On Christmas Eve day of 1994, I spoke at the funeral service for my maternal grandmother. This most memorable and painful Christmas drove home the reality that a season of serenity stirs deep sorrow in the hearts of many.

Loneliness through separation from family. Loss of loved ones. Limited resources restricting our generosity. Spending that creates financial burden. Unresolved family conflict. Regrets over past transgressions. Exhaustion from extravagant preparations. Brief and shallow conversations. The conscious realization that our experienced satisfaction from our Christmas interactions fails to meet up to our lofty expectations—These can be disheartening.

We don’t live in the pretend-but-perpetually-joyful world of Hallmark Christmas specials with guaranteed happy endings. How can we reconcile our pain with God’s promise that Christmas offers joy to all? God’s angel told the shepherds, “I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for ALL the people…” (Luke 2:10).

The reason for joy? “There has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11) “You” means that Christ offers salvation to “all people”, including societal and religious outcasts like the shepherds. “Savior” reveals the purpose of Christ’s birth—“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) Great joy at Christmas comes to human beings who deserve God’s punishment for our wickedness, but instead receive a pardon by trusting that sinless Jesus died in our place (Romans 5:8) and rose to remove our guilt (Romans 4:25). Believers rejoice, not because we are faultless, but we’re forgiven and possess eternal life.

Our joy is not dependent upon our physical circumstances, but on our spiritual condition and God’s promises. Despite the sorrows of this world, God caused us “to be born again to a living hope… to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away…” (1 Peter 1:3-4).

Joy doesn’t remove our sadness in the face of tragic circumstances, but realigns our perspective. We enjoy the blessings of this life but don’t expect them to fully satisfy us in the way Christ alone can—“In Him you are made complete.” (Colossians 2:10) We don’t despair over loneliness, loss, or disappointment knowing they can never separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:35-39). Instead we are driven to the only source of lasting fulfillment. “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:26) We can rejoice always not only because, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1), but also because He’s secured our future.

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