Show of hands, how many of you have been struggling with all the changes that have been coming at us this year? I know you can't see it, but my hand is up, waaaay up.
As someone with some strong introvert tendencies, I can roll with the punches of a socially-distanced Christmas. I don't need a crowd to drink hot chocolate, watch Christmas movies, bake cookies, or play board games. If December is usually overwhelming and exhausting for you, the idea of a quiet Christmas might sound like a vacation!
But, even introverts can have too much time at home. And extroverts are reeling as all their favorite events are canceled, or at least drastically altered.
It is really hard to be told that you might not see the people you care about this Christmas. It is mentally exhausting to not be able to plan anything with confidence. And, even if you do have plans to meet with friends, the smallest sniffle makes you worry about going out.
When counting your blessings doesn't help
I have my share of worries this Christmas, but when I start feeling overwhelmed, I remind myself how lucky I am. My family is healthy, including my extended family. Both my husband and I have been able to continue working. Our kids are doing well, despite all the changes in their lives. We still have our house, our vehicles, our pets, and presents under the tree, so I know that I am blessed.
So why am I still struggling, emotionally? Why can't I just count my blessings and forget my troubles? Is that what I'm supposed to be doing as a Christian, anyway?
Let's take that further. What if I don't have those things? Can I be homeless and blessed? Can I be grieving and blessed? Can my life be an upside-down-and-shaken-out-mess, and I still be considered blessed by God?
Jesus seems to say: Yes. I can be blessed AND suffering at the same time.
Who Did Jesus Call Blessed?
In his famous sermon on the mount in Matthew 5, Jesus gave a list that we call the beatitudes.
Blessed are the gentle, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, and the peacemakers.
At a glance, it is easy to picture how such kind and loving people will be blessed with friendships and happy families. But think of those throughout history who have suffered because they stood for justice. Because they wanted peace and showed mercy.
The beatitudes continue:
Blessed are those who have been persecuted, insulted, and falsely accused of evil.
It hurts to be insulted and falsely accused, even for little things. The persecuted, insulted, and falsely accused will suffer in heart, if not in body. Yet, Jesus called them blessed!
What is this blessing that he speaks about, exactly?
What does it mean to be blessed, according to Jesus and the early Christians?
In the original Greek of the Bible, blessed is a bit of a nuanced word. It can mean fortunate, as we expect. Someone who has a good thing happen to them, or given to them. But it can also mean fully-satisfied.
Fully-satisfied. That sounds good. That sounds like that feeling when you push back from a delicious, picked-over Christmas dinner, give a big sigh, and start thinking about a nap. Chances are, you or someone you care about is feeling the opposite. They are starving for normalcy.
How do we grab onto that fully-satisfied way of living, and keep it with us when we are struggling in our day-to-day life?
There is a story from the Bible that I feel shows that tension beautifully, and it comes from the Christmas story, in Luke.
In my book of short stories, As the Stars I have a short story I wrote about Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, inspired by the first chapter in Luke. I purposefully end the story on a bittersweet note. It's easy to focus on her miraculous pregnancy, but we can't skip over the years, decades perhaps, of her waiting on unanswered prayers.
Elizabeth and Mary were blessed and struggling at the same time
Even though her blessing comes late, when she's advanced in years and facing a limited time with her son, she grabs her moment with both hands, feeling it deeply, savoring her blessings. Five months she spent in seclusion when God answered her prayer. Wow. When was the last time we slowed down so intentionally, simply to be grateful for what God has given us? Elizabeth shows us that it is okay to slow down and soak in the blessings you have today, even if not everything in your life is perfect. Taking time to sit with your blessings today might be just what you need to face your struggles tomorrow.
And then there's Mary. When Gabriel comes to Mary with an incredible message, she declares herself a servant of God, even though she can't tell yet how this is going to work, exactly. If Elizabeth knew what it was to wait a lifetime for an answered prayer, Mary knew what it was to face uncertainty.
Did Mary take a moment to think ahead to all the trouble her pregnancy might cause? Did she jump into her life-changing decision without forethought? Mary is often portrayed as treasuring or pondering what she witnesses in her heart. From this little description, she seems like a thoughtful sort of young woman. Not the sort to make rash decisions.
My perspective is that Mary knew this blessing came with a level of uncertainty, and likely hardship, but she was willing to accept it anyway, trusting that God would take care of her. What an example for us!
Elizabeth also thought Mary's trusting belief was something to be noted. When Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth says something to her. She says, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord!”
Mary was blessed because she believed! If we want to understand what Jesus and the early Christians understood about being blessed, let's start here.
If we want to be blessed during our struggles, we need to believe!
What did Mary believe? That she would bear the son of God, whose kingdom would have no end. She didn't just believe she would get pregnant, she believed this baby was the savior! She believed in the gospel.
Jesus has his own perspective on how Mary was blessed.
Later on in the book of Luke, a woman in the crowd calls out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed.” Jesus replies, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” (Luke 11:27)
At first glance, this seems like a slight on Mary, but yet, this blessing applies to her. Mary heard the word of God, and she responded with faith. What I think Jesus is saying, is that Mary is not blessed for mothering the Messiah (though, what a gift!) but for hearing the word of God and obeying it.
