It is the week between Christmas and New Years. We have begun to wrap up the traditions and practices associated with the biggest holiday of the calendar year and will shortly turn our thoughts to the next set of traditions and practices. These are, of course, associated with New Years Eve and Day.
Folks will be planning their parties and wracking their brains for resolutions as to what they will be doing different to be better people next year. As a tradition, setting personal goals for the next year makes sense and I like it.
Most of us resolve to lose the weight we gained between Halloween and Christmas, save more money, read more books, or some other thing to make ourselves better. “New Year, New You” will be the motto that dominates our thoughts and advertising in the coming days.
As much as I like the practice, there is a part of me that sort of sees it as ironic. It’s a little like Thanksgiving and Black Friday. One day we gather to thank God for everything He has provided. The next, we go out before the sun is up to buy stuff we think we need. The contrast between thanking God for His provision and watching internet videos of shoppers fighting over the last item in a “doorbuster” sale is stark and sad.
Though not as extreme, this is part of what I think of when my mind turns to New Years during the week between the two holidays.
You see, on Christmas, we celebrate God sending his Son to be born a man. Jesus’ specific reason for coming to live among us was because we are fallen people. We cannot, by our own strength and will, be perfect. We always stumble and revert to sin. Jesus lived a perfect life for us and took the punishment for our sins.
The Bible teaches that those who believe in and follow Him are forgiven and made new. Our souls are cleansed from sin, and God begins the process of making us more and more like Jesus in our thoughts, words, and deeds. We learn to obey God, love our neighbors, be charitable, and everything else that comes along with being Christlike.
That is why Jesus came. That is why Christmas is such a big deal. God makes us new. We accomplish that by faith and a relationship with Him.
New Years, on the other hand, is all about resolving to try harder to be better. That’s not bad. I think that God desires that we work hard to grow and mature.
The real trick is that we become like Jesus by following Jesus. Often, folks make the mistake that they become like Jesus by trying really hard to obey the rules as best we can.
In one case, it is effort and hard work. The other involves hard work, but the change comes about not because we try hard, but rather because God changes us completely from the inside out.
To summarize my traditional New Years themed columns: Aiming to be a better person is good and New Years is a fine time to start.
The best way to accomplish it is through Jesus, who is able to change us. To celebrate God’s gift of Christ and then try by our own efforts to be like Him is similar to celebrate owning a car to get around and then proceed to push it to work instead of driving it.
Jesus is the engine that makes becoming what God made us to be possible.
This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer and is shared here with their permission.
One of the most popular arguments you’ll encounter if you google “Why is Christmas December 25th” is that early Christians simply co-opted the Roman pagan holidays that also lands on December 25th. This post is going to dig into this idea, weigh the evidence, and offer some potential theories to explain the coinciding dates.
Didn’t Christianity steal the 25th/winter solstice from a handful of pagan holidays?
In fact, there are a few ancient pagan feasts that land around the 25th. Sometimes these days, like Saturnalia, are included with accusations that Christianity took pagan festival dates. The biggest problem with including something like Saturnalia is that it took place between December 17th and the 23rd. Though, at the time the first liturgical calendar was written placing Christmas on the 25th, the 23rd was the date of the winter solstice. There are theories that associate the observance of Saturnalia with the Solstice itself. Though, there is no ancient documentation that asserts this directly. Either way, I will not be digging into the event because Saturnalia ended several days before Christmas.
What Pagan Holiday was on December 25th?
The most substantial argument for the theory points to the co-opting of Natalis Sol Invictus specifically because of the 25th date and the “birth” aspect. Natalis Sol Invictus (birth of the invincible sun) was established as a state holiday in 274 AD honoring a pagan sun god by Emperor Aurelian.
In older scholarly works I encountered the idea that Aurelian’s mother was a priestess in the Col Invictus cult, though all of the references to this idea are immediately dismissed as likely fiction based on the utter lack of supporting evidence.
In terms of the December 25th date, the emperor made Sol Invictus the official religion of the emperors, built a temple in his honor, and ordered 30 public games be held every year. The winter solstice was chosen for Natalis Sol Invictus based on the belief that the days got longer after the solstice because Sol Invictus began to claim victory over the darkness. I’ve read that Romans burned candles at night in an effort to aid Sol Invictus in his fight. Though, I get the sense that later scholars argue this based on the Saturnalia practice of candle lighting during their festival rather than based on early sources.
What is Sol Invictus?
Sol Invictus was a relatively new religion in Rome at the time of it’s adoption by Aurelian. It was only introduced around 25 years earlier. This is important for later discussion of the theory. Though, the religion itself originated in Syria and is one of several examples of sun god worship from the area. It is possible that the Roman version is an amalgamation of the Syrian religions.
There is a school of thought that says that Sol Invictus and the Mithras mystery religion blended together early on. It is hard to find dates or solid sources for this assertion, as Mithraism did not produce any written works at all. Most of what we know about the religion is based on excavating temples devoted to the faith. Frankly, the lack of specifics has led to a lot of (sometimes wild) conjecture about Mithraism. I tend to look at its mention with a lot of skepticism as a result.
But don’t Christmas and Natalis Sol Invictus land on the Winter Solstice?
The answer isn’t as obvious as you might expect. They fall on the winter solstice on the calendar system we currently use. When Aurelian set the date for the celebration on the 25th, it was after the solstice.
At this point it is necessary to take a moment to address the weird issue with that pops up in relation to the Julian Calendar and how its inaccuracy skews the discussion somewhat.
The Julian Calendar, so named because it was proposed by Julius Caesar as a reform of the old Roman Calendar, took effect in 45 BC and remained the standard until it was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar in 1582. The issue with the Julian Calendar is that the days are .0075 too long. This results in the calendar gaining a day every 128 years.
