Freedom from (Holiday) Expectations
‘The weight of the world on your shoulders’ might seem like a cliché phrase, but if we're honest, we've all felt that weight. Whether you're a business executive with 30 employees under you making decisions every day that could make or break company sales numbers; a mother with kids balancing cooking, cleaning, and getting them all to their various weekly activities; an older adult working two part-time jobs past retirement age just to make ends meet; or somewhere in-between, sometimes it really feels like the weight of it all is suffocating. And if this is how we feel off and on throughout the year, it's no wonder that some people feel extra pressure during the holidays. Everyone thinks that Christmas is supposed to be a joyous time of year - and while it can be, it can also be an incredibly stressful and depressing time of year.
So what really is the point of Christmas? If we're going with the world's view of Christmas, we'd probably say things like gift-giving, spending time with friends and family, extra time off work, fun trips, bonuses, New Year’s resolutions, or a plethora of other commitments levied on us. While most of that is all well and good, and on their own aren't inherently wrong, it was never meant to be the point.
The funny (or should we say, tragic) thing is that Christmas has become a time full of high expectations, often followed by differing levels of disappointment. No matter how hard we try, we will never be able to fulfill all that's expected of us. And so, looking ahead to the holidays, instead of cheer, we just see lots of things that could go wrong.
As a father, I've become more intimately familiar with the letdowns during Christmas. We all remember those holidays as kids, when that thing we wanted most wasn't under the tree on Christmas morning. As a kid we get over those disappointments fairly quick, but we still remember what that was like as an adult. It's almost like little wounds that we receive, and though they don't hurt anymore, the scars remind us of a pain we once felt. And while not getting some silly toy or other seemingly trivial item for Christmas isn't that big of a deal in the grand scheme of life, these 'scars' slowly begin to warp our view of reality. And now, as a father who generally wants what's best for his kids, even though I know that they don't need 90% of the things on their Christmas lists, a part of me still wants to do more than I am. And this is coming from someone who lives fairly comfortably. I can’t even begin to imagine what it feels like for a parent who struggles to get their kids just one or two things for Christmas.
But, this is how the cycle goes. We fail to meet their expectations, and we fail to meet our own expectations, and when they grow up, they will likely feel the same disappointments. And when we look at ourselves, all we see are more and more scars, forgetting what we used to look like under all the pain. Perhaps for some people this is why the extra time off during the holidays is so exhausting. Maybe this is why spending time with family feels more like a burden than a gift. We place more expectations on ourselves to look perfect – to act perfect – and that usually causes us to try and cover up the scars, trying desperately to hide the pain, but at the same time hiding who we really are underneath.
Oftentimes, when we’re forced to look in the mirror, we don't like what we see. The holidays can sometimes force us to look in the mirror way more than we would normally. The holidays can also expose us to the gazes of others who we feel are more openly seeing all the scars we bear.
So, if this is what Christmas really does to so many people, then what is the point of it all? If Christmas doesn’t bring about hope and new beginnings, then what are we doing wrong?
The question, instead of ‘what are we doing wrong’, should be ‘what are we focused on?’ If we’re focused on meeting everyone’s expectations, then we are setting ourselves up for multiple failures. We will never be able to meet everyone’s expectations, and we’ll struggle even more so to meet our own expectations.
God’s Gift of Hope
If we could focus on receiving then we’d never be disappointed or let down. The kind of receiving I’m talking about here is not in gifts or anything tangible. The point of Christmas was a gift – God’s one and only Son. The point of the holidays is to receive the most precious gift that anyone has ever given, and to reflect on its impact in our lives. It was a gift of hope; a gift of grace. This grace is the one and only gift we’ve ever been given that comes with zero strings attached, and with zero expectations. And all we have to do it receive it.
Naturally, the world will try to trivialize this gift and tell you that there’s a lot of other, better things out there. But the truth is, all those other things come with expectations. We expect that new car to not only get us around, but also make us feel good about ourselves. But, there’s always someone with a nicer car, and one day even this new one won’t get us around as reliably as it once did. This is just one example, but we buy everything because we expect something from it, even if it’s a necessity. We expect food to satisfy us and keep us from going hungry, we expect water to quench our thirst, and we expect toilet paper to, well… keep us clean. But the truth is, there’s always another day. We eat and drink, and soon that satisfaction turns into a sensation urging as to visit the restroom again. The point being that while these simple necessities may have met our expectations, it’s still just temporarily.
And so it goes with everything, except the one gift that doesn’t ever run out.
When God sent his son to this world, he knew full well what that meant. For a million reasons, it didn’t make sense to the world, but for one reason, it made all the sense for the world. “For God so loved the world, that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believed in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16
The real point of Christmas is the cross. God sent his son to Earth so that he could begin with the end in mind. You can’t have an end without a beginning – at least not in a way that we as humans would understand. So, this Christmas we must celebrate the beginning of the life of Jesus, the one person to be both God and human; the one person who never sinned, so that ultimately he could die on a cross and wash away the darkness of all those who would believe in him.
The one problem that we must overcome with this gift is our expectations. Even with Jesus, we have human expectations, and we try to box God into something that meets the needs we think we have. This is why most Christians still feel ‘lacking’ when it comes to their spirituality. Instead of simply receiving and letting grace wash over us, we try to come up with systems that make God ‘manageable’, setting up expectations that if we do ‘X’, then ‘Y’ will happen.
Why is it so hard for us to simply receive?
Perhaps it’s our humanity that holds us back. And while that is a major hurdle for us, I believe the truth of the matter is that our human “limitations” are just our excuse because it’s so hard for us to accept that hope is this easy to find.
This Christmas let go of expectations and try to just receive. God asks nothing in return, and in fact he has canceled all debts. All we have to do is focus on receiving grace and letting it wash over all of the expectations that we’ll never meet anyway. There should be hope in knowing that everything will be okay, even if the world is screaming at us that it’s not.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the holidays this year, try to quiet yourself and just reflect on what it means to have complete freedom from the bondage of all the expectations weighing you down. Let go of the ones that you can, and focus on just living in the grace of a God who loves you beyond measure. Don’t worry about all the things you think you have to do; inviting X number of people to church, reading your Bible and praying 30 minutes daily, or even going to church each week. All of these things are good, but if instead you simply focus on letting God’s grace wash over you, its immeasurable waves will flow into every part of your life and undeniably affect everything it touches. It’s impossible to fully live in the hope that grace gives you without it touching everything around you. In this way, you will naturally invite those who need to come, and you will be drawn to God in Word and in prayer. At that point, it’s no longer about what you have to do, but what you yearn to do.
God has offered to remove the weight of the world from your shoulders through his son Jesus. He took that burden, and all you have to do is put it down and never look back. Consider what the holidays could feel like if you no longer felt weighed down by the chains of expectations that you couldn’t meet. Imagine what Christmas could be if you clung to hope and rose above the darkness of your life’s current circumstances. Imagine yourself completely free, soaring high above the expectations and pressure of the past.
Now stop imagining and receive it.