Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
And so begins one of the most well-known and beloved Christmas carols. Because Jesus has come, we can experience joy like never before! We see it in the birth narrative in the gospels. All of the key players— the shepherds, Mary and Joseph, and the angels—seem to experience some level of joy and praise. The angel even said as much to the shepherds—”Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10) And we see joy today as we celebrate Christmas.
Or do we?
While I don’t believe that our Christmas celebration today is devoid of joy, I do wonder how much of our celebration is excitement, merriment, and happiness connected to the holiday, rather than joy connected to Jesus. And let me quickly add, that I don’t think there is anything wrong with being excited, merry, and happy about the Christmas holiday season; but at the same time, I would suggest that we need to be careful to preserve and develop true joy in our hearts this time of the year, and help our kids do the same.
So how do we do that? How do we foster joy in our kids? Here are five suggestions to get you started:
Teach what joy really is.
This one is critical. We have to teach our kids what joy is, and just as importantly, what it is not. Joy is not happiness. Sure, they can coexist and they most often do, but joy is much, much more than happiness. Happiness tends to be situational—it is anchored to what we experience. We eat a good meal and we feel happy. We spend time with a good friend and we feel happy. We get a great Christmas gift and we feel happy. We eat a bad meal and we feel…unhappy. We miss a good friend and we feel…unhappy. We don’t get the Christmas gift we wanted and we feel…unhappy. You get the idea.
Here’s the thing. We need to appreciate and honor the various emotions we feel, because they are given to us by God. So there is nothing at all wrong with feeling happy, or sad, or frustrated, or hurt, or even angry. We can certainly sin in how we act on our emotions, but feeling the emotions themselves is not problematic. We are not wrong when we feel sad. But when we feel sad, we do not feel happy. And if happiness were the same as joy, we would violate Scripture in that moment because 1 Thessalonians 5:16 commands us to rejoice always.
Joy has to be beyond feeling happy. In fact, it has to be beyond our emotions altogether (can you command an emotion?). So now that we know in part what joy is not, what is it? Philippians 4:4 is instructive:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
Notice to what joy is anchored: Jesus. Joy—true joy—is anchored to who Jesus is and our relationship with Him. And because Jesus is unchanging and our relationship with Him is unchanging as well, our joy can and should be constant. And that is why Scripture can command us to be joyful—because joy is a posture of our mind and heart that is centered on the goodness of Christ Jesus. Which is why a few verses later, we read:
Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
When we set our mind on the goodness of God—on the gospel—we will by joyful. Even while we are sad. Our kids need to understand this. Following Jesus will not always make us feel happy, but we can always be overwhelmed with the joy of knowing Jesus and being known and loved by Him.
Remind them of their greatest Treasure.
If joy is a posture of the mind and heart centered on the goodness of Jesus, we need to help our kids understand and appreciate how beautiful He is. The reason we live without joy so often is because we fail to value Jesus as our greatest treasure. Instead, we hold other treasures up above Him. Possessions. Entertainment. Hobbies. People. None of these are bad in of themselves, but none of these are greater treasures than Jesus.
I would suggest there are two paths we need to take in teaching our kids that Jesus is our greatest treasure. The first is to show our kids how all other candidates don’t satisfy. They are all situational—we lose possessions, entertainment and hobbies end, people disappoint and hurt us—and they are not what our souls truly crave. So we need to warn our kids about the allure of holding anything apart from Jesus as our greatest treasure. But we also need to camp out on showing our kids how amazing Jesus is. The more our kids are in awe of Jesus and love Him, the more likely they will be to hold onto Him as their greatest treasure. And when Jesus is a kid’s greatest treasure, she will live with lasting joy.
Remind your kids about their identity in Christ over and over.
As our kids see Jesus as their greatest treasure, they also need to understand that their fundamental identity is tied to their relationship with Him. This is so important. Our value is anchored in Christ, not who we are apart from Him. Sure God has designed us with different personalities, interests, and so forth; and that matters. But we cannot define ourselves and find worth in these areas. Our worth rests in Jesus. I trust you can see how knowing this and living it leads to joy. Think about how many of your kids struggle with who they are, with fitting in, and with feeling worthy. We cannot point them anywhere else but the gospel to address these important struggles. And we have to point them to their identity in Christ over and over again to get this to sink in deeply into their hearts.
Point them to God’s love and grace.
Too many of us wrongly think that God’s love for us is conditioned on our obedience. God loves us more when we obey; He loves us less when we disobey. This is contrary to the gospel. God’s love is constant because it is fixed on who we are in Christ. Even when we disobey, God’s love continues to rest on us fully. We are forgiven in Christ. That’s what grace is all about: knowing that we don’t have to be good enough for God, but trusting in Christ’s perfect goodness which has been given to us. Living in a way to try to earn God’s love demoralizes and defeats. It kills joy. But basking in God’s constant love and grace will prompt deep joy in our kids.
Point them to eternity.
Life is full of suffering, hardship, and pain. We know this, and our kids do too. As hard as some of us try to shield and protect our kids (and we have to question that approach), our kids are not exempt from the consequences of living in a fallen world or from the consequences of their own sin. Trusting in Jesus and following Him is not an escape from the harsh realities of living on this side of eternity.
Which is why we need to talk about the other side, too.
We need to point our kids to the hope that we have—that one day, God is going to make everything right and all of the suffering, pain, and results of sin will be no more. They need that hope—we need that hope—to carry us through the dark days that want to drain our joy. Yes, today is difficult. Yes, today is full of tears and sorrow. But a day is coming when all this is in the past!
I have shared before that my daughter Hannah was born without a right leg below her knee. At times, having a prosthesis is challenging for my daughter. There are times when she wishes she had two “normal” legs. That weighs on her earthly daddy’s heart.
But, there is hope. Hannah has trusted in Jesus.
And so, one day, my Hannah will have two “normal” legs and she will run, skip, dance, and tumble like never before. And she will be joined by so many others who never had fully functional bodies or minds on this side of eternity. And we will all join in on an amazing, joyful celebration of the One who made it all possible. The One who crushed sin which brought all of those difficult things about. The One who made all things new, right, and glorious again.
And that truth gives us joy today.
How do you foster joy in your kids? Leave a comment below.
Here is more help for leaders preparing for the December 20, 2015 session (Unit 5, Session 2) of The Gospel Project for Kids.
Brian Dembowczyk is the team leader for The Gospel Project for Kids. He served in local church ministry for over 16 years before coming to LifeWay in 2014. Brian earned an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a D.Min. from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Brian, his wife, Tara, and their three children—Joshua, Hannah, and Caleb—live in Murfreesboro, TN, where Brian enjoys drinking coffee and teaching 1-3 graders at City Church.