Her loved one died a few years ago, and she feels like she’s gotten past the initial waves of grief. But at Christmas, she finds it hard to hold back tears.
His situation isn’t comfortable, but he seems to have accepted that. He understands he can’t force change, and he’s decided to wait for the Lord. But during the holiday season, he struggles a bit more than usual to be okay with the way things are.
They’ve prayed for children, and they long to be parents, but they remain a family of two. They understand the Lord is good. They don’t question that truth. But when the weather starts to change and the lights and decorations begin to go up around the town, they feel the ache grow a little stronger.
Christmas is a source of great joy. From the generosity of friends and family to the warmth of love all around, we have much to rejoice in during the holiday season. We’re reminded of Jesus’s birth, of God’s gift of love for a lost world, and we revel in the hope we have through him. Despite the darkness and despair of the rest of the year, Christmas comes as a deep breath, a welcome rest, a warm reminder that light always endures.
Why, then, can this season also make us sad?
In part, I think it’s because of the perspective this season brings. We see in Christmas a bit of the way things ought to be. Peace on earth and good will among men (Luke 2:14) is glimpsed at Christmas, even in a world that remains far from the King. And when we see more clearly how things ought to be, we see more clearly and feel more deeply the way things are now broken. We feel loss a bit more acutely, longing for the fellowship we can no longer access. We struggle with deferred hopes, the sting of present sorrows sinking a bit deeper into our souls. We know the world is broken, and we grieve.
But the sadness of this season is really more bittersweet, for sorrow doesn’t get the final word. We’re reminded of our loss and grief at Christmas, but we’re reminded too of the way God is making all things new. Because of Jesus, everything has changed. Sorrow turns to joy, suffering turns to growth, loss is turned to gain, and confusion is swallowed up in a greater certainty. Pain and hardship are real, but they exist as parts of a larger story, one which makes sense of them and redeems them. Christmas affirms the darkness of the night and promises a bright and fast-approaching dawn.
It isn’t wrong to mourn when we feel sad this season. The absences we feel are real and meaningful. This broken world is a painful world. But we can also rejoice with a joy that runs far deeper than any despair, a love that runs far deeper than any heartbreak, and a hope that runs far deeper than any sorrow. Christmas reminds us that the sad things are temporary things. We ache now because things are not the way they should be, but we are approaching a day when all will be well. So grieve and rejoice. Feel deeply the loss as well as the love. And look to the one whose birth brought hope for all hurting hearts.
Have you ever noticed how important timing is to the Christmas story?
Paul writes 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” (Galatians 4:4). At the right time, Jesus entered the story. Caesar’s decree “that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1) sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Luke records that, “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth” (Luke 2:6). Scripture was fulfilled as these events aligned. At the right time and in the right place, Jesus was born.
But timing continued to play a key role in Jesus’s life. Jesus speaks of his hour and his time on multiple occasions (see John 2:4 and John 7:6, for example). He didn’t rush things; he worked according to the time given him. Even his death, according to Paul, occurred “at the right time” (Romans 5:6). Clearly, timing is an important part of the story.
We often focus on the gift of Christmas, and rightly so. At Christmas, we celebrate the entrance of the hero into the action. The Christ appears, the long-awaited Savior who would save his people from their sin. Life and light appear at Christmas like never before, and the darkness hasn’t recovered from the blow. Because of Jesus, we have everlasting hope.
But this year, I’m reminding myself that timing played a role in the story. While I don’t understand all that this truth means, I know it gives us hope when things seem hopeless. God, who knew our greatest need, was neither too early nor too late in providing the solution. God, who saw our helpless state more fully than we ever could, did not send Jesus the moment we fell but instead spoke a promise that was kept over long, hard years of uncertainty, exile, rebellion, blessing, and grace. Through every twist in the narrative, every tragedy and every victory, every loss and every gain, he was working. While I’m sure many before Christ wondered why God seemed to tarry, God sent his Son at the right time.
And we serve the same God. He who met our greatest need continues to provide for his own, and his timing is still best. The waiting is difficult. We can’t see all that the Father sees or know all that he knows, and we grow restless in our ignorance, impatient for provision and for blessing. But our God is good and faithful. He will do what is best in his own time and way, and his timing and way are always best. So we can hope in him this Christmas, for the greatest gift as well as for every good and perfect gift he may give as well, in faith that he will continue to act at the right time.
Sometimes, for the sake of ourselves and others, we need to be willing to set boundaries.
I’ve overworked myself before and have felt the physical and mental toll it can take. God gave us the Sabbath for a reason, setting aside a specific day of the week to rest from our labors and to trust in God as the ultimate provider. And we see this modeled in Scripture. Jesus took time away from the crowds and from the disciples to pray (Luke 5:16), and he encouraged his disciples to seek rest after a season of service (Mark 6:31). Jethro, Moses’s father in law, provided a plan to keep Moses from burning himself out in service to the people, arguing for a delegation of responsibility in order to better care for both Moses and the people of Israel (Exodus 18). Boundaries on our time, our energy, and our service can be incredibly beneficial as we seek to love the Lord and others well.
