size of this post, but while the Scripture tells us to take our worries to God as part of a spiritual life of trusting God that relies on him continually, that doesn’t mean we will never experience sadness or disappointment. How can we be commanded to bring petitions to God, as is said in Philippians 4:6, if we don’t have anything to be concerned about to ask about in the first place? Then, after bringing those concerns to God, we can experience peace in faith and confidence in the Almighty (Philippians 4:7), which will allow us to deliberately put our focus on positive things rather than negative (Phil 4:8-9).
Philippians 4, a great passage about contentment, then goes into an explanation of a situation someone reading through the Bible for the first time may not entirely understand. But in essence, Paul expresses gratitude to the Philippian church for them donating money to meet Paul’s basic needs. But in so doing, he makes an important statement that he (Paul) has learned to be content no matter what is going on (in immediate context, whether they gave or not), whether he has nothing or has much (Phil 4:11-12) because he (Paul–or us, too) “can do all things through Christ.” But this is not a statement that having nothing is exactly the same emotionally as having much!
If that were true, if having nothing and being at the point of starvation and other kinds of suffering were meaningless (2 Corinthians 11:24-29 and other passages reveals that real suffering is where Paul was, many times), why would Paul thank the Philippians for finally sending money? If Paul (or us) had nothing in circumstances that would naturally cause a person to be anxious, why would Peter tell us (I Peter 5:7) to cast our “cares” or problems on the Lord? Why would Paul tell us to pray about our issues in Philippians 4:6 and say all the rest through verse 13, if what he said earlier in verse 4 about rejoicing in the Lord were something we are really able to do at all times, one hundred percent, without any consideration of what he said after that?
Because if joy in the Lord were an absolute gift of the Holy Spirit, then we would be able to have it gushing out of us at all times, no matter what is happening (and would not have to be commanded to seek to rejoice for that matter). We then would have nothing to bother us that we would need to pray about, no rough circumstances we’d need to lean on the power of Christ to enable us to survive. Paul would not have praised the Philippians for “sharing in my distress” (4:14) if Paul had never felt any distress or concern in the first place and Peter would not tell us to “cast cares” on the Lord because we’d never feel any cares or worries at all.
Furthermore, the Bible would never tell us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) if we are never, not for one instant, supposed to feel negative emotions or sadness. That’s why having “peace that passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7) is not quite the same thing as having joy, and while we are commanded to seek the joy of the Lord (Phil 4:4) and told such joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22), all we have to do is really read what the Bible says about what the apostles went through (e.g. Phil 4:14) and how they felt about it to understand that joy is not a continuous experience for a Christian and cannot be if we are to be empathetic to others (again, Romans 12:15). Having peace, yes. Finding the ability through Christ to face the worst life may bring, yes. Always being joyous, no.
So if your holidays have been less than stellar, don’t add to your sense of hardship by concluding that since things have gone wrong for you over Christmas and you feel bad about it, that clearly means you are somehow a terrible Christian. Don’t feel that having worries or concerns or heartaches itself is a sign there’s something wrong with you (by the way, I believe this is something the Devil would like to tell you). No, recognize having worries and concerns is normal–but don’t wallow in them. Take them to the Lord. Keep taking them to the Lord, because they will keep coming up at various times. Find the peace of trusting God to answer your prayers, even if you can’t imagine how. Find the joy of the Lord in being close to him, relying on him, no matter what people will do.
Be ready for God to answer your prayers, even if you don’t know when, like a holiday coming but you’ve lost the calendar–you know the Lord’s answer is coming, eventually, so you trust him in anticipation of him coming, like a normal, healthy kid waiting for Christmas. Don’t give up on the possibility of future joy by turning stoic, but don’t be broken by a lack of joy right now, either. Trust God to care for you–take your worries to him in prayer, continually, often, in faith. Rejoice when the answers come–as Paul rejoiced when receiving help from the church at Philippi.
And remember that you are not alone. You are not the only person to feel disappointment this time of the year. I’ve felt it too, and others have as well.
If you are Christ’s, much better things are coming for you in your future, for certain, eventually. When, I don’t know, but if at no prior point, for certain when you see the Lord in person. Though I think if you pray in faith and seek God’s joy, you will feel joy much sooner than that. And your experience of joy won’t be uncommon. Even though feeling tragedy and loss is normal and real and human, the normal Christian life means taking those worries to God and trusting he will take care of you. Eventually. For certain.
I hope my look at the potential lack of Christmas joy hasn’t discouraged anyone. But for readers of this post, what are some of your favorite passages of the Bible you turn to when you feel down? Or when things have gone badly? Any other thoughts?