Today the Julian calendar is about 13 days ahead of the more commonly used Gregorian.
For our discussion the discrepancy is relevant because it resulted in the Winter Solstice changing dates on the calendar. By the time the Depositio Martirum was created to document the Christian liturgical calendar, the solstice was on the 23rd. When Natlis Sol Invictus was established as an official holiday, the solstice landed on the 24th.
Why did Aurelian establish the holiday and make Sol Invictus the emperor’s deity?
Much of the reasoning behind Aurelian’s move was to strengthen his position as emperor and encourage unity. Aurelian’s reign took place during a chaotic time in Roman history. Quite a few scholars agree that he was attempting to unify the empire through religious revival. His efforts were aimed at breathing new life into pagan religions, which were in sorry shape among the average citizen.
Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ, describes the integration of paganism into every facet of society as well as the plethora of temples, holidays, and associated community norms. He then goes on to say “Despite these appearances the ancient faith was diseased any the bottom and at the top. The deification of emperors revealed not how much the upper classes thought of their rulers, but how little they thought of their gods. Among educated men philosophy was whittling away belief even while patronizing it.” He goes on to describe how Greek and Roman poets mocked the gods in their work and the common men simply didn’t fear the them. This doesn’t mean that the population abandoned the temples or fortune tellers. Rather, much of the ritual observances were observed primarily out of superstition. Everyone consulted the signs and made sacrifices, but there was little in the way of devotion.
Elsewhere Durant connects the phenomena to the popularity of Judaism in the Roman world. Despite it being illegal to evangelize, the Jewish faith attracted large numbers of adherents and converts, which are typically known as “God fearers” in jewish writings and the Bible. Arguably, the same reasoning applies to Christianity which was growing rapidly despite it being illegal and actively persecuted.
By adding a new religion to the Roman Empire and filling it with enormous pomp and spectacle, Aurelian hoped to unify the nation under their pagan heritage. He was personally devoted to the Sol Invictus cult, which would explain his choice.
‘Did Christians adopt the day of Sol Invictus and why?
I’m going to go ahead and say that they did not adopt the pagan holiday. My reasoning will be laid out in the rest of this post. As to why they would do it, the theory that the church coopted the pagan festival did so because of it’s popularity among pagans. The theory itself doesn’t appear until the 1800s.
Most supporters of this position support some variant of the belief that Christianity and the story of the life of Jesus adopted other religious traditions and beliefs in order to create Christianity. The underlying assumption is that the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus are fictional, late creations. Full disclosure: I don’t agree with this perspective. Archeology and ancient documentary evidence stand in strong contradiction to the idea that the church was invented from whole cloth after the 2nd century. It’s a nonsense position.
Another version of the theory is that Christians simply adopted Roman Pagan days in order to make it more palatable to pagans who Constantine forced to convert. It is also sometimes that the adoption of the holidays made it easier for pagans to convert.
Finally, there are scholars that suggest that Christians took the dates of pagan holidays for their feast days because it made it possible for them to observe their celebrations without raising the ire of their neighbors or the government.
Is there any evidence supporting the arguments that Christians adopted pagan days?
There are no actual documents, neither primary or secondary sources, asserting that any of the stuff preceding section took place. As best I can tell the idea that Christianity simply took on a pagan holiday began with the fact that the earliest mention of December 25th was in the codex that contained various calendars from the ancient Roman Empire. The codex, which is called the Chronograph, dates to around 354 AD and contains the Depositio Martirum. Because they have no earlier mentions of the date, the assumption is that the church started celebrating around that time.
In terms of arguments, this one is not particularly compelling for several reasons. The first is that the Chronograph, is also the first time we find Natalis Sol Invictus documented as being observed own December 25th. This means that the same argument could be applied in the reverse with exactly the same amount of evidence to support the conclusion.
The second reason the argument lacks strength is that it ignores the the extensive documentary evidence that the early church was very careful to avoid any associations with paganism or idolatry. Early Christians did not attend public games or any festivals.
The 1st century church struggled with whether or not believers could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, lest it be perceived as paganism. Many of the documented battles with heresies, beginning with the late 1 century on, deal with attempts to integrate the mystery religions into the church beliefs and practices.
The culture of the early church simply did not have the sort of attitude
that would allow them to change to make it easier for pagans to convert. To summarize: not only is there no evidence that they integrated paganism for popularity sake, the truth is quite the opposite. There is tons of evidence that they did not.
Any arguments about Constantine making Christianity the official religion or altering the holidays to attract pagans are utterly lacking in any basis in reality. Constantine converted and made the church legal. He did not force the faith on empire. Further, the early church fathers did not suddenly become different people with the Edict of Milan. There is also no evidence that he tampered with the liturgical calendar.
My thoughts on the coinciding dates:
Though this is certainly not an exhaustive treatment of the matter, I will offer final points regarding the coinciding dates. I encountered some interesting arguments suggesting that it was possible that Aurelian actually adopted the December 25th date based on the growing popularity of Christianity.
The reasoning goes that Aurelian chose the date to blunt the impact of a significant Christian feast day. Durant described the decline of paganism in the ancient world as well as the growth of Judaism (which did not evangelize) and Christianity (which was illegal outright).
Christianity did not need to adopt paganism to attract followers, as it was attracting them despite everything that was done to stop it. Ancient paganism, on the other hand, was not growing. Aurelian sought to create a pagan revival to staunch the bleeding and prop up the old faiths specifically to create stability.
Further, adopting pagan practices was out of character for the early church, but it was quite common for ancient pagan religions to adopt pieces of other faiths. Though, as compelling as this argument is, it is inferred based on events rather than received from primary or secondary sources.
