By David Hegg
If nominations were taken to determine the primary underlying ethos of modern America, some might rightly suggest consumerism. We are a people who often equate well-being with buying something, even if we don’t need it. And if so, then we are about to enter that season when our collective purchasing passion is most on display.
Think about it. Do you ever go shopping in order to feel better? Does bringing a new “something” home make you feel happy? I know the feeling. But I also know that it is very short-lived. And you can chalk that up to the paradoxical nature of joy.
Life, as it really is, most often comes wrapped in paradox. Its basic elements are often counter-intuitive. Jesus was famous for his paradoxical statements: If you would be first, you must be last. He who would lead must be servant of all. To find your life you first must lose it. If you think about it, all these have been proven true, and you’ll find fancy explanations of them in most modern books on leadership and management. The best leaders are those that care for — and serve — their people.
One of the greatest paradoxes is the fact that personal joy and a feeling of satisfaction are seldom the result of self-directed action. That is, if you focus on yourself, you’ll seldom feel satisfied. And if you do, it will be neither deep nor lasting. In fact, self-focused people are usually the least joyful. The more they peer inward, the more they find to fuel their discouragement with themselves and their world. You know people like this. They just can’t seem to live beyond themselves, and the more they try to buoy their lives with new stuff and the latest self-improvement strategies, the worse it seems to get. Ultimately, their only hope is to recognize that joy is a by-product of “others-centered” living. Joy is the bounce-back of love and compassion directed at those who share this world with us.
Ask any parent and you’ll hear the same story. As the kids grow up, Christmas takes on a whole new dress. No longer is it really about what we get. The real joy is watching the faces of our children as they grow in their anticipation and enjoyment of the little traditions and treats of Christmas. That rocky road fudge, or the peppermint bark; the picking out and dressing of the Christmas tree, or whatever things you do in your home to bring the smiles and squeals of the season. And the culmination usually happens on Christmas morning. Every parent who takes the raising of children seriously will agree: We are much more excited about what we have bought and wrapped for our kids than we are about what lies under the tree for us. It is in the giving that we receive the most. Our joy is the bounce-back of the loving focus we’ve put on making the season the best it can be for our kids.
And I would suggest that the joy of Christmas is all the more full as we broaden the sphere of our giving. This year make it a point to be generous to as many as you can. Support a local charity or participate more fully in the Christmas offerings or projects at your church or civic organization. Bake cookies with your kids and take them to the neighbors. Organize a foray to a local care facility and bring flowers, goodies and music to the folks whose lives have become so narrowed by disease and physical brokenness. Find the joy that bounces back to you from love that is directed away from self and onto those whose lives can be enriched with so little effort.
It is no wonder that joy — real satisfying lasting joy — at Christmas comes in the largest packages when we first consider the welfare of others. This is exactly what was behind the first Christmas. The God of all creation, looking down at a world broken by evil, certainly could have turned his heart away and left us to ourselves. But he didn’t. Instead, he entered our world, dressed in flesh as a baby, in order to live among us, and die for us, that we might have the joy of eternal life. His love reached out, and you and I will only find joy this season as we follow his example.
This year, try living beyond yourself, and then see what bounces back.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.