The New True Meaning of Christmas

[This isn’t really a post about philosophy, but since its the Christmas period I feel obliged to write something related. What I plan to do here is to analyse our culture’s worldview by looking at my favourite non-Christian Christmas song (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’). Unfortunately, my training in philosophy compels me to write a short summary in the introduction to the biblical framework of idolatry that I use for completeness sake — its largely just the understanding of idolatry from the reformed tradition. I have been much helped in my understanding of this by reading “For Their Rock is not as Our Rock” by Daniel Strange. (Which is really an update and summary of the thoughts of many earlier thinkers.)]

Christmas is a time of celebration, and as a Christian what I celebrate is the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into our broken world to identify with sinners and ultimately to die for their sin. But everyone celebrates during Christmas, and clearly not everyone is a Christian, so it begs the question: what exactly are they celebrating? Some Christians may immediately shoot back: “Materialism!” (i.e. the insatiable consumption of goods. Not to be confused with the metaphysical hypothesis of the same name.) Perhaps some really do see Christmas as an opportunity to satisfy their endless desire for consumer products, but when we see other non-Christians decrying the same materialistic strain during Christmas, we know that this cannot be the root of their celebration.

Man and Worship

The bible’s thesis about humans is that we are all worshippers — all of us have been made to know and to worship God and it is as we come to him that we find our deepest longings and needs met, when men reject God they do not cease to worship but the bible says that they begin to deify and idolise something in creation. Men “claiming to be wise, [have] became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:22-23) Idolatry is not confined simply to physical idols made of wood or stone — idols are whatever our hearts, the core of our beings, find rest, comfort, identity and indeed salvation in; they are whatever we long for and sacrifice and worship.

These idols are counterfeit gods — that they are counterfeit means two things: (1) they reveal something about the sinful hearts of men who created them (2) they reveal something about the God of which they are a counterfeit. To understand what one worships points us to the sin of man, but because we are made for God, even the idols we make resemble God as a cheap imitation. Christopher Wright thus notes:

“The fallen duplicity of man is that he simultaneously seeks after God his Maker and flees from God his Judge. Man’s religions, therefore, simultaneously manifest both these human tendencies.”

A New Christmas Liturgy

What we find in the modern celebration of Christmas is an almost literal exchange of the worship of God for the worship of other things. The best way to understand the new worship is to look at our new liturgy, one manifestation of which is the secular Christmas songs that are heard alongside the old hymns in shopping malls. Some songs are of course, utterly frivolous — ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’ don’t really reveal any of the deep longings of humanity. Others, however, do reflect some kind of deep longing, such as ‘White Christmas’ and ’Last Christmas’. The song we will look at is ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. I confess this is partly because its my favourite non-Christian Christmas song — the tune is excellent and the lyrics are utterly poignant. But more importantly I do believe the song reflects something of the heart of modern Christmas. For those who don’t know the song or do not recognise the title:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
Next year all
Our troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
Next year all
Our troubles will be miles away.

Once again as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us once more.

Someday soon, we all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

(These lyrics are from the original song sung in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”)

‘Once Again as in Olden Days’

The first two stanzas hint that we look to the Christmas holiday as an opportunity to rest, to escape from the myriad “troubles” that we face. The world is broken and messy — we are bogged down and exhausted by turmoil at work and relationships and there is the expectation that we will find rest at some place. I think many of us expect this rest to come during Christmas. Even secular people who bemoan the consumeristic materialism of our age and during Christmas as well seek rest from the spiritual exhaustion of chasing after the next flashy consumer product. But what exactly is the rest that we look forward too?

The heart of the song, I believe, lies in the third and fourth stanzas — here we see what we worship, what we long for during Christmas. There are two interconnected elements (1) a sense of nostalgia and (2) the warmth of family and friends. When we come to Christmas, we are overcome with nostalgia for the innocent times of our childhood, perhaps memories of when as children we looked forward to Christmas as the time when there would be parties with our families and all seemed rosy. If we never experienced this in our childhood, Christmas sells us the idea that we can recreate that experience which we never had. Consider the first line of another song, ‘White Christmas’: “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”.

There is something sublime that we look for during Christmas, something intimate and precious. We think that we will have it by revisiting the olden days, by gathering our dear friends and family back again. It is to these that we have turned to seek and find our rest. Yet anyone who has been to any Christmas party since their adolescence knows that the hope of recreating what we thought we experienced is a lie — we are made to long for it, but it never finds its fulfilment as we attempt to recreate our past or gather our loved ones.

