My problem with Christmas is that I can’t enjoy it because I’m not working.

It’s not that I don’t like celebrations or gifts or family. I love all those things. And it’s not that I don’t want to meditate on the beauty and gift of the incarnation. I do! I just have a hard time enjoying those things when I’m on vacation, when I’m supposed to be resting.

If every good gift comes from God, and it does, then nothing good in your life is fundamentally something you deserve on your own merits.When I am working 10-12 hour days during the semester, grading and prepping and teaching and meeting with students, it’s not hard for me to enjoy celebrations or time with my family. I’m exhausted and stressed all the time, but I really enjoy life. It’s when I get off the treadmill that I lose the feeling. If we moved Christmas to sometime in the middle of September, I think I could get in the spirit much easier.

Why should rest make me feel guilty and anxious? For the same reason that the verse, “Be still, and know that I am God,” always bothers me. I can labor and know that He is God, but don’t make me be still. That’s too much. He can be God, but let me suffer a little bit. And in the same way, we can open gifts on Christmas morning, but let me be exhausted from working all night to provide for those gifts.

Here’s the thing. Salvation isn’t the only gift that we can arrogantly and foolishly try to earn by our own merits. Every good thing in this life comes from God. Every single moment of real beauty, every pleasant meal, every cute thing a kid does, every well made novel or song: all of it comes from God as a gift. None of it is as miraculous or cosmically redemptive as the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. But it’s no less real,and it is no less of a sin for us to take these other gifts for granted.

Reformed churches do a good job of reminding us that the gift of salvation is not something we can earn. It is a gift. God in His sovereignty gave Himself for our sins and imputed His righteousness to us. And that gift is not something that can be earned. It has to be given. So we are taught to be careful not to fall into a works-based religion. We’re warned about the dangers of the “older brother” in the story of the Prodigal Son, who thought he deserved his father’s love because he obeyed him. All of this is good and important and true. But you can believe and live like salvation is a free gift from God and still think that every other really good thing in your life is yours because you earned it.

You have a lovely spouse because you made yourself desirable. You have a good job because you hustled and networked for decades. You have a college degree because you studied and applied for scholarships and worked summer jobs. Your kids love you because you are a good parent. Your spouse respects you because you sacrifice so much. You enjoy good sex because you are so faithful and considerate.

If every good gift comes from God, and it does, then nothing good in your life is fundamentally something you deserve on your own merits. You can’t be a good enough parent to earn your child’s love. You can’t sacrifice enough to earn your spouse’s approval and respect. There’s always a surplus. That is the nature of goodness. It’s irreducible to our labor and efforts. All you can do is enjoy it and be grateful.

And that’s why I don’t enjoy Christmas. I can take pleasure in life when I feel like I’m earning my pleasures, when I’m suffering and sacrificing for them. In other words, I have no problem delighting in God’s blessings as long as I can pretend that they are actually my rewards. But as soon as you take away my toil, I recoil. It doesn’t feel right. I grow uncomfortable at compliments and gifts and praise. I am anxious to get back to the safety and control of my own work.

During Christmas we reenact the gift of the Christ-child by sharing gifts. We cease our labor (as we should weekly) and delight in the people and time and good things God has blessed us with. For some of us, this is difficult because of our pride and arrogance, because we’d rather make believe that every good gift is our reward. And if you fall into this damnable lie, you may find yourself never able to get off the treadmill, never able to be grateful, never able to accept a gift or a compliment. Maybe you won’t be trying to work your way to Heaven, but you can still try to work your way to Earth. And the blessings in this life are no less works of grace than those in the next life.

My prayer for you this Christmas is that you may learn to Be still, and know that He is God. Delight in rest. You deserve this blessing because our prodigal God gave it to you, because He loves you, and because it pleased Him. And that’s the best reason to delight in something you’ll ever have.