Winning Hearts and Minds At Christmas

I’ve been reading several thought provoking blog entries and articles regarding Christmas and how/if Christians can/should rightly celebrate it. (See postings from Josh G, Stacey, Josh B, and Gene Edward Veith’s World Magazine article) Although I don’t agree with all of the comments in those links, I do admire zeal for deeply considering issues most Christians take for granted, and I think it’s important to prayerfully and thoughtfully consider choices we make about how to engage with and participate in our culture, rather than defaulting to mindless tradition keeping.

That said, I also think that many traditions are useful and good if they are rightly considered and performed with a proper heart attitude, and bucking tradition just for the sake of being an iconoclast is an annoying Generation X/Y/whatever habit.

After much reflection, I have concluded that Christmas, as with many other traditions not specifically mentioned in the Bible as well as practices that are explicitly commanded, basically boils down to a question of attitude. There are ways to celebrate Christmas (or Thanksgiving, or baptism, or communion…) that glorify God because of the attitudes of our hearts, and there are ways that we can dishonor God through those same practices if they are performed with the wrong motivation and heart orientation.

Naturally, we want to reduce all questions to a black and white choice. “Option A is always BAD but option B is always good.” Unfortunately, this is not always a biblical response. Certainly there are some behaviors that God absolutely condemns, but in many more cases, God is concerned with our hearts. For example, the early church struggled with the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols (see 1 Corinthians 8 and related passages) because although there was nothing inherently wrong with meat sacrificed to idols, the new believers were struggling with emerging from idolatry, and to many of them eating meat sacrificed to idols was a stumbling block. Rather than exhorting them to eat it anyway since meat is meat is meat, Paul cautions believers to be sensitive to the consciences of other believers. If someone had a problem with eating meat sacrificed to idols, Paul said, that was a sin for him, although it might not be for another believer. Why was this so? Shouldn’t one action either be a sin or not? Here again, the problem highlights the fact that God is concerned with the attitudes of our hearts as we go about various activities.

I think celebrating Christmas is a similar issue, although not a clear parallel on all fronts. Since it is not commanded in the Bible, Christians don’t have to celebrate Christmas. But if they do, they must do so in a way that honors God. I will be the first to say that many Christians, including myself on occasion, do not give adequate thought to our attitudes about Christmas. In our culture, Christmas has become heavily commercialized, and it’s easy to get caught up in giving and getting presents and the whirlwind of special food and getting the Christmas cards addressed and decorating with giant inflatable Frosty the Snowman balloons rather than taking time to maintain our hearts.

Growing up, my family focused gift giving on our birthdays (both my brother and I were born in December), and we celebrated Christmas as Jesus’ birthday, complete with a birthday cake. As we got older, the birthday cake bit dropped off, but we continued to focus as a family on the meaning of Christmas through doing the “Jesse Tree” for our family devotions in December. Each night, we would have a devotion about a different part of the Old Testament leading up to Jesus’ birth, and would put an ornament on our little tree that corresponded to that story (for example, an ark for Noah, a harp for David). This showed us, especially as children, how the whole of history built up to the birth of Christ, and emphasized God’s plan and covenant in a very meaningful way.

Below are some final thoughts on various points of the Christmas debate:

1) Celebrating Christ’s birth at all – As I said above, Christians don’t HAVE to celebrate Christ’s birth. But we celebrate the births of our children every year as a time of thankfulness for that person, a time of showing appreciation, and a time of remembering the blessings of the year. IF we are able to make that what Christmas is about as well, I fail to see how that is unbiblical.

2) Celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25 – I know a lot of people who celebrated their birthdays on days other than their actual birthday, for various reasons. Ultimately, what matters is how and what you’re celebrating, not what day it’s on. That said, if you are picking a day at random, why not December 25? As is pointed out in the World article linked above, the date is NOT actually based on a pagan holiday (rather the opposite is found to be the case), and even if it was, the question is not “did the Roman pagans have a holiday on December 25?” but rather “When you celebrate Christmas what is the attitude of your heart?” If your heart attitude is caught up in pagan things on December 25, that would be a bad day for you, but I think most Christians do not sin in their hearts by keeping a holiday that was also a holiday for pagans, rather the sin comes from having a materialistic or improperly focused heart.

3) Giving presents – I think if your attitude towards presents is that we give gifts to symbolize the gift God gave us by sending His Son, that is a wonderful thing. This is an area where Christians especially have to be careful to guard their hearts around Christmas though.

4) Having a Christmas Tree – Again, the arguments against this practice stem from the fact that trees have been used in idol worship in the past. Frankly, I don’t think very many Christians worship their Christmas trees in this day and age. I’m far more concerned with the way that Christians today make material things or security or success or the Republican party or whatnot into idols.

Man is concerned with outward things, but God looks at the heart. I am grateful to the people who have challenged me to consider my heart this Christmas, and I’m thankful for the ways God has convicted me to examine my attitudes on these issues. My prayer for all of you would be that whether or not you choose to celebrate Christmas, that you would glorify God throughout the year as you seek to do His will in all your celebrations, thoughts, and actions.

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