Three steps toward your best holiday ever
Charles Dickens first published his Christmas masterpiece “A Christmas Carol” on December 19, 1843. Since then it has become one of the most enduring holiday stories. As you know, three “Spirits” visit Ebenezer Scrooge – the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Future – all pointing out the error of Ebenezer’s miserly ways. While I do not subscribe to the notion that “Spirits” visit us in order to point us toward the truth and a better life, I do believe that for some of us, the memories we have of holidays past is scarier than the “Spirits” that visited Ebenezer Scrooge.
This holiday season, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, approximately 57% of all U. S. families will climb aboard planes, trains and automobiles to visit “Grandma’s House.” Gathering with family members for Thanksgiving and Christmas can be fun, creating happy memories that we carry with us for a lifetime. It can also be damaging, leaving us with deep emotional scars. The good news is that the Bible gives us three simple steps that will not only shield our hearts from further hurt, but also has the ability to free us from the chains of Christmases past.
STEP ONE: FORGIVE PAST SINS
Have you been emotionally hurt by someone close to you? Maybe it was your father or your mother, an aunt or uncle, a brother or sister. Why does it seem that those closest to us are the ones who hurt us the most? There are two reasons.
First, those closest to us have the greatest number of opportunities to hurt us because we interact with them more than we do with casual acquaintances. Second, those closest to us are people we care about and love. What they say has emotional weight. We value their acceptance and fear their rejection. If we did not care about them, then it would not matter what they say. If a stranger says something hurtful, it may bother you for a while, but you are not likely to hold on to that hurt. You might share the experience with a friend and talk about it after it occurs, but you are not likely to remember it in the future. However, if that person is someone you know well or someone you interact with on a regular basis, then the outcome can be quite different.
During the holidays, we most often gather with people who fall into the second group; they are those people whose acceptance we value and whose rejection we fear. They are not strangers. They are family. When we receive criticism or suffer emotional abuse from family members, if not dealt with properly, it will cripple us emotionally and negatively influence every area of our lives.
In the Dickens’ novel, Scrooge gets a visit from his former business partner Jacob Marley, who carries heavy chains around his neck as a punishment for all the misdeeds of his selfish life. Again, while I do not support the notion that evil spirits visit us to direct us to truth, the visual image of Marley is exactly what I believe happens to people who have been emotionally hurt by loved ones. Their comments and actions become heavy chains that we carry forward in life. Each new “event” adds a new chain until the cumulative burden becomes more than we can bear. We moan and complain under the weight of the emotional hurt we carry. It cripples us and prevents us from repairing those relationships and experiencing healthier new ones.
There is good news for those suffering under the chains of past hurts. You are in control of your own destiny. That is right! You have a God-given ability to shed those chains and walk free form the past. The key to unlocking those chains is the force of forgiveness.
Look at what Jesus said to us concerning forgiveness.
“But when you understand and accept other persons’ failures, it is not nearly so difficult for you to believe that your Father understands and accepts you. If you cannot understand and accept other persons’ failures, how can you believe that your Father will understand and accept you?” Matthew 6:14-15 Ben Campbell Johnson Paraphrase Within each human being is the desire to receive God’s acceptance. Even the most hardened person melts emotionally when he connects with God. It is liberating to understand that God accepts you just as you are. Through Jesus Christ, He has provided a means for you to enjoy a healthy relationship with your Creator. As a result, you are free to improve your life, even though it may be checkered by failure, because you have confidence that God accepts you just as you are.
Sadly, some Christians have not gained this revelation. They remain chained to the past, burdened with hurtful experiences and feelings of regret. They constantly seek God’s forgiveness, never realizing that He has already forgiven them. Their lack of self-forgiveness prevents them from forgiving and loving others, and their inability to love others prevents them from connecting with God. The truth that frees them from this vicious cycle is learning self-forgiveness.
Jesus commanded us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you do not love yourself, you cannot love your neighbor. Therefore, the first step to “walking in forgiveness” is self-love. When you forgive yourself, you are free to love the unique person God made you to be. When you are confident in God’s love and learn to love yourself, it frees you to be more understanding of the shortcomings and failures of others, which is the second step in forgiveness. The actions of others, even though they can be hurtful, filter through the eyes of your own forgiveness. Because God has forgiven you, you are able to forgive them.
One of the truly great aspects of forgiveness is that it gives back to you. When you are not forgiving, it emotionally connects you to the incident and to the person who has hurt you, enslaving you to that hurt. When you forgive that person, even if the person never forgives you, you break free of the pain. The hurtful chains of the past fall away. Before you gather with family for the holidays, search your heart to identify the people you need to forgive. Bring that list of people before God, thanking Him for your own forgiveness. Then, ask God to help you know those you need to forgive. Decide now, as an act of faith and love, to forgive each of them. Determine ahead of time to “walk out that forgiveness” during each personal encounter. As you do, you will sense God’s love growing in your heart. As you act in faith, God will meet you there with peace that passes all understanding. Your heavy chains of hurt will fall away, leaving you free to enjoy future holidays.
