How to Love Hard People at Christmas

The annual run-up to Christmas crashes with waves of “joy” at every turn. Society balks at giving God credit for such joy, but has few qualms sending out generic positive vibes and wishes.

Christians too celebrate joy at Christmas, but with a world of difference from the world. Our joy comes as part and parcel of a distinctly Christian way of seeing everything — revealed by the God who is, and who made us, and who designed our rescue. We sing “Joy to the World,” and open to the Christmas story, where Luke mentions joy and rejoicing seven times in just two chapters. Matthew tells of magi who “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10).

Joy, yes — but what are we to make of love at Christmas? What place does love for others have amidst all our emphasis on “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10)? The busyness of the season (and the inevitable proximity to extended family) can make Christmas one of the most relationally challenging times of the year. How does Christmas joy in Jesus relate to the challenge of love for others, especially for those who are hard to love?

As we head into the relational trials and opportunities of the season, I’m reminding myself of three important texts for how real Christmas joy produces, rather than compromises, love for others.

Look to the Interests of Others

The first Christmas began in the heart of God, or we might say in “the mind of Christ.” “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus . . .” (Philippians 2:5). Here in Philippians 2, we have the story of the incarnation, in sum, from heaven to earth: “[Being] in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6–7).

What mindset and heart gave rise to that first Christmas? Not the impulse to cling to his rights and privileges as God, but to inconvenience himself and sacrifice comfort as man. Instead of grasping for privilege, he emptied himself of his rights. And how does the apostle Paul get to this “mind” or “disposition” about Christ? From a charge deeply appropriate at Christmas:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4)

Look to the interests of others. The call of love begins here, when we get outside our own needs and preferences, looking beyond ourselves, to see and move toward the interest of others. How might it transform our Christmas giving and gatherings to genuinely “look . . . to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4), rather than be bent on recreating the perfect Christmas experiences and feelings from our memories of the past?

A reminder we need at Christmas as much as any time of the year is that love “does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5). Christmas joy enables us to get beyond our instinctive fixation with our own interests and look to the interests of others.

Gladly Spend and Be Spent

Having been freed from the prison of self to see the interests of others, what do we do? How do we go about meeting others’ needs? Paul’s insight into “love” in 2 Corinthians 12:15 is powerful, and particularly so at Christmas.

I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less?

Paul is pressed into making a case for his love for the Corinthians, because his fatherly care for them hasn’t always felt loving to them. The latter part of the verse shows that the issue is indeed love: “If I love you more, am I to be loved less?” How does Paul defend his love for the Corinthians? “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.”

Not only has he looked beyond his own interests to theirs, but now he will spend and be spent for them. He will embrace costly and inconvenient personal losses, for the sake of their gain. In other words, he will give what is his — time, energy, attention, possessions, money, comfort, peace of mind — in order to benefit them. And he does not do it begrudgingly or dutifully, but gladly. He remembers the words of Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Here is Christmas love in the offing: looking to the interests of others and gladly spending and being spent for them. But one further step remains.

Remember the Great Possession

How does loving others when it’s challenging work spiritually and psychologically? In our sin, we so easily default to selfishness and self-focus and self-interest rather than looking to the interests of others. One last text gets at that spiritual dynamic in a way that is especially poignant to the challenges and opportunities of Christmas.

Hebrews 10:32–34 recalls a time when some in the early church were put in prison for their faith, and others, instead of going into hiding, went public to visit them in prison (the call of love). In doing so, they exposed themselves to the same persecution. Their possessions were plundered by official decree or mob violence. How did they receive it?

Hebrews reminds them, “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property . . .” (Hebrews 10:34). Not only did they accept it, but they did so with joy. But how? Where did this come from, to joyfully receive such persecution, welcome personal loss, look to others’ interests, and gladly spend and be spent?

You knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. (Hebrews 10:34)

The word for “property” is the same word, in the plural (hyparxontōn), as the word for “possession” (hyparxin). So, literally, “you joyfully accepted the plundering of your possessions (plural) because you knew you had a better and abiding possession (singular).”

Because these Christians had God as their heavenly treasure, they were able to accept the loss of their earthly treasures in the calling of love. And not just accept, but joyfully accept. They joyfully accepted the loss of their finite, earthly, limited plural possessions because they knew they had the infinite, heavenly, all-satisfying, singular Possession, whose name is Jesus Christ, the true gift of Christmas.

If such joy in their great Possession could strengthen them to endure all that they suffered and lost, how much more might it inspire genuine love and generosity in us at Christmas? Not just of our money and material possessions as gifts, but also of our more treasured possessions — our time, energy, comfort, convenience, and attention.

They Remembered

The knowing (“you knew”) will make the difference when it comes to the call of love — not just having the great Possession who is God himself, but knowing and remembering that we have him, and preaching him to ourselves. “You knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34).

Such knowing makes possible in us the true joy of Christmas, which is not selfish but self-sacrificial. It is “sacrificial joy.” When we enjoy God and his Son as our great Possession, we finally are set free to surrender our small, private enjoyments (called sacrifice) for the greater enjoyment of meeting the needs of others and pointing them to our Treasure (called love).

The Christmas announcement of “great joy” in Jesus has everything to do with our love for others. The call to look to the interests of others, to gladly spend and be spent, and to remember our better and abiding Possession is not a call to die to true Christmas joy, but to truly taste the depths of delight God himself came to bring.