A few years ago, I read a Christianity Today article titled “Go Overboard Celebrating Christmas.” A provocative title, especially given the Evangelical tendency to decry materialism and consumerism this time of year. Of course, those warnings are important to heed, but sometimes warnings and alarm and outrage are the entirety of our message to the world. So the author’s perspective was a breath of fresh air:
Celebrate the stuff. Use fudge and eggnog and wine and roast beef. Use presents and wrapping paper. Embedded in many of the common complaints you hear about the holidays (consumerism, shopping, gluttony, etc.) are false assumptions about the point of the celebration. You do not prepare for a real celebration of the Incarnation through thirty days of Advent Gnosticism.
Celebrate the stuff?! I could imagine such a message rubbing Evangelicals the wrong way. As if an exhortation to embrace celebration and gifts and food is inherently selfish and therefore wrong. If that’s your first impulse when you hear this, let me suggest a helpful distinction to free you up a bit from what I think is a distorted view. We must distinguish between selfishness and appropriate self-interest. This distinction is vital to grasp. Self-interest is not wrong. Do you desire food and shelter? Do you wish to take care of your loved ones? I hope so. Are these just greedy, selfish desires? Of course not. Indeed, appropriate self-interest is assumed by Jesus. How does He tell us we ought to love others? As we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39).
I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis's explanation in his essay “The Weight of Glory”:
If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive…. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.
Does self-interest have limits? Of course. When appropriate self-interest is abandoned and we move into selfishness, we have crossed the line into sin. Paul tells us, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests [appropriate self-interest], but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). But selfishness must be dealt with within the individual’s heart and not merely pawned off on the “stuff”:
At the same time, remembering your Puritan fathers, you must hate the sin while loving the stuff. Sin [is] not resident in the stuff. Sin is found in the human heart—in the hearts of both true gluttons and true scrooges—both those who drink much wine and those who drink much prune juice. If you are called up to the front of the class, and you get the problem all wrong, it would be bad form to blame the blackboard. That is just where you registered your error. In the same way, we register our sin on the stuff. But—because Jesus was born in this material world, that is where we register our piety as well. If your godliness won't imprint on fudge, then it is not true godliness.
So in your holiday celebrations, go overboard. Did not God go overboard for us?
Some may be disturbed by this. It seems a little out of control, as though I am urging you to “go overboard.” But of course I am urging you to go overboard. Think about it—when this world was “in sin and error pining,” did God give us a teaspoon of grace to make our dungeon a tad more pleasant? No. He went overboard.