“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”
Yet, for all her earthly blessings in being the mother of Jesus, Mary had her hardships too, even, or especially, when it came to Jesus. She worried about him like any mother, like when he was accidentally left behind in Jerusalem! She watched him perform miracles, yet she saw how he was accused and insulted by those he was trying to save. Of all the witnesses at the cross, I believe Mary took it the hardest. That was her baby boy up there, falsely accused, mocked, beaten, and crucified. Though her story had a happy ending, what a difficult journey to reach it.
When Jesus says that those who hear and observe will be blessed, I believe this is the sort of blessing that means they will be fully satisfied. Those who believe will have that inner peace we all crave, because they trust in the Lord. I don't think he was talking about the fortunate sort of blessed, like job-security, or health, or wealth, or a certain future, because many in the early church did not have those things, yet look at them! Excitedly chasing after Jesus, proclaiming the good news!
As I see it, from Jesus' words to that woman in the crowd, if we want to feel truly blessed, fully-satisfied in a deep and untouchable way, we have to hear the word of God and observe it. Those who not only read the scriptures but put them into practice will be blessed. I do want to add here that the phrase "the word of God" is often synonymous in the New Testament with "the gospel", which is the good news of Jesus.
I believe it is the gospel, the good news of what Jesus has done, that changes everything.
What has God spoken to you? You must believe it to be blessed.
Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.
Mary was told that she would bear the son of God, and she believed and was blessed. Do you know what God has spoken to you? God may have laid something personal on your heart like he did with Mary, but there are some things that he has spoken to all of us, and we need to believe they will be fulfilled if we want to tap into that fully-satisfied sort of blessing.
Let's take a look at three promises, plus one, that have been spoken to us.
The Forgiveness of Sins
Through faith in Jesus, we are promised the forgiveness of sins. Sometimes, I think life-long Christians like myself forget the staggering implication of that blessing. Sin is real. It is what ruins our relationships with each other, with the world, and it separates us from God. Sin wrecks everything, as we can see as we look around at a sin-sick world. If sin has the world covered in fetid mud, the forgiveness of God is a waterfall of fresh water.
The Holy Spirit
Before he suffered on the cross, Jesus told his disciples that it was good that he was going away. What?! That seems impossible when all of us wish we had Jesus physically here with us here today, to lead us through these challenging times.
But he said, “It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7)
Jesus said it was good that he was going, because he was sending the Holy Spirit. Now if Jesus says that it is for our advantage to have the Holy Spirit, we should sit up and listen! The Holy Spirit came powerfully on the Day of Pentecost, and in his first sermon, Peter tells us that the Holy Spirit, this Helper, is promised to all who believe, including us!
The Kingdom of Heaven
All throughout the gospels, Jesus also speaks to us about a coming kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God. Jesus is going to come back, and he is going to right every wrong, wipe away every tear, and reign as king forevermore. Those who believe already declare him King, and wait eagerly for the time when we will live with God for always.
Because of these blessings—forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, and the coming kingdom—Christians also have the promise of purpose. There are few things as soul-draining as feeling useless. Like nothing you do matters. But every single Christian has a purpose, an incredible purpose. It is a purpose that can be lived out in any situation, under every hardship—in fact it shines brighter in times of suffering. Our purpose is to be witnesses of what Jesus has done! Whether you're a full-time missionary or loving on someone who feels a little unlovable, you are fulfilling a wonderful purpose.
Do you believe? Blessed is she who believes!
Jesus did not hide his suffering, even though he was so blessed
Though my life is good, I have felt anxiety, stress, unhappiness, and fear. These are real emotions, and I'm not asking you to pretend everything is fine and to paste on a happy face in the name of Jesus. I'm asking you to do the opposite. Jesus suffered, and I don't think he would deny that for even one moment, so why should we? Jesus was also blessed, and I don't think he would downplay that either, not for a second. If Jesus can be both blessed and suffering, so can we.
I admit freely that I am still working on accepting this for myself. I tend to have the either/or mentality, that if I am having a hard time, everything is hard. I have a hard time getting into the Elizabeth-mindset of taking time to revel in my blessings even if they're short-lived. I have a hard time mimicking Mary when I face uncertainty.
Jesus lived on this earth. He knew what it was to suffer, deeply. Let come him come alongside you, and let him speak to you by the body of believers, and if you need it, through the help of professionals.
Don't deny your struggles, but do shift your focus
This Christmas, it's going to be hard at times to feel like you are blessed. Social media and the news seem to purposefully try to make us afraid. So, I challenge you to shift your perspective from all the craziness in the world around us, to what God has already done, and wants to do, through you.
I challenge you to get into God's word this Christmas season. Listen to what He says, not what the world says. Dwell on hope, and healing, and salvation. A lot of people like to read the 24 chapters of Luke as a countdown to Christmas.
Ask for God to speak the gospel into your heart this Christmas season. Ask him to show you how you are blessed, even amid your struggles, and how you can bless others. Ask for the blessings of a fully-satisfied heart.
“Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”