Further, we know that around 325 AD the Council of Nicaea adjusted the official calendar to recognize that the winter solstice was on the 23rd, not the 25th. This suggests that the solstice was already connected to the birth of Christ, but that they followed the calendar date rather than the solstice itself. However, at the time Jesus was born (in 1 BC probably) the winter solstice would have landed on the 25th. This would explain why the two were connected.
However, I have yet to see a good explanation as to why Sol Invictus lands on the 25th based on the winter solstice, which was a central point to the religion itself. Further, when it was declared a holiday the solstice was on the 24th, which suggests that there may have been another reason for selecting the date.
Finally, the earliest supportable mention of a specific date regarding the conception of Jesus being on March 25th (9 months from the December 25th birth date) is found in the work of Sextus Julian Africanus from around the late 2nd or early 3rd century. This places the potential origin of a December 25th birth date around 50 years before Sol Invictus arrived in Rome.
TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read)
Assertions that Christians coopted December 25th because of the the Natalis Sol Invictus religious holiday are totally lacking and documentary evidence for support. There are no ancient sources that make any claim that even implies that this took place.
The argument used to support the claim is based on the fact that we first see December 25th as the date for Christmas in a codex from 354 AD. Due to the preceding silence on the date, the argument is made that this is when Christians adopted December 25th and that they did so because pagans already observed the date. This is a poor piece of reasoning.
The further flaw with the previous point is that codex from 354 is also the first time we encounter documentary evidence placing Natalis Sol Invictus on December 25th, meaning the weak argument could be applied in reverse.
There is documentary evidence supporting the idea that the church already recognized December 25th much earlier than the establishment of the holiday by Aurelian, or even the introduction of Sol Invictus to Rome.
Roman Paganism was rotting from top to bottom and had been for hundreds of years. Natalis Sol Invictus was established in an effort the revitalize paganism and reunite Rome. Christianity on the other hand was a growing faith, attracting pagans to its membership despite being an illegal faith. There was no reason for Christians to take on pagan trappings to attract converts. They were doing so already.
All of the documentary evidence from the early church points to a steadfast resistance to any integrating of the pagan and Christian faiths. To adopt a pagan holiday was utterly out of character for the church, but for ancient pagans to integrate beliefs or practices they encountered was very much the norm.
If you don’t like my points here, read the article and engage my arguments.
If you google “Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th” you’ll get a slew of answers associated with a handful of popular theories. It is easy to just pick one and go with it, but this approach felt kind of uncomfortable to me.
Many hours later I have a rough answer, which is way too long. I also have way too much background knowledge on all of the popular theories. If I address them all here, the article will be excessively long and most people will give up long before they find the answer.
So, in future posts I will dig into the background information and various theories. This post is just going to look at the central answer. I’ll be approaching it in a question/answer format to make it the line of thinking clearer.
Short Answer: The earliest surviving ecclesiastical calendar was created in 336 AD. There are suggestions from the early church fathers as to why that date was selected. The earliest surviving text that points to the December 25th date is from early in the third century. There is a case to be made that the events of Jesus’ birth happened on or around that date. It’s pretty hard if not impossible to pin it down for sure… If you disagree, please read on and see how I justify what I’m saying.
When did the December 25th start being observed as the birthdate of Jesus?
The earliest record of Christians observing the birth of Jesus on December 25th is an ancient document called the Depositio Martirum. It is the oldest surviving liturgical calendar an assembled in in 336 AD, around 10 years after Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal through the Edict of Milan.
Up until that point there were some localized instances of amnesty being given to Christians by various officials in an effort to encourage them to join the army. Those found guilty of being Christians were punished and had all their property confiscated.
An end to the outlaw status of Christianity made it possible for Christian leaders to gather, collaborate, and discuss beliefs/practices with bishops from other parts of the empire. This was known as the council of Nicaea. They did not discuss the date at that time.
However, there is some supporting/compelling evidence that the date was not established at this time or in 336 when the calendar was assembled, but rather predates Nicaea and the DepositioMartirum, reaching back at least into the late second century. We’ll look at some of it here, but not most.
Isn’t December 25th just 9 months from March 25th, the day of the annunciation?
This theory is interesting, turns up prominently in history, and has quite a bit of support. The argument goes like this: The church observes the date of the angel announcing the immaculate conception to Mary on March 25th. 9 months after conception, he was born… on December 25th. This makes sense and fits the liturgical calendar.
In the late 4th century Augustine mentions that the church observed March 25th as the annunciation. This is a widely accepted explanation for the birth date and is plausible. Augustine is not a minor voice amongst the ancients. The 9-months-from-the-annunciation approach is going to come up a few times in this discussion because it’s prominent in ancient history.
However, there are issues with the approach. For starters, the natural follow up question is how the date of the annunciation was determined. Augustine asserts that March 25th is the date of the annunciation based on an ancient theory that prominent people died on the date of their conception. He cites March 25th as the date of the crucifixion, due to the conception/death thing. When he mentions December 25th, he describes it as based on “tradition” and doesn’t mention the 9 month gap.
Most modern folks will balk at the death/conception thing. However, there is another problem.
Based on the data we encounter in the gospels, Jesus was crucified and buried on the Friday of Passover on the 14th of Nissan (jewish calendar). There were only two instances of Passover Friday landing on the 14th of Nissan during Pilate’s time in office.
One was in 30 AD, which is too early to be correct. The other was April 3, 33 AD. This means that Augustine got the date for the crucifixion incorrect, which may be because he determined it using either the birth or conception date as a reference.
I would argue that it’s likely that Augustine’s March 25th date came either directly or indirectly from an earlier source. In the surviving works from the early church there is an instance of identifying March 25th as the conception date.
In the late 2nd/early 3rd century Sextus Julius Africanus set the day of of the incarnation on March 25th. From this, the December birth date is simply a 9 month difference.
