December 21, 2009 by C.J. Mahaney
Categories: Hope | Sin
The days before Christmas can be a tiring season of preparation, planning, shopping, and wrapping. But I think as we prepare for the Christmas celebrations, dinners, travel, and gift giving, it’s equally important that we pause and prepare our souls for Christmas.
During this time of year, it may be easy to forget that the bigger purpose behind Bethlehem was Calvary. But the purpose of the manger was realized in the horrors of the cross. The purpose of his birth was his death.
Or to put it more personally: Christmas is necessary because I am a sinner. The incarnation reminds us of our desperate condition before a holy God.
Several years ago WORLD Magazine published a column by William H. Smith with the provocative title, “Christmas is disturbing: Any real understanding of the Christmas messages will disturb anyone” (Dec. 26, 1992).
In part, Smith wrote:
Many people who otherwise ignore God and the church have some religious feeling, or feel they ought to, at this time of the year. So they make their way to a church service or Christmas program. And when they go, they come away feeling vaguely warmed or at least better for having gone, but not disturbed.
Why aren’t people disturbed by Christmas? One reason is our tendency to sanitize the birth narratives. We romanticize the story of Mary and Joseph rather than deal with the painful dilemma they faced when the Lord chose Mary to be the virgin who would conceive her child by the power of the Holy Spirit. We beautify the birth scene, not coming to terms with the stench of the stable, the poverty of the parents, the hostility of Herod. Don’t miss my point. There is something truly comforting and warming about the Christmas story, but it comes from understanding the reality, not from denying it.
Most of us also have not come to terms with the baby in the manger. We sing, “Glory to the newborn King.” But do we truly recognize that the baby lying in the manger is appointed by God to be the King, to be either the Savior or Judge of all people? He is a most threatening person.
Malachi foresaw his coming and said, “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” As long as we can keep him in the manger, and feel the sentimental feelings we have for babies, Jesus doesn’t disturb us. But once we understand that his coming means for every one of us either salvation or condemnation, he disturbs us deeply.
What should be just as disturbing is the awful work Christ had to do to accomplish the salvation of his people. Yet his very name, Jesus, testifies to us of that work.
That baby was born so that “he who had no sin” would become “sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The baby’s destiny from the moment of his conception was hell—hell in the place of sinners. When I look into the manger, I come away shaken as I realize again that he was born to pay the unbearable penalty for my sins.
That’s the message of Christmas: God reconciled the world to himself through Christ, man’s sin has alienated him from God, and man’s reconciliation with God is possible only through faith in Christ…Christmas is disturbing.
Don’t get me wrong—Christmas should be a wonderful celebration. Properly understood, the message of Christmas confronts before it comforts, it disturbs before it delights.
The purpose of Christ’s birth was to live a sinless life, suffer as our substitute on the cross, satisfy the wrath of God, defeat death, and secure our forgiveness and salvation.
Christmas is about God the Father (the offended party) taking the initiative to send his only begotten son to offer his life as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, so that we might be forgiven for our many sins.
As Smith so fitly concludes his column:
Only those who have been profoundly disturbed to the point of deep repentance are able to receive the tidings of comfort, peace, and joy that Christmas proclaims.
Amen and Merry Christmas!
The audio recording of C.J.'s first message delivered at the New Attitude conference is now online.
The Troubled Soul: God's Word and Our Feelings
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Recently, I spoke to a pastor walking through a prolonged and difficult season in his church. As he was informing me about the specifics, I had a mixture of emotions. I care deeply about this friend and pastor. And as he communicated his diverse challenges, I grieved with him and sought to counsel him wisely.
After listening thoroughly to his situation I communicated my care and sadness and then sought to draw his attention away from the immediate circumstances to evidences of God’s grace in his life and the church (which are easy to ignore or overlook in trials). Also, I drew attention to issues of his heart now being revealed by these circumstances so that he could apply the gospel to his heart.
But most importantly in that conversation, I attempted to strengthen my friend by reminding him of God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and grace. God is working through these difficulties to accomplish his good purposes. God is at work in the adversity to sanctify his heart. God is at work using the trials to draw my friend into a deeper relationship with himself.
Rejoice in the Lord
And I drew my friend’s attention to one particular passage: Philippians 4:4—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (ESV). There was nothing new or unique in what I said. I was only applying counsel I have learned from others and—by God’s grace—applied to my own soul.
I find this verse easy to ignore in the midst of adversity. But I must not ignore this verse or assume that this passage doesn’t apply to me. It does. God has given this verse to us for the good of our soul and, ultimately, for his glory.
Permit me to put this story on pause in order to explain why I normally draw attention to just one verse when I have the privilege of caring for someone.
This approach of focusing on one specific passage in counseling settings is one I learned from my friend David Powlison, articulated in his article “Think Globally, Act Locally.” He writes,
In a nutshell, connect one bit of Scripture to one bit of life. In other words, always ask two questions for yourself and others: What is your current struggle? What about God in Christ connects to this? … Apply one relevant thing from our Redeemer to one significant scene in this person’s story. Bring one bit of Bible to one bit of life. You can’t say it all at once. (The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Fall 2003, p. 3)
Well, you cannot and should not say it all at once, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying in the past! My impulse is to help others by downloading as much information as possible. But I’ve learned this is not wise and really unhelpful. Those we counsel can contemplate and apply a limited amount of information, so in caring for their souls—and especially in the immediate situation—I want to provide counsel they can easily consider and remember. And that’s where David’s wisdom proves so valuable.
In these situations, we must restrain the impulse to bury others under vast amounts of theological information.
Back to the Story
Now, back to my friend. I reminded him of Philippians 4:4 and passed along D.A. Carson’s comments on the verse from his book Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996):
The ultimate ground of our rejoicing can never be our circumstances, even though we as Christians recognize that our circumstances are providentially arranged. If our joy derives primarily from our circumstances, then when our circumstances change, we will be miserable. Our delight must be in the Lord himself. That is what enables us to live with joy above our circumstances. As Nehemiah puts it, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the Lord sometimes allows miserable circumstances to lash us—that we may learn this lesson.…Whatever the mysteries of evil and sorrow, they do have the salutary effect of helping believers to shift the ground of their joy from created things to the Creator, from the temporary to the eternal, from jingoism to Jesus, from consumption to God. (p. 106)
How about you? Are you personally experiencing a season of adversity with no end in sight? If so, rather than peering into the future trying to predict the concluding date of the trial, I recommend you look down
and then up
and realize a transition is under way to shift the ground of your joy “from created things to the Creator.” Then look up
and delight in the Lord himself. Contemplate his changeless character and the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Then—dependent upon God’s grace—obey this command given for our good and his glory. Rejoice as you realize afresh you are doing much better than you deserve.
This will not alter the severity of your trial, but it will transform your perspective and strengthen your soul for the trial.