Tangible Acts of Christmas

A Missing Ingredient in Evangelism

I’ve been ruminating on a text of Scripture that has me rethinking how I’ve typically sought to share the gospel with others at Christmastime.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6–8)

This is the phrase that has stuck in my mind: “God shows his love for us.” And the word in that phrase that has particularly gripped me is shows. God shows his love for us.

When it comes to love, it’s a matter of show and tell (and often in that order). We know love when we both see it and hear it. Words are an essential dimension of how we show our love, but it’s our actions that prove the truth of our words. Love, like wisdom, “is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19). Love, like faith, “if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

And that’s what has me rethinking my approach to Christmas evangelism. I wonder if I have sought to love others with too much talk and not enough deeds.

By This We Know Love

You might recognize in my words the echo of another passage:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16–18)

There it is again. We know God’s love for us by the way Jesus generously showed love toward us. And the way Jesus showed his love for us provides a profound model for how we as Christians are to show our love for one another.

We know from Jesus’s holistic example, however, that we’re not merely to show love to other Christians. For we are to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). And Jesus tells us that even our loving deeds toward other Christians speak to unbelievers: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” — love they can see (John 13:35).

Haunted by Christmas Past

Now, the reason I’m pondering all this in the context of Christmas is because it’s an annual moment when our culture’s collective attention is drawn in some way toward Jesus. In the increasingly post-Christian West, people have the general notion that at the heart of Christmas is love. They have this notion because it’s an echo of the ancient story that still reverberates through Western civilization:

When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4–5)

Even though many misunderstand or ignore or reject this echo, it often still leaves them with a sense that Christmas is about redeeming love.

We can hear strains of the echo in many of our culture’s favorite Christmas-themed stories, from A Christmas Carol to How the Grinch Stole Christmas, where deeply selfish souls experience some kind of redemption after an encounter with transcendent love — often, like Scrooge, merciful love. They are shown love. And as a result of this encounter, they are transformed into loving souls who discover a far greater joy than they’ve ever known in counting others more significant than themselves. These stories are haunted by the ghost of that ancient Christmas past, when “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).

Show the Love

Putting this all together, it’s hitting me in a fresh way that Christmas is a particularly poignant time to show the love of Christ to those outside the household of faith.

So, what might that mean exactly? Well, at the time I’m writing this, which is just after Halloween, I’m not sure exactly. Because rather than planning a program, I’m planning to keep my eyes open and as the Lord’s leads, to follow the needs. Christian love, as John Piper says, “is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others” (Desiring God, 119). Often, we can’t foresee what people will need, but we can plan to reserve some time and money so that if needs arise, there are practical channels through which our love can flow to meet them. And experience has taught me that, if I’m paying attention, rarely is there a lack of needs to meet.

Over the years, I have participated in, coordinated, and led countless Christmas events — worship services, musicals, parties, neighborhood and family gatherings — intentionally designed to present the message of the gospel to nonbelievers. And I don’t regret having told them about the love of God in Christ. It is a way to show them God’s love. But I do feel some regret that I haven’t given more time and energy to showing more people the love of God in Christ through tangible, personal deeds. And so I’m seeking to change that — to demonstrate the truth of my words with actions of love by intentionally and prayerfully looking for ways to show the love “in deed and in truth” this year.