This would mean that Augustine’s incorrect date for the crucifixion was a result of his using the death/conception theory to set the date of the crucifixion based on the date of conception.
Who was Sextus Julius Africanus and where did he get March 25th from?
Sextus Julius Africanus was born in160 AD in Jerusalem. He was well educated and traveled extensively in his youth. Later he served as ambassador to the city of Rome, where his extensive learning so impressed Emperor Alexander Severus that he appointed Africanus to build the library at Pantheon.
During his life Africanus wrote extensively, including a 5 volume history of the world, which is now lost. Fragments of that work have survived and his reputation as a brilliant scholar was voiced repeatedly by other authors whose works survive today.
Africanus’ 5 volume work, The Chronography, attempts to establish a timeline for world history from what he thought was the date of creation. He places the birth of Jesus on March 25th, though working this out from his writings is difficult because there are three calendar systems involved.
Based on the few surviving lines on the topic, it seems as though he places the annunciation on the first day of the 5501st year after the first day of creation. As I understand it, if we line that day up with the Jewish calendar and translate it to the Julian Calendar, we get March 25th.
It seems like this may be the earliest surviving reference to the annunciation landing on that day. Again, from that day we get December 25th as the birth date 9 months later.
Unfortunately, we lack the majority of Africanus’ work, so it’s hard to know the details of his argument. I think it is possible that he used a date he received through tradition and factored it into his calculation of the date of creation. This would mean he used a date (December or March 25th)
Either way, it seems as though this is the earliest mention of the March 25th date, which then places December 25th as the birthdate.
Could the March and December dates be older than Africanus’ work?
It is possible that Africanus got his dates from tradition handed down to him. Augustine, refers to the December 25th as a tradition along with a couple of other early church fathers. There are some records of the early church fathers debating the birth date, though none of them seem to put a great deal of importance on the matter.
There is also an interesting tidbit from the Council of Nicaea. As I said earlier this was the first time since the first century the leaders of the early church could gather.
They used the opportunity to take care of a large number of issues. Among others was adjusting the calendar. Because days in the Julian calendar were about 11 minutes off, it gained days periodically. By the time the council gathered in the early fourth century, the winter solstice had drifted off of December 25th. At that time it was on December 23rd. The council agreed to change it.
Why does this matter? If the council was already looking at December 25th as the birthdate of Jesus, then it would be associated with the winter solstice. Their concern over where the solar calendar landed in relation to the Julian Calendar makes sense if they associated the solstice with the birth of Jesus.
That would mean that the birth date and the solstice were potentially connected much earlier, perhaps as early as when the two actually landed on the same day a couple of centuries beforehand. Again, this is conjecture.
Wasn’t Jesus probably born in the spring?
Before digging into the Biblical accounts, it is necessary to look at this topic.
In commentaries and theological literature it is popular to assert that Jesus was born in the spring because shepherds would not have kept their flocks in the fields during the winter due to the cold weather. In fact, I found references (that I haven’t double checked yet) pointing out that ancient rabbis instructed shepherds to come in from the fields with their flocks at a certain point in the calendar year due to weather.
This means that a December date could not have been witnessed by the shepherds in Luke’s gospel. This is sort of correct, but also sort of incorrect.
In fact, most shepherds went in for the winter. The Talmud specifically says that sheep for temple services were to remain in the field year round.
The fields where the temple sheep were kept would have been in the area of Bethlehem. So, the shepherds who raised the lambs that were sacrificed in the temple would have been in the field in December and would have been perfect witnesses for the birth of the man who would be called the “Lamb of God.”
The point of this excerpt is to say that eliminating the December date based on the winter weather driving shepherds in for the season is not a legitimate argument. And to suggest that the December date would allow for a cool connection, of the sort we often see in the life of Jesus.
Is there anything in the Bible to support December 25th as the Birth Date?
This is an interesting question with a vague answer: Sort of.
If we look at the events of the gospels and line them up with events we can solidly date, we can approximate the birth date of Jesus. Part of what makes this tricky is that Matthew and Luke, who both relate the story of Jesus’ birth with more detail, emphasize different aspects of the events. This is further complicated by the fact that they don’t offer much in the way of time indicators.
The result is a couple of potential timelines based on the material we have available. This is very much in keeping with the ancient Jewish style of recording history and events. For those of us who are concerned more with timelines and pinning down dates, it can be a bit frustrating.
When talking about the birth of Jesus, one of the principle figures is King Herod the Great. The gospels record his death after the killing of the newborns in Bethlehem. We can identify the date of his passing based on the work of Josephus, an ancient jewish historian.
Josephus records an event that happened near the time of his passing in which an eclipse took place during the execution of several Jewish men who had reacted to rumors of the tyrant’s death by removing a Roman eagle that Herod had placed over the temple gates.
A total eclipse took place on January 10th, 1 BC; which most scholars agree was the date of the executions. Based on that solid date, it is possible to line up the events of Herod’s final months as recorded in the gospels and Josephus’ work and estimate the date of Herod’s death.
Applying the events in the gospel narrative to that time table offers a range of potential birthdates for Jesus. The final outcome allows for December 25th as a very plausible date for the nativity.
Another detail included in Luke’s gospel relates to Mary visiting Elizabeth during the fifth month of her pregnancy. The visit seems to be in response to the angel’s visiting Mary and likely took place not long after the annunciation.
The gospel of Luke also includes the account of Zachariah encountering an angel who announces Elizabeth’s pregnancy. At the time he was serving in the temple. Luke includes the specific priestly division that Zechariah belonged to: Abijah.
The talmud tells us that the Abijah division was serving in the temple when it was destroyed in 70 AD. Scholars have attempted to reconstruct the dates and ordering of the various divisions’ service based on details in the Talmud regarding the temple’s destruction, services, and information gleaned from Josephus’ works.
