I’ll never forget the first time I read this question posed by John Piper: “Would you be happy in heaven if God were not there?”
I found that to be an uncomfortable amount of conviction jam-packed into 11 words.
Think of everything you anticipate about heaven: freedom from sickness and pain, reunion with loved ones, mansions with lavish furnishings, unlimited golf. It’s all wonderful stuff, right? But where does God himself rank among those things? Piper goes on to explain it this way in his book God Is the Gospel:
Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It’s a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don’t want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel.
Recently I was reminded of Piper’s question as I reflected on the holidays. I was pondering the things I cherish about this season, and I found myself asking this slightly altered version of what Piper had asked: “Would I be happy during Christmas if Jesus had not been born?”
Equally convicting. (But this time, 12 words.)
I love the traditions of Christmas. I love the lights and the music and the family gatherings and the gifts and the general sense of charm. But what if I could hold on to all of that magical holiday wonder, while only giving up that one little thing called the incarnation? What if all my days could be merry and bright and all my Christmases could be white, just without any Jesus in any of them?
I know the theologically correct answer to this question. I should shout “No!” at the top of my lungs and point emphatically at my “Jesus is the reason for the season” bumper sticker. But I know my heart too well. And I fear that I’d actually be pretty content enjoying all the trappings of Christmas even if it meant not having a baby in the manger.
The problem is that we sinners have a constant tendency to take those things that are meant to point us toward God, and instead we turn them into our god. Unfortunately, that tendency doesn’t disappear at Christmas. Even the most Christ-centered tradition can eventually morph into an empty idol if we’re not careful. And before we know it, we may find that Jesus could disappear from our celebrations altogether, and we’d never even notice.
This Christmas, my goal is that when January 1 rolls around, I’ll not be able to say, “None of that would have been any different had Jesus been removed from the equation.” This doesn’t mean that I need to go home and tear down my Christmas tree or rip the lights off my front porch. It doesn’t mean that I need to boycott the department stores or take back my gifts. It simply means that whatever I do, I need to do it intentionally and worshipfully.
G.K. Chesterton notes, “The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why.” This is indeed true. But those of us who know Jesus should have already woken up. We should already know why. The key is not to forget it.
Merry Christmas, everyone!