But sometimes, for the sake of ourselves and others, we need to be willing to make exceptions to boundaries.
While boundaries work in general to create margin in our lives for rest and intentional focus, specific situations may call for a temporary exception to the rule. Jesus, after healing a man on the Sabbath, asks those who would accuse him of wrongdoing, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5), highlighting a decision surely none of his listeners would question. Elsewhere, after leading his disciples away to rest, Jesus had compassion on the crowds that followed him and taught them (Mark 6:33-34). In some situations, love warrants action in spite of the boundaries we’ve set.
I’m not sure there’s a clear explanation of how to tell when to enforce a boundary and when to make an exception. I’m not sure life and love are that cut and dry. Sometimes, you get a phone call on a Tuesday night that you feel you need to take, even if it alters your plans and stands as an exception to your boundaries. Other times, you reach out to friends to help you bear your burdens so you can rest. I believe the Lord will direct us as we seek to serve him, and I pray we would be faithful to follow him in either circumstance. He is our strength, both to provide what is needed as we rest and to provide what is needed as we serve.
While many sayings of Jesus bring great comfort to our souls, some can deeply disturb us. Luke records one such saying.
And [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”
Jesus’s words here call to mind similar texts throughout Scripture. Paul calls believers to be living sacrifices, for example, and the author of Hebrews speaks of enduring in the struggle against sin (Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 12). But what does it mean to deny ourselves? What does it mean to take up the cross? What does following Jesus really entail?
I don’t think denying ourselves means we self-flagellate, depriving ourselves needlessly of joys that God gives. The Lord created a world filled with good things, things that fill us with wonder as we partake. Food, drink, fellowship, art, sport, work, travel—we can enjoy all these and more with thanksgiving. “So,” Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). True, we live in a world broken by sin, and we feel in our own bodies the effects of the break. Good things may be twisted, good desires corrupted, good gifts turned to vices. But so long as we do not sin in our partaking, we may partake in worship.
At times, however, we must deny ourselves for the sake of Christ. Sometimes, we deny ourselves the enjoyment of some good thing in order to better serve a fellow Christian (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 10:23-33). At other times, we deny ourselves the pursuit of our own plans in order to submit to the will of the Lord (Proverbs 19:21; James 4:13-17). In these ways, we act out of love for the Lord and for people.
I find myself tending to think of self-denial as singular instances of action rather than as a lifestyle of surrender. In both of the above cases, for example, I can misread the text to pertain only to specific cases, to particular times and places where I have to give up my choice for that of another. But what if self-denial is more of a lifestyle, a settled conviction that the Lord reigns over every desire, every decision, and every direction of my life? How might that change the day to day journey?
Viewing self-denial as a way of life would change how I view persistent desires. The strength and the persistence of a desire may lead me to assume I am justified in pursing the desire’s fulfillment, but such a conclusion does not necessarily follow. Sin finds its root in our desires, growing toward death as we pursue our desire’s fulfillment apart from the Lord’s provision (James 1:13-18). At times, I’ve prayed for some desires to be taken from me, for me to be granted freedom from the struggle. I don’t believe such prayers are wrong. But the Lord may not answer such prayers for relief. Paul, for example, prayed three times for the thorn in the flesh to be removed, for the harassment he underwent to be withdrawn; but the Lord saw fit to leave the thorn, for his purpose was Paul’s sanctification (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). The Lord uses the struggle, our ongoing self-denial, for good, even if we can’t see or understand his purpose in the midst of the fight.
Viewing self-denial as a way of life would also change how I view allegiance to Christ. Relatively speaking, I have not had to sacrifice to the same extent as many other Christians. I stand amidst a mighty throng of martyrs and missionaries, of those who chose Christ over family, friends, health, safety, and life itself. Though all Christians bear crosses, some do seem to have a heavier weight, a fiercer struggle. And when the call of Christ requires your all, when devotion to the Lord means a greater denial than you ever realized you could make, you wonder if Christ is worth it. Ultimately, that’s the question we must answer: is Christ worthy of the greatest extent of self-denial? If pressed, will I surrender my deepest desires, my ties to family and friends, and my comforts and securities in this world for the sake of this Jewish teacher? Is he worth it? Jesus claims that he is: “whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). He even raises a challenge to those of us who doubt: “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25). More than that, he walked the road before us, suffering on our behalf to save us from slavery to sin and death. His cross was heavier than any he calls us to bear. He can sympathize with us (Hebrews 4:14-16). But he doesn’t just sympathize with us; he changes us for good (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Admittedly, we could embrace our desires, follow our dreams, and live according to our plans. That option remains on the table. But what do we really gain, especially if we lose ourselves in the process? Furthermore, who has the Lord ever cheated? Who has the Lord ever failed? Who has come to the end of a life of faithful service and concluded, “The Lord was not enough”? If God has promised to provide for our needs as we seek his kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6), then, though we may feel a lack of some good thing, we will have all we truly need. He knows best, and his love and faithfulness have already been sufficiently proven (Romans 5:1-11; Romans 8).