Service duty ran in 24 year cycles allowing each division of priests one opportunity to serve every 24 years. This means we can count backward in 24 year increments to determine when the Abijah division served and potentially date the announcement to Zechariah.
Based on this approach, Zechariah would have been serving in 3 BC. That gives us a couple potential dates for the conception of John the Baptist. One of those dates results in John being born on the Autumnal Equinox. Incidentally, ancient tradition holds that the Autumnal Equinox was the date of John’s birth.
Around 6 months later, Jesus would have been born on the winter solstice, or December 25th.
It’s important to note that these dates are estimates based on existing data. For brevity I have excluded a lot of detail… and it was still way too long. I will do my best to cover all the details in follow up posts on my blog in the coming days.
To Long Didn’t Read (TLDR)
If you don’t like my answers, go back and read it…
December 25th as the birth of Jesus first appears on a liturgical calendar in 336, but there’s evidence it was celebrated earlier than that.
The earliest written work we have that supports December 25th is a fragment from Sextus Julius Africanus’ work from early in the 3rd century. He attempted to calculate the date. Though it could have been an older traditional date he used for reference.
Using the Bible, the Talmud, and the work of Josephus we can make a case for December 25th.
This week my daughter and I recorded a short video on the Biblical city of Capernaum. Jesus lived there during most of his ministry. Peter’s home was uncovered there by archeologists in the middle of the 20th century. Check it out and let us know what you think. We’ll be doing future teachings together.
Like, subscribe, comment, and share if you like our video. Thanks so much!
John Donne, the English poet-scholar, wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” The poem goes on to explain that every man lives a life dependent on those around him. He needs others to thrive and survive from day to day.
At the face of it, this is a true statement. We need each other for various aspects of our lives. On every level of our lives, we require some connection to those around us for food, supply, support, encouragement, etc.
While researching a passage from the writings of King Solomon this week, I came across a comment on this idea that is relevant to our lives, particularly the culture we live in today. Though we all need each other to maintain the lives we live, many of our innovations have created the sense that we can isolate further and further away from the rest of the world.
Many people would much rather receive a text message than a phone call, mainly because it’s an easier and more convenient way to communicate. We have friends we can keep in touch with via social media without ever having to see or speak to them. We don’t have to shop anymore because Amazon will deliver to our houses or we can have our grocery orders brought to our cars. When we do shop, we can choose self checkout and avoid the headache of talking with the cashier. Take some time to watch families in restaurants and other public settings.
It is depressingly common to see one or more people sitting together, staring at their phones. Everything in our lives is making it easier and easier to simulate living as an island. Living in our own bubble like this lowers social pressures and expectations. It makes life easier and frees us from the headache of dealing with people. Many people embrace this new, isolated life.
Surveys have found that each successive generation is more and more inclined to choose isolation. It’s important to understand that this is not isolated to younger generations. Isolation is common throughout our culture, with the majority of Americans reporting that they have no close friends at all. Those friends they do have are not the sort of people that they talk about deep, personal issues with. There is an entire industry centered around talking to strangers that you pay to talk about your problems.
The problem with these trends is that they are contrary to our design as humans. We are social creatures. We need each other. Social isolation, though easier, is significantly less healthy. Loads of research has demonstrated that increased time spent on social media or staring at screens is associated with anxiety, depression, loneliness, and all sorts of other negative psychological traits.
While reading Solomon’s philosophical reflections, I encountered the most obvious answer to this growing social problem. 3,000 years ago, while writing about workaholism, Solomon explained that close relationships in every aspect of life improves everything. Family, friends, spouses, children, neighbors, work friends, and all the rest are what makes life good. They are a gift from God. King Solomon saw a fundamental truth, that we are losing sight of today: we need each other.
If every man is becoming an island, then what the world needs most right now is bridges. Years of talking with people as a pastor has made me confident that, while most people want to isolate to some degree, most people are also very lonely.
The solution is to do hard things. Building bridges is difficult. Going where people are and changing our life patterns to connect to the world around us is incredibly difficult. Many of us don’t know where to start. I would suggest church as an easy solution. Volunteering is also a powerful option. Attending public events, like the kind that the library offers weekly, create space for building bridge connections to others. The hardest part is admitting we need each other and taking the first steps to reach out to the islands around us.
“I struggle to remember to pray, read my Bible, or do anything else to grow spiritually. I start strong and then fall off.” Do you ever feel like keeping your spiritual efforts just melt away when life gets busy?
Maintaining daily spiritual disciplines usually starts off well, when you are motivated and excited to do it. After a few days, it wains, and eventually falls off the radar completely. It is especially frustrating when you talk to other believers who seem to know everything and have mastered their spiritual life and calling. When you compare yourself to how you perceive others it is easy to get discouraged.
Some Good News
The truth is that most of us struggle with this. The fact that you’re struggling isn’t inherently bad, because struggling involves you trying in the first place. If you didn’t care, that would be a much bigger issue and a more difficult one to deal with. Apathy is a far worse condition that struggling. I would rather be discouraged over my lack of spiritual fervor than apathetic to my spiritual condition.
The stoic philosopher, Epictetus, wrote that most men would be horrified to lose their eyesight or their hearing, but are indifferent to their souls becoming calloused to the point that they don’t care for their own spiritual condition. He describes this state as madness, because your soul is your most valuable possession. If you care for the condition of your soul, you are in a far better situation than you realize.
If you find yourself discouraged with your struggle in this area, I would suggest reading Romans 7, where Paul discusses his struggle with himself. The only hope he had in the midst of that wrestling was the knowledge that Jesus died to redeem us and that our struggle with sin is not futile.
