Christmas, “The Sufferer’s Holiday”

The day set aside for celebrating the birth of Jesus is close at hand, and we all know what that means. The malls will be packed with people feverishly pursuing that “perfect Christmas experience” with whatever the stores happen to be selling.

As Christian believers, we understand that our hearts were created by God to long for that great day when all suffering will end (Revelation 21:1-7). That being true, however, I’d like to gently suggest that at no other time of year is it more apparent that we prefer to “short-circuit” this divine imprint by choosing to mostly ignore God’s Eternity Project while trying as feverishly as we can to construct a functional Heaven right now, right here on earth.

And this phenomena is not confined to the storefronts at our local mall. Open any magazine – on any topic – and the evidence will be right there in front of you. Lose weight, find that perfect relationship, improve your wardrobe and become a new, decidedly-more-interesting person. Whatever the topic, the idea is that the pursuit of “better for me” in the here and now will ultimately make us happy.

Which is why every time our lives take a southward trajectory through suffering of one kind or another, we do not tend to respond very well, so focused are we on the construction of our earthly heaven. Put another way, we very typically do not respond to suffering by asking, “God, what are You teaching me through this experience?” Instead, we skip right by the clear instruction we have received in James 1:2-4. We certainly do not tend to call our trials “pure joy.”

Even though the arguably-insane construction of our very own Earthbound Heaven is necessarily a limited-timespan project – perhaps 70, 80, or 90 years at most – we Americans like to imagine that we are oh-so-close to perfecting the art of battling back against any form of suffering that dares to interfere in our lives at all. Operating on auto-pilot, most of us prefer to bypass or completely ignore pain and suffering around us. To me, the clearest example of this is that we are so easily embarrassed when people do not return our friendly “Hi, how are you?” with the customary/expected “I’m fine; how are you?” I am certainly as guilty of this as anyone else; I am never prepared with a less-than-completely awkward response if someone actually takes the time to tell me that life isn’t treating them very well at all. We really just want to hear that “all is well” and move on. The obvious truth is that 1) we don’t like to suffer, and 2) we don’t much like it when people we know suffer, either.

When pain and suffering come into our lives such that we can no longer overlook it, it seems as though our gut reaction is to grumble against it. It is humbling to consider how little it now takes for many of us to grumble against God’s good plan for our lives.

Just a couple of nights ago, in fact, my wife and one of our best friends were confessing to each other how horribly they had responded when asked to endure 48 hours of “suffering” in the form of losing their home access to the Internet. Of course, we all laughed at how sinful and foolish we had all been during our time of exile into “the information wastelands,” but the underlying point had been made. Forget about “real” pain and suffering – declining health, joblessness, difficult relationships, sinfulness and death. We have somehow arrived at a point where our hearts tell us that instantaneous access to information had become a right, not a privilege, and our Internet service providers had better not mess with us.

My point is that modern mankind – and Americans in particular – have not been very well-trained to embrace suffering when it arrives at our doorstep, and yet the truth is that we still live in a very dark and broken world; pain and suffering are all around us. As you read this blog, there are people walking through the foyer of The Crossing every Sunday morning who are teetering on the edge of financial ruin, living with the painful knowledge that their long-loved spouse has taken up with someone else, mourning the loss of a child, and/or staring imminent physical death in the eyes. You don’t have to look very far or dig very deep to uncover suffering.

When I meditate on the sobering truth that Christ had Golgotha in full view before He ever arrived in Bethlehem, it provides for me a more clearly-balanced appreciation for how we should rightly celebrate the arrival of Jesus on Christmas morning. It reminds me that the arrival of Jesus signals God’s dramatic intervention in our lives of sorrow, pain and brokenness. It assures me yet again that God is not content to leave me stranded in a world of pain and darkness. Or, as Paul David Tripp says so memorably in Surviving the Holidays:

“This pain isn’t a sign that He’s turned His back on me. This pain is a sign that I still live in a broken world…but God’s with me. And all of that just says to me that I wasn’t hard-wired to live this life by myself. I was created for dependency, primarily dependency upon God. And so, I think this is real comforting: The person in pain and the person who’s presently not in pain, are not different people. They’re exactly the same. They’re equally dependent on God for their life. It’s just that one is more aware of it now than the other is.”

Celebrities, advertising, Hollywood films, and Norman Rockwell have all conspired (more or less) to lead us to the false conclusion that Christmas should be filled with nothing other than cheer, good will and celebration. And of course it is good and right to celebrate the arrival of Jesus, the only One who makes it possible for us to have a relationship with God.

At the same time, though, a fair amount of humility, awe and prayerful meditation on God’s ultimate sacrifice as part of His plan of redemption reminds us that the good news of Bethlehem is completely bound up in the unspeakable atrocities committed against the Son of God on Good Friday. Tripp continues:

“If there weren’t pain, suffering, sin, destruction, discouragement, and death, there would be no need for Christmas. This holiday is about suffering. This holiday is about pain. Now, what we’ve done – and it’s right to do that – we’ve made this a holiday of celebration, because we celebrate the coming of the Messiah. But in so doing, we forget why He came. He came to end suffering. He came to end death. He came to end sin, end brokenness, end pain, and destruction, and discouragement. And, so, this is the sufferer’s holiday. Rather than the holiday to be avoided, I ought to run toward Christmas! Because what Christmas tells me is, ‘There’s hope for people like me.’ Christmas guarantees that God has, will, and will continue to address what I’m going through.”

If your Christmas – like mine – doesn’t look like it’s going to pan out in all the ways you’d like, take heart! Those of us who have given our lives over to Christ can be assured that He has not allowed pain and suffering to remain in our lives for no good reason (Romans 8:28-29), or as a means of “punishing us” for past failures. The greatest reason to celebrate Christmas, as far as I can tell, is to recall that our God remembers what we are made of (Psalm 103:14), has walked the earth in human flesh (John 1:14), and chosen to bring about the end of all suffering in the only way He could, by suffering (Isaiah 53:5-11). What remains is for us to embrace this humble Savior and learn to accept that our own suffering will soon follow (John 15:20).

Luke 2:25-35 (ESV)

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

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