Grief, divorce, blended family stress, infertility, miscarriages, mental illness, physical illness, financial strain, loneliness, addiction, unemployment… a pandemic – we have a lot of distractions this holiday season. And those could just be examples of what’s happening in your current life, what about your past struggles? The holidays are certainly a time for past pain to resurface. Things you haven’t thought about all year can suddenly come flooding back to you the second you see the first Christmas decorations displayed in July. Sure, we remember the smell of sugar cookies baking in grandma’s kitchen, but we also remember the year we got divorced, or received the unfavorable diagnosis, or the first year without a loved one. Regardless of the origin of your pain, the holidays can be both a difficult time and a joyful time. Pain and joy can coexist. As Pastor Dave reminded us, being a believer in Jesus Christ does not exempt us from the pain and suffering in this world, and the holidays are no exception. As an adult, I certainly have more compassion for the Grinch ☺
I’ve often heard it said that people from the Bible aren’t relatable anymore, especially in this modern, technology driven era. But Zechariah and Elizabeth aren’t that different from us. They were people with unanswered prayers, continuing to be faithful to God, despite their suffering. I can’t think of anything more relatable for us than someone struggling with an unanswered prayer. Even as you read this, you’re thinking of something you’ve prayed about, but God hasn’t answered yet. You’re someone living with an unanswered prayer. You’re relating to Zechariah and Elizabeth here in 2021.
Zechariah was a man of God, a priest, and he had an unanswered prayer. For decades, he and his wife had prayed for a child, and month after month, they were left disappointed, perhaps even doubting God’s goodness. Zechariah continued with his work as a priest, despite the pain he felt from being childless. Can you relate to his experience? We can all remember times when our faith has felt stagnant due to unanswered prayers. We wonder: does God even hear me? Does He care? Even though Zechariah was still a believer and a leader of the faith, doubt had crept into his spirit. We can hear the doubt by the way he answered the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:18). Can you understand where he’s coming from? Even though he was a believer, parts of him still doubted God. He looked at his circumstance – his age, his wife’s age, the decades of asking and pleading only to still be barren-and he doubted the sovereignty of God. When he focused on the circumstances, he was discouraged and he doubted. Unanswered prayers will do that; they will make us doubt how good and capable our God is. And nothing resurrects unanswered prayers like the holidays.
Elizabeth felt shameful because of her culture. Everyone with a pulse can relate to feeling shameful. Her heart’s desire was to be a mother, so she prayed about it, but nothing happened. As a result of her unanswered prayer, she felt shame and disconnected from those around her. Satan knows he cannot have our souls, so the best thing he can do is something I call the Four D’s -distract us, discourage us, disappoint us, and cause us to doubt. This holiday season, satan wants to distract us from hearing from God and remembering His goodness, he wants to discourage us from our faith, he wants to set us up with unrealistic expectations so we’re left disappointed by our current or past circumstances, and he will use fear and lies to spark doubt within us about the Word of God and His promises to us. Make no mistake about it, satan is trying to disable you in some way this holiday season. Will you let him?
- Pastor Dave reminded us of the importance of inventorying our blessings. So I’ll ask you to consider this: What do you have right now that you’ve prayed for?
- Ask God to help remind you of His goodness and blessings in your life and then set a timer for two minutes and write down all of the things that come to your mind. It may be difficult at first, remember satan is a distractor and a deceiver, but ask God to help you.
- Starter questions: What do you have right in this moment that is an answer to a prayer you prayed last week, last month, ten years ago, or as a child? What prayer did you wait a long time for? The spouse, the child, the job, the home, the health restored, the relationship restored, the hurt eased? What have you waited on God for, doubted Him about, but have right now?
- When we consider the way God communicates with His people in the Old Testament, especially when encouraging them, He will often repeat His miracles to them. Example: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt”, which is repeated numerous times throughout scripture. See also Joshua 24:2-13. As His people living in 2021, we can use this same miracle-repeating/answered prayer technique to help our minds remember the goodness of our God.
- As you consider your list, let those answered prayers, those blessings, be the evidence you need that God hears you. He heard that prayer, He answered it, and He will do it again. Whatever situation you’re facing this holiday season, pray about it continually, and know that just like Zechariah and Elizabeth, your prayer may not be answered on your timetable, but God hears it and He will answer you.