I would argue that this is the solution to the larger issue of struggling with the state of our prayer lives or Scripture reading or anything else. As we focus on Jesus, we stay on the path toward becoming like him.
We may stumble and fail, but when we get up and continue we remain in him. Driving in that direction over the long term will result in slow growth and improvement. The real key to spiritual life and growth is constant focus on Jesus. That is it.
How can focusing on Jesus be the solution?
“Isn’t that part of the problem with not praying or studying?” When I fall off of my spiritual disciplines, it is usually because I allow my focus to wander to something else. So, how does focusing on Jesus help me when losing focus on him is the problem? This is the truth of the matter and I agree that it appears to be a bit of a catch 22.
That does not mean we ought to give up, because in giving up we are abandoning our soul’s condition. Instead, we must look for the things God has given to us to help us maintain our spiritual health.
God knows we are going to struggle with ourselves. Paul describes struggling with our flesh, or sinful nature. Part of us will pull us away from God all the time.
God knows we struggle, he gives us the Holy Spirit to prompt us and strengthen us. He also gives us folks whose job it is to help us grow spiritually.
How Jesus taught his disciples grow.
When Jesus did ministry he had a crowd of students following him, watching, listening, and asking questions. They were learning to imitate him. This is how we were meant to become like Jesus. We look at his life and imitate it.
The problem is that Jesus isn’t physically with me to help me learn. That makes it challenging, to say the least. He overcomes this by putting men and women in our lives who have advanced beyond our spiritual state. We can follow, ask questions, imitate, and grow by imitating then, while they are imitating Christ.
Most folks who struggle with their growth or the spiritual practices that promote growth don’t have anyone they are connected to in order to learn to be like Jesus. When we have this sort of relationship we will grow through sharing life with that person.
Mark’s gospel depicts this style of training over and over again. Jesus takes his disciples with him as he lives life. They watch and learn. They ask questions. They learn over the course of time by imitating as a byproduct of spending time together.
Finding a Spiritual Training Partner
The other element that I spoke about last week, that was common in the ancient world and we see in Jesus’ teaching is partnering up. Having another believer to engage with on the same level to discuss Scripture or our spiritual struggles or even to keep us accountable for our spiritual disciplines, guides us toward consistency.
It’s a little like having a gym partner. I was more consistent working out when I had a gym partner to meet up with daily. A fellow believer, with whom I can establish accountability and engage in discussion about my spiritual life, will help me to grow.
Mutual encouragement and training together is part of how we as believers were meant to grow. Generally when we struggle with our spiritual efforts, we lack these sorts of relationships as well.
Adding community that encourages us to grow spiritually, to focus on Jesus when we fall, and who we can help in return creates a better, more enjoyable and fulfilling life in Christ. It also builds a structure around us that helps us to be consistent in growth.
The biggest struggle with this sort of external spiritual support is establishing it. We must ask. That is hard, particularly in a culture where religious aspects of life are encouraged to remain internal. We don’t like externalizing our deeper struggles. This is a huge hurdle to overcome. However, it is important because these relationships are the master key to spiritual growth and consistency in our disciplines.
The first two parts of this series have dug into the source of separation we experience in our lives. We looked at how God designed people for community and how sin has created barriers to our basic connections with God and others.
This series is a short side trip on a larger exploration of overwork in our lives. You may be asking yourself why loneliness and the fall are a part of that discussion. I believe the answer to this can be found in the writing of a French Philosopher named Blaise Pascal.
Pascal was a child prodigy, mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer, and Catholic theologian. He formulated a number of interesting arguments regarding the existence of God that are still debated hotly today. One idea, in particular, applies to our discussion of work and how it tends to get out of whack.
That hole is a product of our design being frustrated as a result of the fall. We are made for connection to God. We can try to fill that vacuum in our hearts with all sorts of things.
Work, in particular, is a popular choice. We were designed to work and create. It scratches part of our itch. The problem is that work scratches the itch for a moment, but it comes back worse later. The more we put work in the place of God to make ourselves feel fulfilled, the emptier we are. It’s a little like scratching a mosquito bite. The more you scratch, the worse it itches. Eventually you end up raw and bleeding, but it is still itchy.
The only real solution is to fill the void with relationship with God. That relationship should impact every other part of our lives. Our family, friendships, work, and neighbor relationships will all be impacted by walking with Jesus in our lives. In addition, our work lives cannot help but be impacted by learning to follow Jesus’ teachings and his Spirit’s work reshaping our hearts/minds.
This is the reason Jesus came and died on the cross. He took punishment for our sins and revealed God to us through himself. We are made new through him. Those who walk with Jesus are slowly remade into what we were meant to be. We learn from him and he works in us to reshape our hearts.
These are easy ideas to present, but what does it mean in practical terms?
When a student followed a rabbi in the ancient world it sharing their lives. Disciples would spend all of their time with rabbis. They would share their life. They would observe them in every aspect of life, whether it involved serving the poor or teaching. Watching led to imitating their teachers.
This is the idea behind following Jesus. We learn to be like him by reflecting on how he dealt with life. One aspect of his life was work. He frequently rested. He often stepped away to spend time in prayer. Sometimes he disappeared and avoided crowds so he could regroup.
Pay attention to your “warning lights.”
Every modern car is overloaded with warning lights in the dashboard. They tell you when the car is overheating or when something has gone wrong that needs repairing. You ignore those warning lights at your own risk.
We have similar “lights” that flash to get our attention. I first clued into this idea when I found myself getting cranky and irritable constantly in my early years of ministry and marriage. I spoke with my pastor about it and he explained to me that anger rises out of other feelings, like hurt or frustration. It is not the problem in and of itself.