C.S. Lewis gives an insightful analysis of this longing:

“Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

The last thing we see in the song is the bleakness of the secular worldview. The possibility of reunion is left to blind fate and until the next Christmas, we drag ourselves through the year. Some versions of the song have edited and changed the line “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” and replaced it with the utterly facile “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”. The original better reflects the sentiment of Christmas — it is the time we huddle as we peer over the dark precipice of the coming year of bustling emptiness. The final instruction is deeply poignant: “So”, in light of the muddle of our world, “have yourself a merry little Christmas now”. We must create and seek these precious moments now, before they are taken forever by the dead fates.

That Little Town of Bethlehem

No, this hopelessness cannot have the last word. The Israelites of old held in their hearts the promise of a day when those who walk in darkness will see a great light (Isaiah 9:2) but indeed this is the longing of all our hearts. We all long to cast off this sense of emptiness and dread and guilt that we feel and to be reconciled to something. Christmas reignites these longings, but we have been looking for this reconciliation in recreating our childhood, by being surrounded by our loved ones — soon we are alone again and the cave is even darker now that the small candle has gone out.

But the image of that town, that manger, draws me in again. The theological paradox which is the incarnation, God become Man, becomes strangely warm. In the still of that night, Christ was born. He was born into a life of labour and loneliness, ultimately dying forsaken — he would become one that men would shun and reject and spit on. But he holds a strange attraction to all who have known brokenness in some way both within themselves and without. Chesterton rightly said that this is “the place where God was homeless and all men are at home”. Christmas day comes and the same strange longing comes to me again as it does to everyone else, but as I think of Jesus it hits me afresh, ‘Ah! This was what I was celebrating all along.’ And then I sing:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

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Cognitive Triad

In Abnormal Psychology class last semester, we learnt about Aaron Beck’s Negative Cognitive Triad, which describes the cognitive (thinking) patterns of individuals with depression. They triad comprise of negative perception of the self, negative conception of the world, and negative projection of the future. In very casual terms, these are the thoughts characteristic of each component:

Self— I am so lousy/ terrible/ stupid/ filthy.

World— Everyone out there are out the hurt and exploit me./ Everyone looks down on me./ Nobody will accept me.

Future— I will never succeed in…/ I am going to remain like this (in some perceived crappy and undesirable state) forever…

I ended up wondering instead, how the “Christian Cognitive Triad” might instead look like. Here are some quick thoughts:

Self— I am sinful and broken, but God has sent his son Jesus to bear my condemnation. Jesus has said that “It is finished.” Christ is sufficient for all my inadequacies and failings.

World— There is much pain in the world; this is a reflection of the brokenness of our human condition. Nonetheless, there is good to behold, for this was how God created the world to be before The Fall occured.

Future— There will come a day where Christ will come again, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore. We will dwell with our Creator in all eternity.

Not at all saying that Christians will not be susceptible to the Negative Cognitive Triad, but when they do, this might just be a possible alternative triad they can be telling themselves. (:

The Problem of Good in the Problem of Evil

This post represents my attempt at exploring what has been known as the problem of evil as an argument against the theistic God and is an expansion of a short paper that I submitted a year ago on the same topic. The problem of evil and suffering in the world is no trivial topic, it represents a huge obstacle to belief in the God of the bible — pain and suffering is real, indeed the fact that Christ came to suffer with us is the greatest evidence for this. Here I do not pretend to have all the answers to why suffering exists or to answer the emotional objections that people may have and I wish in no way to trivialise suffering. My goal is to engage with the problem of evil philosophically, and argue that it is impotent against the true God, who reveals himself through the Word of God.

Formulation of the problem

The problem of evil is an argument against a specific conception of God, namely the theistic and biblical conception, where God is considered to have the attributes of:

  1. Omnipotence
  2. Omniscience
  3. Moral perfection

Omnipotence and omniscience are (relatively) straightforward, simply put, they imply that God can do anything he wishes and that he knows everything. What about moral perfection? My argument in this article is that this attribute is misunderstood when one conceives of the biblical God. Nonetheless, the attribute is normally taken to imply that God wishes to create the world with the highest moral value and this seems to mean that he would want to prevent or evil and suffering, or at least all unnecessary evil and suffering. David Hume puts the problem thus:

“Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”

Philosophers generally talk about two more specific ways of talking about the problem: (1) the logical problem of evil and (2) the evidential problem of evil. The logical problem of evil attempts to show that the existence of any evil whatsoever is logically inconsistent with the existence of God. The evidential problem of evil, on the other hand, argues that the presence of and the horrifying levels of evil and suffering that we see indicate that it is unlikely that God exists. It doesn’t really matter which problem one chooses, because both rely on a certain conception of God’s moral perfection which I will argue is mistaken.