Self-denial, if understood as a way of life, will require far more than we may be comfortable surrendering. And I think that’s part of the point. Jesus didn’t downplay the seriousness of the path of the kingdom because he knew the gain far outweighed the losses. Paul understood this point well, forsaking any earthly gain and rejoicing in any present weakness for the joy of knowing Christ (Philippians 3; 2 Corinthians 12). The twelve disciples faced persecution and death for their allegiance to Christ, and they rejoiced. The people of God are a people of peace, peace that surpasses any counterfeit offered by sin. So we need not fear self-denial for the sake of Christ. We may mourn the losses we experience in this life, but we may bear our crosses with joy. We are the followers of the Son of God, those called from death to life, those made sons and daughters of the King. Let us not fear the loss of this world; we stand to gain our souls.
You submit your request to God, trusting that he knows best but hoping he’ll fulfill your desire. But he doesn’t.
I’ve wondered before if he doesn’t grant my requests because I’m asking wrongly. James wrote of this problem, defining the error as asking “to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). So I’ve prayed for the Lord to help me to ask rightly, to purify my desires. I’ve been convicted of sins and have repented of idolatry. I’ve begun to think about prayer differently, reevaluating my intentions and goals as I bring my requests to the Lord. But sometimes his answer remains “No.”
I’ve also wondered if he doesn’t grant my requests because of my lack of faith. Maybe I’m just not trusting him enough. Maybe I’m failing to exhibit the faith spoken of in Hebrews 11. Maybe I give up too quickly and simply need to be persistent in prayer like the widow in Luke 18. So I’ve prayed more boldly, more persistently, more hopefully. I’ve begun to consider what praying in faith might mean, how long persistent prayer should typically last, what the Lord had in mind when he taught on prayer. But sometimes his answer remains “No.”
I rarely understand the reason for his “No.” I’ve questioned, sought, wondered, and cried, but I don’t have many answers. But I have a history of experiences that testify to the goodness and faithfulness and love of God. Though I often didn’t understand his purposes in such seasons, I can look back and see how every “no” was for good reason. I also have a deeper love of the Lord and trust in him borne from extended seasons of unfulfilled desires. As I waited on him, he shaped my soul, humbled my heart, and renewed my mind.
I haven’t risen above the fear and worry that often come when God withholds what I request of him. I’m far from perfect faithfulness. But I think, by the grace of God, I’m growing. I reflect on his work in my life thus far, and I am comforted. His answer may be “No,” but his purpose remains good. So I have hope for all present and future circumstances, hope grounded not in what I can see or feel in the moment but in what I know to be eternally true: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1).
God gave Moses specific instructions regarding sacrifices, priests, relationships, rest, and a number of other subjects, and his instructions are recorded in the book of Leviticus. As you read through the book, you begin to realize something: the Lord requires the best, not merely the comfortable or the convenient.
Take sacrifices, for example. Only specific types of animals are accepted, and acceptable animals often must be without blemish and of a certain age. The people couldn’t simply give God the wounded or small of the flock, the weak or the unwanted; they had to give their best. The same goes for the priesthood. The holiness of the role of priest seems to be illustrated in the high standards God set forth for those who could hold such a role. God’s servants couldn’t behave any way they chose; they were to be, in a way, the best of the people, the model of obedience and holiness.
God’s standards haven’t changed. He still requires the best of us. “You therefore must be perfect,” Jesus said, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). He wills our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3), and he remains “the LORD who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 22:32).
Such sanctification is not always convenient or comfortable. Paul chose his words well when he called us to be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2). We heed the call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow him (Luke 9:23), a worthy yet difficult calling. Discipline and correction factor regularly into the process (Hebrews 12), as does grace for our failures (1 John 2:1-2). He refines us, molds us, and purifies us, and the process is often painful. He requires the fullness of our hearts, minds, and spirits. He requires the best of us.
It’s encouraging, then, to remember that God not only requires the best from us, but he also does what is best for us. He causes all things to work together for good, holding us in his unfailing love (Romans 8). He knows us intimately (Psalm 139), cares for us deeply (1 Peter 5:7), and gives wisdom for the journey (James 1:5-8). He doesn’t merely do what is convenient or comfortable in our lives. Indeed, his work may feel at times like a wound (consider Paul’s wrestling with the thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12). But because the Lord is good, we can trust him in all circumstances, all seasons, all stations of life. He will always do what is best. Indeed, he has already done what is best for us by giving us the perfect, spotless lamb to save us, meeting our greatest need and ensuring he will not fail us in our lesser needs (Romans 8, James 1).
So let us offer our best to the Lord, withholding nothing as we learn to love and serve him better. Let us understand that he is worthy of our best, worthy of our very lives. And let us rest in the truth that God loves us and will always do what is best, trusting that “no good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.