The trick is to figure out where it was coming from. If we start getting cranky constantly, something is wrong. We may need to rest or spend time with out loved ones or talk about our problems. Whatever it is, those warning lights let us know something is out of whack in our emotional state, relationships, or spiritual life.
Set your priorities and objectives based on his priorities.
When Jesus saves us from our sins, we come under his lordship. He is the boss in our lives, which seems fair because he is God and he bought our redemption by dying for us. Taking time in the morning, midday, and evening to stop and talk/listen to him. We should review his word and listen to him. Our daily goals and schedule should be set based on his direction.
This isn’t a one time thing. We tend to forget, so we need to come back to it daily. It’s sort of like navigating with a map and compass. It is valuable to stop and get your bearings regularly so you know where you are. That way if you drift off course, frequently checking your bearings keeps you from getting too far off course.
Take Sabbath regularly.
God intended for us to take time off to enjoy life. This means resting, spending time with God, spending time with family, and enjoying life. It isn’t some boring restriction from doing anything, even enjoyable things.
Sabbath is taking a day a week to enjoy life. There will be times when you must skip a sabbath. When the Jews were fighting for independence from the Persians, a small army was slaughtered because it was attacked on the Sabbath. They did not fight back because it was the Sabbath. Afterwards the religious scholars agreed that they could ignore sabbath to save their own lives.
The trick is, the easier you make it to skip the Sabbath, the more often you will skip it. The commandment says that we are to keep it holy. That means we set it apart and preserve it as different and belonging to God. Please note: Sabbath is the day you take it. It is not necessarily Saturday or Sunday.
Surround yourself with people who have mastered working in a way that reflects God’s design for life.
The best strategy I can offer is to find people who do this well and spend time with them. The more people like that influence you, the more you will learn new habits. Ask them questions. Find people to keep you accountable and ask you pointed questions about your priorities and time use. There are a few good reasons for this.
First, you will naturally start to look like the people you associate with regularly. It is a strange truth about people that we tend to imitate those we surround ourselves with. This is one reason the scriptures tell us to gather as the church more often. We change each other.
Second, in those circles you will be able to get an outside perspective that is (hopefully) seasoned with real wisdom. You cannot see every angle. Finding wise men to give you perspective and input is vital.
Finally, without accountability it is difficult to maintain high standards in life. You need people who know you well enough and know enough about life to call you out when you drift.
Model a life you want your kids or those around you to live.
We all grow up to imitate our parents in one way or another. We will wind up with their mannerisms, methods of arguing, work philosophies, ways of coping with problems, etc.
Not everything will transfer to your kids, but workaholism has a habit of passing from one generation to the next. If you want your kids to cheat on their spouse with their job or orphan their own kids in the name of long work hours, then model that. I recommend imitating Christ in your work strategies.
There are a million other little things you can do to manage your work life better. These are only a few and they center around the ideas I presented in the first two installments: We are designed to be in relationship with God and others; and sin has thrown up barriers.
By following Jesus in these areas of life, praying and seeking his direction, prioritizing based on his teachings/direction, and surrounding yourself with people whose community will shape you in positive ways you are leaning on the core of who we are created to be.
In addition, by walking with Jesus in these aspects of life, he fills your heart and changes you. This means you are returning to your created design and God is working in you to bring that change about.
You are surrounded by people all of the time. You have hundreds of Facebook friends, work friends, kids, a spouse, and everything else… So why are you still lonely? If we are designed to live in community, why is it so unsatisfying? Why do friendships and relationships break so easily? Why is knowing God so hard?
In part 1, we looked at how God designed us to be connected to each other and to God. It’ is part of our very nature of be in relationship with each other. Without it, we dry out and die inside, like a fish out of water. If that’s true, shouldn’t relationships come easy to us? Shouldn’t it be like fish, who swim by nature? Why doesn’t it come naturally to us?
In chapter 3 of Genesis we find the answer to these questions. It’s important to understand that this section of the Bible is “the problem” that the rest of the Bible addresses. Everything after chapter 3 is the story of God fixing the broken state of our world.
In chapter three the fall takes place. Everything is broken. Eve is tempted and disobeys God. Adam ate too, but his sin is bigger than simple disobedience. The text indicates that he is right there when the temptation and fall happen. He watches, listens, and remains a passive observer. In many ways this is the is still the spiritual shortfall of men. They remain passive in their families. Often this involves “checking out” of their relationship with their spouse, parenting, and the community. It is the reason I can open with the joke about the miracle of Jesus having 12 friends in his 30s. We hide at work or in our man cave. Proper community demanded that Adam catch Eve before she fell.
After the the text says that their eyes were opened and they realized they were naked. Shame had entered the world. Shame prompted the creation of barriers. People began to hide themselves from each other. They also hid from God. It is easy to miss the big truth here: We experience loneliness and isolation because we were made to live in community with God and each other. The fall created distance in those relationships.
Often we experience distance in our relationships because shame, fear, a history of abuse, or social norms that push us to hide our true selves from each other. Many men live lonely lives in silence. They lack significant relationships with other men and have no idea how to find them. Some men struggle with sin or pain but are unwilling to engage others to create meaningful relationships. Vulnerability is hard and socially unacceptable. One of the best things I learned as I grew into the pastoral role was that if I was willing to admit my own imperfections and speak of how Christ set me free, folks were far more likely to open up to me regarding their own struggles. If we all pretend to be perfect, no one is safe to admit they aren’t. Without being willing to engage with each other openly, close community isn’t possible. Like Adam and Eve, the “fig leaves” we use to cover ourselves up will not fool God, who sees to the core of us. We need to confess to him, and each other, in order to experience real community.
The trick is that the whole thing is extraordinarily risky. Talking about and sharing the real, substantial aspects of our lives is the master key for engaging in fulfilling community.
