By Thomas Moll
Director of Content & Innovation
The kitchen was hot. Every burner on the stove was in use. Every rack in the oven and air fryer was occupied. I made a spreadsheet with cooking times and temperatures in order to ensure every side dish would get prepared in time for family dinner. My parents, three kids, and wife were all bustling to get everything just right for our meal. And then ... the power went out.
Holidays can be stressful. Nearly half of Americans think that the holidays are the “most stressful time of the year,” according to a Yelp survey of 2,000 Americans titled, “The Secret Cost of the Holiday.” This could be due to the fact that the average American plans to spend $972 on holiday-related costs, and most will overspend their budget. Combine this with the stress of travel or hosting family, and it’s easy to see how so many are feeling some level of stress during the holidays.
Back to the meal story, once the power came back on, that family dinner did come together. Unfortunately, holiday stress often lasts longer and can take away from the joy we could be experiencing with those around us.
There are many ironies to be found in the stress that comes from holiday planning and preparations.
We look forward to time spent with loved ones, but the work it takes to make these interactions possible can rob us of the pleasure of anticipation. And, though being present with family and friends has many health benefits, relationships with others can cause significant stress.
According to a research study in “Social Relationships and Health,” the weight of some relationships can “damage health through cumulative wear and tear on physiological systems, and (lead) people of all ages to engage in unhealthy behaviors (e.g., food consumption, heavy drinking, smoking) in an effort to cope with stress.
So, what do we do?
A Skewed Focus
I love photographing my kids’ sporting events. One challenge is to get the focus right on my child as they run around the soccer field. I look back through photos and find that I often have the focus on background spectators which leaves me with a blurry picture of who I cared to see.
For me, this is the travesty of holiday stress. We have this wonderful opportunity in the church year to focus on the birth of Christ and what it means that God “made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Yet, we end up focusing on the stuff in the background (much like my kids’ soccer photos), and it makes what’s most important fuzzy.
When we make it through the holidays, we can often end up exhausted and damaged instead of refreshed and renewed.
Instead of letting stress take us away from what’s most important this Christmas, let’s dig into the feelings that turn our heads away from God and His Word so that we can turn back to Him.
When We Have Too Much
Every day we have things to do— things to take care of, things we need to think about to function, and things we need to do to keep our lives in order. When those things become too much for us to handle, we can experience anxiety. In her book, “The Atlas of the Heart,” Brené Brown gives great definitions for what we feel when we have too much.
“Our anxiety often leads to one of two coping mechanisms: worry or avoidance. Unfortunately, neither of these coping strategies is very effective. Worry is described as a chain of negative thoughts about bad things that might happen in the future.
“What really got me about the ‘worry’ research is that those of us with a tendency to worry believe it is helpful for coping (it is not), believe it is uncontrollable (which means we don’t try to stop worrying), and try to suppress worry thoughts (which actually strengthens and reinforces worry),” as Brown explains.
Worry is dangerous because it can feel productive. But, when we look at what worry is actually doing to us, we see how ineffective it is in dealing with hard situations.
Avoidance can mean not showing up mentally or physically for what needs to be done. Avoidance makes it impossible to be present for what God is calling us to do.
We may avoid a feeling or responsibility because we think we can avoid the pain it will cause. Like many negative thoughts and feelings, we think they’re serving us while they’re actually making the situation worse. Avoidance may seem like a passive response, but it often hurts others and makes it harder to do what we are called to do as children of God.
Similar to worry, avoidance may feel productive. We can get a lot done while we’re avoiding the most important thing on our list.
When We Hurry and Scurry
Some of us love a long to-do list. You may revel in the feeling of crossing one thing off your list after another. I know some people who will even write something down immediately after doing the task, just so that they can just as quickly put a line through it.
Being productive is great. But it can be dangerous when our lives become one endless to-do list that leaves no time for rest or time in God’s Word.
Pastor and author, John Mark Comer, found himself on a path of the endless treadmill of hurry. This led him to leave his position as head pastor of a multi-site church and take some serious time for reflection on what led him to the point where something needed to change in his life and ministry.
