I had never seen my grandpa cry before. Sitting in a chair in the middle of the living room, with Handel resounding on the speakers, my remarkably intelligent and emotionally resolute grandfather should have been in his element. He loved both classical music and family, and with snow outside and grandchildren in the house, by all conventions this should have been a perfect Christmas. But grandpa was sitting by himself, and that chair was a wheelchair, and as I sat on the couch, keeping him company, what might have been idyllic in different circumstances turned heartbreaking.
For more than a year, grandpa had been suffering from a debilitating brain disease — one that not only stole his independence, but cruelly limited his brilliant mind. My grandmother had placed him in the middle of the room so he could listen to the music while she finished Christmas preparations, figuring he would enjoy listening to the famous oratorio, Messiah. But there was something wrong with his medication, a calibration slightly askew, and it left him weeping uncontrollably for no reason at all (“I don’t even know why I’m crying,” I remember him saying). He died less than a year later, making this — along with helping carry him to the basement and pushing his wheelchair across the room before the family gift exchange later that night — one of my final memories of him.
The thing that sticks with me still is just how wrong it all felt. Christmas had always been closely tied with family, and that experience is not unique to me but is shared by many American Christians. When previously happy and joyous times become marred by loss and grief, it can be difficult to grapple with Christmas. Sometimes, Christmas is not what we remember, or it is forever transformed by loss, grief, or pain.
“There’s just something about the holidays,” said Jeremy P. Pierre, associate professor of biblical counseling at Southern Seminary. “Our expectations rise to the level of some mythical conception of paradise where all is at peace — all is calm, all is bright. The family is together, everyone is wearing matching pajamas, and the world works perfectly well. So, the higher the expectations go, the harder the fall becomes when you actually face the reality of it.”
DEALING WITH DYSFUNCTION
Grief is not the only complication around Christmas. There’s another category of negative emotions many Christians must wrestle with during the holidays: broken families. Many Christians will visit unsaved parents or siblings and feel the weight of responsibility to evangelize them. Others will return to dysfunctional situations, in which parents or grandparents have unreasonable expectations or have a past of emotional and even physical abuse. Others still may return home to hear their parents are divorcing, or perhaps that their younger sibling has begun living in sinful patterns.
As they enter such situations, Christians should be clear about their purpose, recognizing what they can and cannot do as simple ministers of grace, said Pierre. Rather than seeking to solve all their family’s problems, believers who return home for the holidays should seek to serve. Pierre suggests praying each day during the visit, asking, “Who are you calling me to love today and in what way are you calling me to love them?” Only then should they offer a word of challenge.
“Usually the main distress when students go home comes when they don’t know what to do,” Pierre said. “Your purpose is to serve and to love; your purpose is not to fix everything. The gospel can absolutely fix and solve and change, but if you go in with that as your primary purpose, you are both going to annoy other people — maybe anger them — and you’re going to be really discouraged yourself. Change is usually incremental and longterm; it is not immediate and punctuated.”
Another strategy for handling dysfunction or disagreement during the holidays is to simply listen well, said Robert D. Jones, associate professor of biblical counseling. Jones recalled the famous apologist Francis Schaeffer, who said, “If I have one hour to spend with someone, I would spend 55 minutes asking questions — finding out what was troubling the individual — and then the last five minutes answering those questions.” While that is exaggerated, Jones said, it is a healthy principle.
“There is nothing more God-like than being a good listener,” Jones said. “Where did the Exodus begin? It did not begin with crossing the Red Sea, it did not begin with the Ten Plagues, it did not even begin with the burning bush. It began at the end of Exodus 2, when God heard the groaning of his people and remembered the covenant. You’ve got to be a good listener, and to be a good listener you have got to ask open-ended questions, listen, and then at a certain point, share our perspective. Then, be brief but be bold.”
It is not uncommon for some to feel a heavy burden of dread and anxiety as they prepare to weather their hot-headed uncle or watch their parents fight. Those experiencing such emotions should not ignore them, but instead take stock of them, taking them before the Lord, said Eric L. Johnson, Lawrence and Charlotte Hoover Professor of Pastoral Care. Johnson recommends creatively imagining how Jesus might want them to respond in a particularly difficult scenario, like an athlete visualizing specific plays in preparation for a big game. When dealing with anxiety, Christians must first become aware of what they are feeling before they subsequently surrender those feelings to God.
“So many of us have emotions that are just beneath the surface, and they are influencing us but we aren’t very aware of them,” Johnson said.
All humans form what Johnson called “emotion memories,” which are sometimes tied to a specific event, but often emerge from the accumulation of repeated experiences with a person or within an environment. If one grew up around parents who were always angry or easily disappointed, that person might feel the weight of those memories for no observable reason.
“The difficulty with this particular class of memories is that we get the feeling of it without the knowledge of it,” Johnson said. “Of course we are responsible for the condition of our hearts, but we also become wiser when we take into account that there are dynamics that are part of living in a fallen world. Some of these emotion memories developed in us before we were a Christian — even before we were 10 years old. And what God wants us to do is not merely shove them down, but rather to be honest about them and take them to the Lord.”
‘A LITTLE MORE WHOLE’
One of the basic sources of confusion for many during the holidays is the stark contrast between the “Christmas spirit” they think they should have and the abject sadness they feel. Perhaps it comes from a weariness with the consumerism and commercialization of the holiday, or maybe from an emptiness left in their souls because of death, disease, or dysfunction in their family. We feel guilty for feeling sad.
“The ideal for wholeness and perfection is built into us from creation, but there’s also a part of our fallenness that wants to live in illusion as an escape from the reality of a fallen world,” Johnson said. “So, I think one question is to ask ourselves is: To what degree is this a created longing and to what degree it is an illusory, fallen escape? So much of Christmas in our world is just escapism of the worst sort.
“But there’s something beautiful about a longing for wholeness and perfection that I think the Christmas spirit — at its best — is an echo of. So when we encounter the reality of this world, there is a legitimate gap that I think beckons for sorrow and grieving. The Lord understands that better than any of us and wants us to share that with him and work through that, so we all become a little more whole.”
That wholeness simply does not come from Christmas carols, warm fireplaces, and Santa Claus iconography. It comes from a deep, sober awareness of the reality of a fallen world and a full-hearted confidence in God’s purposes. Those negative emotions are not a burden; they are an invitation to true joy.
“If your view of the Christian life can actually embrace pain as a platform of worship,” Pierre said, “then all of the sudden, Christmas can become this profound experience — not of a happy, simplistic joy, but of a joy that ripples into the complexity of grief. It becomes a heartier worship; it becomes a more full-bodied way of acknowledging the goodness of God, the gift of his Son who came in order to bring life to a world in darkness. That is deeper than if everything in your life up to that point had gone well, and Christmas was only associated with presents and gingerbread cookies.”
Two years after my grandpa died, my family again went to grandma’s house for Christmas. We sat in the same basement and again exchanged gifts. One of my aunts gave each family a gray homemade coffee table book, filled with pictures of my grandpa. I will never forget the almost peaceful stillness that came over everyone in the room as they flipped through it, the memories of his difficult last few months of life fading in light of the rich, bittersweet memories of his roaring laughter and his sharp mind. I remember my sister putting her head on my shoulder. We were all crying.