Advent: Counting It All Joy When Christmas Hurts

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Advent is the season we look forward to the coming of Jesus — His birth as our Savior, and His eventual return as our reigning King. But in the context of our daily suffering, Advent also helps us to keep our eyes on Jesus as we place our hope in Him for our future understanding of our present hurt.

We’ve all read the exhortation of James to “count it all joy when you encounter trials of many kinds” (James 1:2) and wondered, “But, how? And if I can’t seem to ‘count the joy’ in the midst of my hurting, is there something wrong with my faith? What kind of Christian does that make me?”

It occurred to me recently that as humans, we are bound by the limits of our finite thinking. We seem to think there is some sort of expiration on our opportunity to give praise for a situation. But we often need the gift of retrospect to be able to see the good work of God in hard times.

So even if it takes the passing of time and a new perspective to be able to praise God for your trial, don’t let that moment pass you by! PRAISE HIM STILL. It’s not too late. You didn’t miss your opportunity. Because here’s the mystery of it all: We serve a God who transcends time (Hebrews 13:8). Therefore, it is never too late to count it all joy. 

If you are in a season of suffering, do not heap additional guilt on yourself if you’re having trouble praising Him for your trial while in the depths of your pain. That condemnation is not from God (Romans 8:1). But DO keep taking daily steps forward in your faith (Hebrews 11:1), believing God is good and righteous and loving and kind and that one day, you will be able to truly praise Him for this season. You will. He promises you will.

Christmastime can be an extraordinarily painful time of year for those who have been enduring a season of suffering. Indeed, there are no twinkling lights in the Valley of the Shadow. But the whole point of Advent is to give us hope for the future. So this year, let Advent lovingly cradle your downcast, tear-stained face in both hands, and gently lift your eyes back toward heaven. There is hope for the future there.

Merry Christmas.

And Mary Responded …

Given the recent calendar page turn into Advent, I’ve been pondering Mary lately and what she must have been thinking as she faced an eternity-changing event in her life.

Consider Mary’s circumstances: She was a young girl (likely between the ages of 12-14), “ready” for marriage and betrothed to a man from her tiny village of Nazareth.

Betrothal in ancient Israel was much more significant than our modern (and Gentile) version of “engagement” and included a 9-12 month waiting period where the couple was legally married, but had not yet consummated the marriage.  If the bride became pregnant by another man or was found to not be a virgin during this period of “sanctification”, then she could be divorced or stoned to death.  If she was allowed to live, then most certainly, she and her family would be socially and spiritually outcast.

So, it is under these legal, social and spiritual circumstances that the angel Gabriel visits Mary and tells her that she will become divinely pregnant and will give birth to the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 1:26-38).  Surely, Mary knew full well the dangers and heartache that awaited her.  Had it been me, I’m certain I would have wondered: “Could this really be for my good?”

But, in fact, that’s not how Mary responded.  Instead, Scripture records Mary’s response in a passage known as The Magnificat and I think there are some lessons for us in it:

46 Mary responded,
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
47 How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
48 For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
49 For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
50 He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
51 His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
52 He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
54 He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
55 For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.”
Luke 1:46-55, NLT

First, the text tells us Mary’s “soul praises” and her “spirit rejoices”. From this, and because Gabriel told Mary the Spirit of the Lord would come to her, we know Mary was fully united with the Holy Spirit and thus, it is by the Holy Spirit that she is able to praise God in the midst of such difficult circumstances.

Second, Mary calls herself the Lord’s “servant”.  She was fully submitted to God as her Lord. You may have heard the phrase, “You can’t say ‘No, Lord'”, meaning that God is either Lord of your life and you are submitted to His leading, or He is not. There is no in-between.

Third, even though her social, legal and even physical well being were threatened (or could have been), Mary proclaims that God has done great things for her.  Mary is fully confident in God’s sovereignty, even though she is facing difficult circumstances and can’t see the future for how they will turn out.

Fourth, in vv 51-55, Mary reflects on God’s character revealed throughout Israel’s history. In so doing, Mary leans on her version of “Scripture” for encouragement — and she is fully believing God is faithful to keep his promises.

From these lessons, we can ask the same questions of our ourselves:

  1. Am I fully united with the Holy Spirit? Is there anything hindering my relationship with the Lord this Advent? An attitude to confess? A habit to quit? A sin to turn away from? A relationship to reconcile?
  2. Am I fully surrendered to God’s leading?  Is God truly Lord over my life?  Am I willing  to praise God with my mouth, but not willing to accept His teaching and direction when it’s different from what I want?
  3. Am I fully confident in God’s sovereignty — regardless of my current circumstances — even though I can’t see the future?
  4. Do I fully believe God is faithful to keep his promises?  Am I regularly leaning into Scripture for evidence and encouragement of God’s character and promises?

I love the verb that opens this passage in the NLT, “Mary responded” (emphasis mine). Many translations use the phrase, “And Mary said …”.  But this verb “responded” suggests to me that Mary did not just preach herself a sermon and keep the knowledge in her head. No. Mary responded in her mind, in her spirit, and with her actions.  She purposed in her heart to believe God, trust in Him and live out her faith accordingly.

How are you responding to God this Advent season?