In his book, “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry,” Comer describes what the culture of hurry does to us—"it’s robbing us of the ability to be present.”
In his book, Comer recommends these practices for us to combat hurry:
• Silence and Solitude
Can you think of anyone who can really knock these out of the park? Maybe one, but not all, right?
Yes, the Sunday school answer works just fine here. It’s Jesus! Jesus is the answer.
During Jesus’ ministry, He had endless opportunities to be rushing from one thing to another—healings here, preaching there, correcting His disciples’ crazy ideas all the time. Yet, Jesus kept the right things in focus. He knew what He had to do. He knew that He would be going to the cross.
He knew it wouldn’t be easy. He endured temptation, betrayal, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion, and He still made time to pray.
He broke bread with friends and family as well as with those who didn’t “know” Him. He read God’s Word while being the Word and fulfilling God’s promises. He went to synagogue. He prayed with others, for others, and by Himself.
One story that I return to often when I’m feeling stressed and over-burdened is Jesus’ ministry described in Matthew 14. At the beginning of the chapter, He’s rejected in Nazareth. He then sends out the apostles to do great things in His name. We then find out about John the Baptist being beheaded. This is a time Jesus could use some quiet for prayer and reflection. Yet, he recognizes, as the apostles return, that they need time for quiet and solitude. But just as the apostles find some alone time in a boat, a crowd shows up.
Does Jesus stop? Not yet. Jesus has compassion on the crowd. He teaches them, recognizing they are like “sheep without a shepherd.” Next is the miraculous feeding of the crowd with just five loaves of bread and two fish.
It would be easy to look at all of this and think that Jesus doesn’t need to take time for Himself. Yet, as evening comes, Jesus takes the time He needs. He sends the Twelve to go ahead in the boat while He goes up the mountain to pray.
We can rejoice that Jesus doesn't respond to stressful situations with avoidance. He stepped into painful situations to care for those who needed him most. He went to the cross for you! He also continues to invest in His relationship with you. He continues to be present in our lives, guiding and strengthening us with the Holy Spirit.
As we focus on our relationship with our loving God, we don’t become more burdened or distracted or anxious. Instead, we find that this relationship is not like the relationship we have to our to-do list. Our relationship with God is light. It frees us through the forgiveness we receive only through Jesus.
We have a very real God who chose to be present among us. Now, let us make every effort to be present in our relationship with Him. Let us delight in God and His Word. And then, we can be free to love others this holiday season, even when they get stressed.
What can I do right now to be more present?
Being present is hard! Distractions abound! During the holidays, our to-do lists expand, and our thoughts can spiral through all the things that could and should be done. Here are a few tips to help you be present and delight in the Christmas season and beyond to 2024:
Do Not Disturb
If you’re finding that your phone, tablet, or computer notifications are pulling you away from opportunities for solitude and prayer, activate the “Do Not Disturb” feature. On most devices, you can even set this for a specific amount of time so that you can try out not having a distraction for an hour while you take time for quiet or to be in God’s Word. Try this practice also whenever you’re in the presence of a friend or family member. Silence any devices that would pull you away from a possibly powerful conversation God could be leading you into.
Start with Gratitude
Instead of starting your day with the news or a to-do list, try writing down three things you’re grateful for. This could be something as simple as the joy a house-plant brings or the snow falling to the ground outside. This practice has many health benefits, but even better, you’ll be starting out the day talking to God and reflecting on the good things in your life.
When it comes to anxiety and stress, breathing calms and prayer stabilizes. Try both at the same time. Find a Psalm like Psalm 121 (NIV). Pick a verse, like verse 7. While you inhale, speak the first line in your mind, “The LORD will keep you from all harm;” Then, while you exhale, speak the next line in your mind, “he will watch over your life.” The breathing will help to calm any nerves and will bring focus on God’s Word.
Matthew 14:13-21 (ESV)
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.