[special]This is a guest contribution from Bryan Stoudt who blogs regularly at bryanstoudt.com.[/special]
All of a sudden, the holidays are here. As the popular song reminds us, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”. . . right?
I love the holidays and guess that many of you do, too. But we also know that they bring some serious stress and challenges that threaten to rob us of the gratitude and joy that God intends.
So let’s take an honest look at the stress, and how we can respond so that this is our best holiday season yet.
Not Another Post On Lonely Singles, Please
This was going to be another post on how singles struggle with loneliness during the holiday season. And, how Jesus meets them there.
But as I reached out to real singles, asking how they experience the holidays, I began to realize that their relationship with the holidays is much more complex.
To be sure, some do find singleness harder during this time. One friend said that “the holidays have always been difficult for me . . . The thing is when you look around and see tons of couples, you begin to feel self-conscious. You begin to wonder what’s wrong with you and why you don’t have what they have.”
I bet many of you can identify. I remember feeling that way myself when I was single.
Other singles shared about different challenges, though. Like returning to your normal, relatively lonely life after experiencing awesome times with family and friends.
At the end of the year, stress for singles doesn’t come in just one flavor.
The Holidays Are Hard For Everyone
But holiday stress isn’t limited to singles, is it?
One married friend says that, simply because she and her husband don’t have children, they’re expected to do all the traveling. I know many couples who would love to welcome children into their home, but are struggling with infertility and the sense that their lives are incomplete.
Families struggle with helping our kids focus on Jesus, not the latest toy. “Ugh,” my daughter recently said to me. “I wish Santa was real.” She was very underwhelmed by my comments that we have an even better Gift Giver in Christ. Many – usually hard-working moms – get overwhelmed by all the shopping, baking, planning and other extra commitments the season brings.
And . . . we’ve just scratched the surface, but you get the point. The holidays can be downright difficult for everyone, not just singles.
What Really Makes The Holidays So Hard?
But wait a minute. It’s not like the rest of the year is heaven on earth, right?
Although not everyone I connected with said the holidays are challenging, nearly everyone did. What is it about the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s that seems to set us on edge?
It certainly includes all of the above and much more. But I believe there’s something deeper going on that takes these factors and puts them on steroids.
Stay with me. As we understand what’s really going on, we can lean into God and respond to the stress in a much healthier way.
Great Expectations, Great Problems
Sociologist Pepper Schwartz has said that “Holidays in general breed unrealistic expectations. The minute you start wondering, ‘is it going to be wonderful enough?,’ it never will be.’”
While there may be a touch of cynicism here, she’s spot on about the holidays creating unrealistic expectations. At least in America, these expectations are fueled by the never-ending marketing and materialism of the season.
TV ads, pristine storefront displays, and internet marketing all over-promise and under-deliver.
Blissfully happy couples carve figure-eights on frozen ponds, staring into each other’s eyes just after they get engaged. Well-rested, contented children open gifts that blow their minds, and they give mom and dad a warm embrace. And conflict-free families gather round the holiday table laughing and enjoying feasts that put Martha Stewart to shame.
On one level, we know it isn’t real, but it can begin to feel like we’re just outside this perfect party we can never really join.
Of course, we can’t place all the blame on Fifth Avenue. Our own hearts are by nature discontent, making them easy targets for the good life the season seems to offer to everyone else.
So our heightened expectations for the season, combined with the extra stresses and our sinful hearts, can rob us of the thankfulness and joy God intends.
But don’t lock yourself in a closet with chocolate and candy canes just yet.
Three Ways Jesus Transforms Holiday Stress
Even though we can’t control the challenges and stress that come with the holidays, we know that God – Immanuel – will be with us. And that changes everything. Not all at once, but one step at a time.
Here are three ways we can take the next step this holiday season.
1. Unmask the deception. Despite the holiday hype, the truth is that “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22-23). Paul tells us that real life is more like giving birth than sipping eggnog, which resets our expectations and can make the holidays easier.
2. Slow down and acknowledge the hard stuff. What will be hard about the holidays for you? Maybe it’s a failed relationship, or the million responsibilities pulling at you. God sees you, and he wants you to “call upon [him] in the day of trouble” (Psalm 50:15). You don’t have to pretend everything is fine.
3. Let God set your expectations. A bunch of people told me that they feel pressure to fulfill their own – and others’ – expectations during the holidays. Me, too. God wants to set us free from that: “It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself . . . It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4). One friend with young kids, for example, says that her family is just doing the bare minimum during the holidays right now, even though others probably want much more from them.
The End Of Stress And Disappointment
You know this, but the stresses and disappointments you’re facing aren’t going to last forever. For now, my son Matthew has pretty severe autism and we can’t really connect. But one day, when Jesus takes away death and tears (Revelation 21:4), we’re going to sit down and share our hearts. For a really long time. Thinking about that nearly undoes me, but it also gives me hope to face the stress and disappointment now.
Where are you especially waiting for Jesus to “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5)? Only God knows exactly what that will look like, but it’s worth taking some time to imagine – in vivid detail – what Jesus will do for us when he returns. The work Christ began at Christmas will be completed when he returns (Philippians 1:6).
I’m not sure what we’ll face this holiday season, but I’m positive we’ll face our share of struggles. But if we’ll be honest about them, and let God reset our expectations, we’ll experience the joy and gratitude he wants for us in newer, deeper ways.
[special]Bryan Stoudt is a pastor and writer who helps other followers of Jesus connect the gospel with their everyday lives. He focuses on dating, marriage and personal transformation. God has given him a beautiful wife, Sharon, and together they have four children. In his free time, he enjoys roasting his own coffee, running and writing at bryanstoudt.com and other sites, including Desiring God.[/special]
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