- The holidays are a time of mixed emotions for most of us. Remember that joy and suffering can coexist. We don’t need to fib about the pain we’re in and simultaneously, we don’t need to move out of town, up to a mountain, alone, and dwell in it (like the Grinch). Feeling joy amidst pain is one of the highest forms of worship. All throughout the Psalms, we read about King David crying out to God in anger and sadness and fear, and simultaneously documenting his praise (examples: Psalm 35, 102, 109). When we look at King David’s example, we can clearly see that we can have the joy of the birth of Jesus and still miss a loved one, grieve a relationship, be angry, or feel fearful and lonely.
- Just like it’s not honoring to God to dwell in your pain, it is also not honoring to God to lie about your true emotions, deny them, or avoid them. Instead of avoiding the pain, talk to God about it, follow King David’s example and express your true, genuine emotion to God. You can express it verbally or in a letter to Him-use all the fancy words, He can take it.
- Sometimes pain arises from unexpressed emotions and unhealed traumas. A major holiday like Christmas can be a massive trigger that unleashes a wave of seemingly uncontrollable emotions. This is called flooding, it’s when the brain is triggered by something (a trigger could literally be anything), and all of the sudden it feels like the negative event is happening all over again, and your brain becomes “flooded” by the past experience. Did you lose someone during the holidays? Get a scary diagnosis; lose a spouse and children in a divorce, deal with domestic violence as child? Just the sight of a Christmas tree can trigger your brain to go back to that dark space and suddenly it’s like it’s happening all over again and you’re behaving like the Grinch.
- When this happens to you, first remember that it’s a normal experience – you may feel crazy, but you are not crazy (well … most of you, *wink*). Then remember that this flooding experience is a signal (not a life sentence) to your conscience that you have unexpressed emotions and unhealed traumas. Do NOT fear, not only are you normal, but our God is the God who heals us (Exodus 15:26).
- When you notice a trigger like that, stop what you’re doing, pray about it immediately (internally or verbally) and ground yourself. The grounding technique is when we use our senses to reorient our brain to the present day. Ask yourself ‘what are 5 things I see with my eyes’, ‘what are 5 things I can touch with my hands’, ‘what are 3 things I can hear’, ‘what are 2 things I can smell’, and if you have anything minty/with a strong taste, pop it in your mouth to use your taste buds to continue to ground yourself in the present moment. Noticing your triggers is actually the sign of a healthy brain. Once you’re aware of it, ask God continually for help in dealing with it. Ask Him what you need to do to heal completely, and then do it.
- Finally, if you are facing a difficulty this holiday season, be it current or from the past, please don’t automatically assume it’s related to sin and thus feel the same shame and disconnect Elizabeth felt. Do your due diligence and pray about it, then seek wise counsel for blind spots. If no sin arises after prayer and seeking wise counsel, then remember the aging parents Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were called blameless, and yet still suffered with the unanswered prayer of infertility and the associated shame. Whatever trial you’re facing may not be related to sin, but to God’s timeline for your life, and the lives of others.
- One way you can help put your own pain in perspective this holiday season is by using the ‘zoom out’ technique, where you attempt to consider a situation with a bird’s eye view. If we just focus on Zechariah and Elizabeth’s immediate situation, we see their infertility and unanswered prayers. But if we zoom out of their situation, we see God at work with His timetable. John the Baptist was mentioned in the book of Isaiah and Malachi – roughly 700 years before his actual birth. God had a plan, and John the Baptist had to prepare the way for Jesus, and that meant being born a few months prior to Him. “God is never late, we are just impatient” (Lecrae/unknown). Elizabeth was older, yes, but nothing is impossible with God (Matthew 19:26).
- Use this same biblical logic to ‘zoom out’ and consider your own situation. Is there any chance your situation or season of life is being used by God in a way you can clearly see when you zoom out? Even if you can’t clearly see it now, think of all the times God showed you His plan not in the moment, but in hindsight. Perhaps you could ask a godly friend or mentor if they can see the hand of God moving in your life, even if you can’t. Pain blinds us, so shifting our perspective is one way to build trust in our God.
- The first thing Zechariah did when he could speak again was praise God (Luke 1:64). May we have the same response to God this holiday season, regardless of circumstances. The song we sang in church Sunday is called The Blessing. This praise song is taken right out of scripture; it’s called the Aaronic Benediction.
- Look at Numbers 6:24-26. When things get stressful this holiday season, be intentional about praying this prayer over yourself, your family, your friends, you workplace, and your future. We bless God by praying His Words back to Him, and we bless others and ourselves.
- This holiday season can be a hard one, but it can simultaneously be one filled with hope and healing, especially if we are intentional about involving God in our hearts, our minds, and our circumstances.