The Problem of Good

The evidence of evil that is in our world that is usually offered is that of suffering on the part of humanity or some other creature. William Rowe’s famous example is that of “A fawn’s being horribly burned in a fire caused by lightning, and suffering terribly for five days before death ends its life.” The corresponding goodness that God is supposed to exhibit seems to be that he would prevent such suffering.

However, if God has perfect moral character, this must mean that he has to pursue that which leads to the greatest intrinsic good. However, if God is God, it seems to follow that God himself is the highest good! The often used term ‘omnibenevolence’ is thus somewhat misleading in this regard, for it seems to imply that for God to be good, he must necessarily be benevolent to his creation. But the good that God necessarily has to pursue is (in Christian terms) his own glory. This is simply the straightforward view of biblical Christianity, consider:

“Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.” (Ezekiel 36:22)

“For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David” (2 Kings 19:34)

If creation (including humanity) is not of the highest or intrinsic value, then suffering on the part of creation is not intrinsically evil. Nonetheless, the problem may still remain. For example, the suffering of creation seems to imply a deficiency on the part of the creator. A proper reply to the problem of evil (these are called theodicies) must thus seek to explain how God’s glory is not diminished because of creaturely suffering. The theodicies more popularly regarded as promising, however, seem concerned with righting the wrongs of humanity in exchange for the seemingly pointless suffering we endure. John Hick’s soul making theodicy and the free will defence seem to fall into this category – suffering is the price to pay for either the spiritual improvement or the freedom of the will of humanity. They struggle to succeed because it seems intuitive and inescapable that human suffering, especially the more extreme kinds we see today, will always be on balance bad for humanity. The goods that suffering produces cannot ultimately and (as I have noted) should not be traced back to humanity but rather to God.

Suffering and God’s Word

Let us note that the bible itself presents countless examples of sufferings and records of the saints of old doubting and crying out to God amidst these sufferings. However, consider that because they understand God’s character rightly, the way they formulate the ‘problem of evil’ is vastly different from how our contemporaries do so. For example, the Israelites saw national disaster as evidence against the LORD because God had said that he would put his name in the city; Israel was called by God’s name and the destruction of the city and especially the temple was an insult to God. Which is why the agonising cries of the Psalmists always tend towards, “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever?” (Psalm 74:10) Job doubted the moral perfection of God’s character not simply because of his suffering because his situation was one of great injustice despite his reliance on God.

Note also that the fact that these accounts and these agonised cries are in the bible indicates that God answers them. Scripture is God’s revealed word and it is woven with suffering. The answers to specific sufferings are varied, some are dark and sublime as in Job, and others indicate that suffering leads us toward glory as in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 8:17). My memory fails me as to where I have read this, but someone once remarked that it was amazing that suffering, something many early christians considered to be a mark of their discipleship of Jesus (cf Matthew 10:25, 1 Peter 4:12,13 et al.) would now be turned into evidence against God’s existence!

Finally, the bible also provides a specific reason as to why there is suffering on a global scale and it traces the problem to the fall of mankind in the garden. Because our first ancestors sinned and rebelled against God, God justly plunged the world into suffering and sin. As such, suffering and death in general vindicate God in justice over guilty humanity.

Now, I have no doubt that these theodicies and such a formulation of God are sure to outrage modern moral sensibilities, and a number of philosophers might simply chafe and dismiss these with a handwaving reply. Nonetheless, an atheistic argument cannot simply target the straw man of a God that fits modern sensibilities, but must contend with this biblical view of God if it is to convince. The god that fits our moral sensibilities is unlikely to exist, for it would be an idol that we have created. Anyway it should not be surprising to us that God and the bible always offends and challenges our ideas of Him, we are sinners after all, and a quick survey of the gospels reveals that Jesus offended the sensibilities of half of Israel. I shall have more to say in the conclusion, but if the ‘problem of evil’ uses an unbiblical formulation of God’s attributes, then it is utterly impotent. We must stare in the face of who God reveals himself in the bible, one who reveals himself amidst a world of suffering and who finally took on suffering himself. Such a God is compatible with— no, is necessary, in our world of grief.

Final Thoughts

Earlier this year I went on a mission trip to Myanmar to teach a bible overview module for some leadership training along with a few others from my church. As we were teaching them about God’s curse on the land from Genesis 3, my friend asked them if they had heard the (seemingly) ubiquitous objection to Christianity that God cannot be good because there is suffering in the world. Their reply was a resounding silence. This was an entirely novel objection to them; how could it be? Might it really be that the problem of suffering is only a problem for people who are not really suffering? This made me realise afresh that the problem of suffering is not an apparent logical contradiction in the Christian conception of God. Rather it is simply an emotional and irrational objection which is the result not of logical reflection but a sense of entitlement that comes from holding the worldview of the privileged. That God is good does not immediately translate to mean that suffering should not exist. After all, God’s being good does not immediately imply that he must be good to us. It is precisely because he has no necessary or intrinsic obligation to be good to us and yet he is immensely so that is the sublime greatness and scandal of the cross of Christ. We will not have this if we audaciously continue to hold a sense of entitlement towards God.

