Every department store seems to be blasting the Christmas carol “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” But for many of you, that message doesn’t seem to ring true. Not because of fatty food or fractured finances, but because of family.
The holidays are a time to get together with family. Family is where we naturally find a sense of identity, security, acceptance, and encouragement. And for many of us, that’s what we experience. We run to our families in times of trouble, and they’re there to catch us and comfort us. But that’s what makes the holidays so hard. For some, that special someone who brought so much peace won’t be at the dinner table this year.
Maybe for you, family doesn’t provide a sense of peace. In times of trouble, you run to your family and are ignored. The ones who are supposed to catch and comfort you are too busy dealing with their own issues. Their response leads you to believe that you don’t matter.
Even worse, maybe you ran to your family in the past and were hurt. The place where you hoped to find peace, met you with pain. The expectations of the holidays only magnify these unpleasant memories.
In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk explains what trauma and grief and suffering do to our bodies and our brains. Logically, you know that the event that caused you so much pain is in the past, but your body keeps the score. Your body and your emotions remember what happened, and you continue to live in the anxiety, fear, and sadness of the past.
Van der Kolk shares one definition of trauma: “Traumatic stress is an illness of not being able to be fully alive in the present.” In other words, everyone around you might be singing Christmas carols, eating cookies, and opening presents, but your grief and pain keep you from being present.
So how can you begin to enjoy the present, even the holidays, without being stuck in the past?
Overcoming past grief and trauma can be a lifelong endeavor, as a person walks with trusted counselors, pastors, and other support. So I’m not offering a quick-fix solution. And yet, the Bible does give us incredible guidance when it comes to processing our past so we might be fully alive in the present.
I’ve spoken to a number of people who’ve experienced severe grief and trauma. They all eventually get to the question: “Where was God?” In other words, “If God is good and powerful, why didn’t he stop the pain that I suffered?” That’s an understandable and even logical question. The good news is that many people in the Bible voice the same concern.
In the book of Psalms, there are numerous times when God’s people call out in despair. For example, Psalm 10 opens with these words: “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Jesus himself echoes Psalm 22 when he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). So let me remind you that you have solid biblical support to cry out to God.
Lament is a healthy place to start processing your past, but the biblical authors don’t stay there forever. They recount their past with eyes of faith. They come to see that in some way God was present, even in their suffering.
For example, when the author of Lamentations is recounting the fall of Jerusalem and all the pain and suffering they endured, he says, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed” (3:22). In other words, he believed that even though he couldn’t see it in the moment, God was holding back the full force of evil when they were attacked. He believed that God was present in some way in the middle of their pain.
Because he believed God was with him in the past, he could believe that God would be with him in the present. That’s why the author goes on to say, “I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him’” (3:24). Even though the author had lost all things, he still had God with him in that moment. If he still had God, he had everything he needed.
Process your past so you can be fully alive in the present.
Imagine the moment of your grief or trauma. Imagine the Lord God holding back the full force of evil that was trying to harm you. Imagine Jesus sitting next to you, weeping with you.
Again, this might take time and help from trusted counselors, pastors, and friends. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, you might begin to believe that God was with you in the past. And if God was with you in the past, you can trust that he will be with you in the present.
The holidays can be hard because of unpleasant memories from the past that can rob us of being alive in the present. I pray you and I would begin to believe that Jesus was present in our past so that we would believe that Jesus is here in the present. Then we can trust that he will guide us into the future. If God is present, then this might just become the most wonderful time of the year.