STEP TWO: SPEAK THE TRUTH IN LOVE
“Then we shall no longer be children, carried by the waves and blown about by every shifting wind of the teaching of deceitful men, who lead others into error by the tricks they invent. Instead, by speaking the truth in a spirit of love, we must grow up in every way to Christ, who is the head.” Ephesians 4:14-15 TEV
People who have experienced emotional pain tend to set themselves up for further hurt. For example, if a false statement is made, they may not question it, but accept it as fact; they may personalize criticism, falsely thinking they deserve it; or they may verbally reply with hurtful statements of their own, compounding the problem by turning every comment into an argument. God does not expect us to be doormats, constantly allowing insensitive people to step on us. Nor does He want us to believe the lies that come out of the mouths of the very people who are important to us. Likewise, God does not want us to argue our way out of verbal attacks. You have a right to respond to what others say about you, but you are under a Biblical mandate to speak the truth in love.
Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft word turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs it up.” The key to speaking the truth in love is a “soft word.” The Hebrew word used for “soft” is translated as “tender.” Webster’s Dictionary defines tender as “having a soft or yielding texture.” When someone speaks a harsh, hurtful word, do not ignore it; do not automatically receive it as true; and do not shoot back a harsh reply of your own. Instead, yield to this person. Softly ask them to explain what they mean. Ask for examples of their accusations. If there is truth in what they said, then simply smile and say, “Thank you for correcting me.” If there is no truth in what was said, and you ask for an example to support the accusation, most people will back down. In either situation, your soft word brings the same result: peace.
STEP THREE: ESTABLISH PREDETERMINED RELATIONSHIP BOUNDARIES
Even when we are skilled at building Godly relationships, there are no guarantees that all of our relationships will be smooth and healthy, because not everyone plays by the same set of relationship rules. When you encounter a relationship that causes you pain, it is time to establish a boundary.
In their best-selling book, Boundaries, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend outline the importance of setting boundaries in relationships.
“Having clear boundaries is essential to a healthy, balanced lifestyle. A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible. In other words, boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Boundaries impact all areas of our lives: Physical boundaries help us determine who may touch us and under what circumstances. Mental boundaries give us the freedom to have our own thoughts and opinions. Emotional boundaries help us to deal with our own emotions and disengage from the harmful, manipulative emotions of others. Spiritual boundaries help us distinguish God’s will from our own and give us renewed awe for our Creator. Often, Christians focus so much on being loving and unselfish that they forget their own limits and limitations.” Boundaries, © 1992 by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Zondervan Publishing House No matter how gifted you may be at relationship building, there will always be people with whom you fail to connect. When you have done all that you can do to make a relationship work, and it still is not working, what should you do? The answer is to set very specific boundaries around what you will and will not accept from that person. Do not allow anyone, even a loved one, to cross into the personal borders of your life and trample down the emotional garden you have planted there. You get to decide who gets access to your life, and you get to decide the ground rules for that access.
If you have a relative that continually says hurtful things to you every time the family gathers for a holiday, then establish a boundary around that relationship. How do you do that? First, learn to live at peace with all men. Romans 12:18 tells us, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” You have a choice in every relationship. You can choose to pursue peace or pursue another path, but the other path leads to pain. The path of peace starts by examining your own behavior. If you are always defending yourself to loved ones, you always want to win, or you fight to get in the last word in every conversation, then you are not pursuing peace. You are pursuing a path that leads to difficult relationships. You reap what you sow!
Now that you have your own behavior in check, when you encounter a difficult person, do not hold a grudge against him or talk negatively about him to everyone else. Try to identify the behavior that is causing problems for you. Be specific. Determine what behavior you think would make the relationship work for you, and try to communicate that to the offender. Ask him or her to describe the behavior needed from you in order to make the relationship work. Establish joint guidelines that make for a healthy relationship.
If the other person is not willing to participate in this type of conversation, then determine to follow the advice of the Apostle Paul in his writing to the church at Thessalonica.
“We urge you, our brothers, to warn the idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one pays back wrong for wrong, but at all times make it your aim to do good to one another and to all people. Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances. This is what God wants from you in your life in union with Christ Jesus. Do not restrain the Holy Spirit; do not despise inspired messages. Put all things to the test: keep what is good and avoid every kind of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:14-22 TEV
If a loved one refuses to change, and persists with hurtful behavior, even after you have tried to pursue the path of peace, then put that relationship to the test: keep what is good and avoid what is evil. Be patient, never seeking to repay bad behavior with your own. If the person says or does hurtful things, calmly explain that you are hurt, and ask him or her to stop. Stay in an attitude of joy, pray your way through each encounter and be thankful that God is with you in all circumstances. If the person refuses to listen and refuses to change, then it is Biblical to avoid what is evil by separating yourself from that person. Move away from the situation. Focus your attention on others. God wants you to protect your heart from hurtful people by pursuing peace in all situations.