Suicide; Why We Live As Christians

I took Abnormal Psychology this semester, and we covered “Suicide”. It grieved me when we went through this topic because I could not help but consider that suicide is a reflection of the utter brokenness of this world. Suicide is often an expression or manifestation of hopelessness in the brokenness of life.

The risk of suicide affects Christians and non-Christians alike. Risk factors include, but are not limited to, mental illness and facing of an overwhelming crisis. Susceptible to the same influences and brokenness of this world, it set me thinking on how Christians might set apart their responses to compelling suicidal ideations and urges, from non-believers. In essence, the question is: when a Christian becomes so utterly burdened beyond his strength that he despairs of life itself, how might he, as a redeemed person of Christ, find strength to live on?

Here are 5 broad ideas that have convicted my heart as I searched through the bible, thinking through this question.

(1)Human Life Is Valuable
God has declared the value of human life when (a)He made Man in His own image, and (b)when He sent Christ, fully God himself, to take on human flesh. Put in other words, human lives are valuable by virtue of the fact that they are image bearers of an infinitely valuable God, and a kind in which God chose to identify with in Christ.

(2)Our Lives Are Valuable
Our lives are valuable, because they are the work of God. We have been “fearfully and wonderfully made” by the Creator who breathed us into existence.

(3)It is No Longer Our Lives
As redeemed persons, ransomed by the blood of Christ, we no longer own our lives. Instead, we belong to and exist for Him, who gave us life twice over, in creation and in redemption.

(4)Reconsidering the Purpose of This Life
The purpose for which we are saved and called is to fill the earth with God’s glory, by being salt and light, and proclaiming His name to the world. We can do so by living each day faithfully, in the unique positions of life that God has placed us in. And thankfully, our God is a God who looks not to external greatness, but one who perceives the heart. I am always moved by The Widow’s Offering in the gospels, of whom Jesus comments, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” If one struggles with suicidal ideations and urges, faithfulness can too be displayed by the act of simply carrying on each day, trusting that God’s grace is sufficient. Also, do not underestimate how God can use us in our sufferings to proclaim His name to others in suffering too.

(5)A Hope Beyond Ourselves
We have a hope that is far mightier than the darkness of our internal mental/ emotional state or external circumstances. The Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us, and will grant us grace, day by day, to fulfil the purposes of this life in which we were called.

Purpose of this blog

We are two Christian students studying psychology and philosophy at a university in Singapore. This blog represents our efforts to think deeply and biblically with the issues that we are studying.

The bible says that we must be ‘sober-minded’ as we continue to live in this world. Secular academic institutions and subjects claim to be (at least at times) engaged in the neutral pursuit of the truth, but there are hidden naturalistic and atheistic assumptions and presuppositions that are sometimes consciously or unconsciously held. We want to be careful about what we study and engage critically with it.

At the same time, the bible declares that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4:4-5 ESV). Psychology and philosophy are good things, they contain valuable human insights that we as Christians can learn from. But we believe that these insights ultimately have to be viewed from the lens of the Word and the gospel; true knowledge is knowledge that is in submission to God’s word (cf Proverbs 1:7).

The articles are mainly written for our own benefit, to think through for ourselves and glorify and honour God through our studies. But we hope that they would be useful in helping any readers better think through their own studies as well.

The Gospel

The Gospel is God’s plan for the redemption of sinners and is the heart of the Christian message. We believe that the Gospel alone provides salvation for sinners and should shape all of life. Here is a short summary of the gospel adopted from Mack Stiles’ ‘Evangelism’ helpfully broken down into four main sections:

God: God is our Creator. He is loving, holy, and just. One day he will execute perfect justice against all sin.

Man: People are made in the image of God. We are beautiful and amazing creatures with dignity, worth, and value. But through our wilful, sinful rebellion against God, we have turned from being his children to his enemies. Still, all people have the capacity to be in a restored loving relationship with the living God.

Christ: Christ is the Son of God, whose sinless life gave him the ability to become the perfect sacrifice. Through his death on the cross, he ransomed sinful people. Christ’s death paid for the sins of all who come to him in faith. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is the ultimate vindication of the truth of these claims.

Response: The response God requires from us is to acknowledge our sin, repent, and believe in Christ. So we turn from sin, especially the sin of unbelief, and turn to God in faith, with the understanding that we will follow him the rest of our days.