8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well…James 2:8 (ESV)
Christmas makes people do funny things- things that, at any time of the year, would seem somewhat outlandish. Consider these unique holiday phenomena…
– Christmas caroling. No one shows up at anyone else’s home singing merry songs in late April or early September- and leaves without a phone call being made to the authorities. But in December, no one thinks twice about a small crowd of strangers singing “Deck The Halls” on the doorstep.
– Christmas cards. “Hey, here’s an idea- Let’s pay to have professional pictures of our family taken, then mail them to everyone we know,” said no one ever in the middle of summer. But at Christmas, we get dressed in our best, threaten our kids’ lives, and do just that- sometimes even with an accompanying “family newsletter”!
– Ugly sweater parties. A friend of mine recently asked where on earth this tradition came from, and I honestly have no idea. But the things people will wear proudly in public this time of year…well, let’s just say it’s a good thing that Christmas spirit doesn’t extend beyond the new year. Unless, of course, you can wear your normal clothing and fit right in at such gatherings!
While all of these holiday traditions are fun, there is another that I want us to consider for a moment- the phenomenon of Christmas giving, of finding ways to practice generosity toward those in need during the holiday season. Let me first say that I think it is a great thing that there are so many opportunities to help those who are less fortunate during this time of year- and I think it is awesome that so many people seize these opportunities and participate in meeting the needs of the poor. If the alternative is focusing and spending exclusively on ourselves, I think we can all agree we will miss a prime opportunity to love others well.
That said, I want us to be cautious about how we think about such opportunities, because I think if we aren’t mindful, we can easily succumb to a pitfall commonly associated with serving those in physical need. Poverty can too often become a sentimental project about us rather than a genuine ministry before God and to others. Especially at Christmastime, when cultural consumerism is so prevalent and the guilt of overspending lurks in the outer reaches of our hearts and minds, we can tend to use poverty relief efforts- in whatever form they take, as there are many– as a way to take the edge off of that guilt and help us to feel better about ourselves. In this way, loving and serving the poor becomes little more than a “holiday project” along the lines of Christmas caroling, Christmas cards, and the like.
The reason I want us to examine ourselves on this today is because I have too often seen this tendency in myself. I find myself in a season of focusing on me, me, me– and suddenly I feel the twinge of guilt (or more accurately, Holy Spirit conviction) that inevitably comes with it. So I panic, and I begin searching for a way to make that pesky feeling go away. This search often leads me to flip open one of the four or five Christmas giving catalogs I receive every year from various relief organizations, wherein I can find a way to send a gift around the world to someone in need, pat myself on the back for my generosity, and go on about my self-absorbed business.
Now is the action I’ve taken here bad? Not at all. It still helped to meet a legitimate need. But I’m pretty confident that God is just as concerned about why I do what I do as He is in just what I do. Motives matter deeply. And if our motive for helping the poor is so we can simply “check a box” saying we did, then I think we’ve missed God’s heart toward those who are in need all around us. God doesn’t want us to relegate the poor to a project, but instead to see them and love them as people- according to His Word, as ourselves.
In James 2:5, the little brother of Jesus declares to us, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingdom, which He has promised to those who love Him?” All throughout the Scriptures, it is clear that the poor hold a special place in the heart of God. As those who are called by the name of Jesus, we ought to increasingly reflect this heart and demonstrate love as God has toward us. And in case you didn’t know, God doesn’t love any one of us as a distant, impersonal project, but instead loves each of us in a deeply personal, relational way. This is how we ought to seek to love and serve the poor as well- through genuine, up close and personal relationship. This doesn’t mean we should throw out other ways to help- not at all! It simply means that we shouldn’t be satisfied with “checking a box” and moving on with our lives for the rest of the holidays- and the rest of the year.
Consider these questions this Christmas (and beyond)- How can I make loving and serving the poor a part of the everyday rhythm of my life? How can I build genuine relationships with those who come from a different background than me, learning their stories and impacting those stories in a deep and ongoing way? I know I’m wrestling with these questions myself right now, and it is my hope and prayer that you will too. I’m praying that as we open ourselves up to God and people in a fresh way, we will grow more and more to reflect God’s heart in the way we love, serve, and give. Merry Christmas!