Part 3 of this series will look at the solution to the problem of separation in our relationships…
“Nobody talks about Jesus’ miracle of having 12 close friends in his 30’s.”
The seeds of the spiritual condition that has isolated us from each other began in Genesis. The account takes place over seven days, which is important because the number 7 in Hebrew thought is associated with completion or perfection.
Over half of all Americans report that they are lonely. The same survey found that nearly half of all responders reported that the relationships they do have are simply not meaningful. We live in a time when we are more connected to the people around us and the rest of the world in general than we have every been in history. Phones, text messaging, video phones, email, and everything else are marketed as the cure to establishing meaningful connection with others. The problem is that convenient contact cannot fix the deeper issue within us that makes us lonely.
There is another “7” in the account that most folks miss. 7 times he observes that the created thing is “good.” The pattern of “good” statements is not associated with the end of each day. Rather, with the completion of various components of the creation. The first time takes place with the creation of light, which is good in and of itself. Second with the separation of the heavens, earth, sea, and land. The significance of this stage is the divisions of the observable parts of creation. The third instance happens once the land is covered with plant life, which brings the land to completion. The fourth took place in relation to the skies coming to completion with the stars, moon, and sun being separated.
Each of the 7 good statements accompanies something being competed or brought to its full state. The skies weren’t complete until the celestial bodies were placed and filled the heavens. Then God declared them “good.”
It is important to note that the word “good” here is loaded to overflowing with meaning. Some translators render it “beautiful” because that is part of the flavor of the idea. It also carries an ethical connotation. The creation was created good. It glorified God and operated in proper order.
When we arrive in chapter 2 we see Adam doing what God created him to do. He works and cares for the creation. He tends the garden. Work is part of what Adam does as a natural extension of who he is. Incidentally, Adam was not made to tend the garden. The garden was made for him. He did not live to work. He worked because work is part of who we are as beings created in God’s image. It is a gift and we see that gift in the original created order. It only becomes otherwise when the fall sets everything off its created order.
Something else happens in Chapter 2 that is significant: God observes that it is “not good” for Adam to be alone. That is huge for several reasons. First, it is an indication that Adam’s state of aloneness is incomplete. Whereas he declared other parts of the creation “good” when they came to completion, God sees that Adam is incomplete without community.
One of the big reasons for this “incompleteness” is found in the nature of God, in whose image Adam was made. The apostle John repeatedly identifies “love” as quality inherent to God’s very nature. One way we see this manifest is in the Trinity. Love is unusual because in order for it to exist, it must be aimed at t something. I love my wife, kids and cookies. I cannot love without an object. The Trinity is a part of God’s loving nature. He is the only eternal being having created everything, including time and space. Therefore, for God to love he must be in community with himself. In the Trinity we see God the Father in community with and loving the Son and the Sprit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and Son. They love and are in community with each other. This is central to the very nature of God. Adam was incomplete because he is made in God’s image, but lacks an equal to love. This is illustrated by the first task Adam undertakes when God sets out to complete Adam. He names all of the animals, which displays his “lordship” or rule over them. For ancient Jews, the act of naming someone or something displayed authority. Ultimately this process reveals that none of the creatures is a “fit helper.” Part of the reason for this is that none is his equal. He rules over them and therefore cannot experience proper community with them. They might provide a type of companionship, but they cannot “complete” him. This makes the choice to make Eve from his rib significant. She is part of him.
It’s easy to make treat this passage as if it is only about marriage. It is not. Certainly marriage is central to the text. However, when we look at the larger collection of ideas in scripture we don’t find the idea that people are incomplete or lesser as a result of singleness. I would argue that marriage is an important part of life and the counterpart of a wife can bring people to completion, but it is not everything. Community is the larger principle behind this text. We are made to be connected to each other and it is not good for man to be alone.
There is another idea to be found in this text that is easy to miss. Adam had companionship of sorts with the animals. He also had companionship with God Himself. If we read the full Eden account we find the idea that Adam enjoyed a very personal, face to face, relationship with God. This was also part of what he was designed to experience. However, finding community in other humans was necessary for his completion. We were designed to be in community with God AND each other.
At the end of the account of Eve’s creation and their union, we find a simple statement that can easily be overlooked. The text mentions that they pair was “naked and not ashamed.” This is vital to understand why we often experience loneliness even when surrounded by others. The nakedness of the pair points to their openness. There was nothing to hide or be ashamed of.
This is the first step for understanding why community in work and personal lives is such a big deal. We need to know that we were made to be in community. It goes to the heart of our design as creatures. It is part of how we were created in God’s image. In addition, we were made to be open, with nothing to hide.
Without that openness and connection, we cannot feel connected. Whenever we try to fill that part of our life with anything other that connection to God and each other, we make our emptiness worse.
Do you ever feel like work related stress has taken control of your life? Do you routinely get home at the end of the day ready to collapse in front of the TV for a few hours of zoning out before sleeping restlessly, only to do it all over again tomorrow? Do you live for the weekends, only to find you’re too tired to do anything when they arrive?
Americans have a toxic relationship with work. Stress consumes all of our time and energy, leaving nothing behind for us to enjoy with our families. We were not meant to live this way. God designed us to enjoy our lives and our work. So why is it all so out of whack?
This Sunday we looked at the first chunk of Ecclesiastes 4. The philosophy book takes a practical look at how our lives get out of whack and how we can put things in the proper order again.
This week we looked at the various ways our work takes over our lives. Next Sundy we will dig into the solution that God offers us for getting things back into the proper order.
If you have questions or comments, leave them in the comment section and I will try to answer them during a deep dive livestream next week. You can also email your questions.
I’ll be posting follow up articles looking at different aspects of this week’s message .Please consider subscribing to my blog or asking to be added to our email list. Also, if this material helps you let us know or share it with a friend.