Years ago when working as a therapist, I often would call family members to come in alongside my clients who had depression. More often than not, those who are clinically depressed have a sense of helplessness and hopelessness fed quite innocently by family members who do things for them, mostly out of concern and even sympathy. My efforts would aim at helping family members instead do as much as possible “with” their depressed loved and as little as possible “for” that individual.
Often this would seem to families rather counter-intuitive as, by most accounts, the depressed member expressed a wish for someone to do things for them that they felt helpless to do for themselves. Part of their family therapy process would involve tearing up their member’s “wish list” and substituting a “with list” instead. Otherwise, what would happen is the depressed member, if getting what was wished for, would continue to feel helpless and, consequentially, hopeless as others had to do “for” him or her. This unintended consequence should always make us careful of what we wish for.
I think about this process each year as we turn the calendar page from November to December. With respect to the Christian faith, November tends to focus on being thankful for what God has done “for” us. By intuition this feels right, and so we continue into December with a “wish list” of things we want others to buy for us. Many of our preparations for Christmas carry some emphasis on doing for others. Everything seems to be about giving or buying for each other. And with these preparations comes more than the occasional depressed mood, as we sometimes struggle at all this being or doing “for.”
This year, this month, this season we often call Advent to mark the Christian Church calendar’s new year, I’m wondering what would happen if we tried doing as much as possible with others instead of “for” them. What if we traded in our “wish lists” for our “with lists?”
There’s a good reason for this, you know.
Christmas is what happened when God came to earth to be “with” us. We have a word for this, in fact. It is Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14 proclaims, “All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).” — NLT
Turned out, this baby born to an unmarried couple of poor pilgrims from a slum region of Galilee isn’t the Messiah people had wished for. Not at all. That baby Jesus never made anyone’s “wish list.” Instead, He came to fulfill something far more important, far more therapeutic, far more empowering: everyone’s “with list.” We Christians are too often deceived as, even in this season of Christian preparation, we imagine that Christ was sent here only to die for us. What if, instead, we were to celebrate this year how it is that Christ comes to live with us? Or, indeed, to suffer with us, to serve with us, and even to die with us? That we may then rise again with Him.
It’s not really about what God has come here to do “for” us. God is far too wise to reinforce our own sense of helplessness here in this world. God has chosen to instead empower us to become helpful persons “with” Jesus in this world. And it’s not about our “wish list” in this season of preparations. Nor anyone else’s. It’s about preparing to be “with” the Christ, Immanuel. It’s about remembering our own baptism in which we die “with” Christ and rise again “with” Christ; then facing temptations “with” Christ; overcoming temptations, trials, tribulations “with” Christ; ministering to our world “with” Christ; building God’s Kingdom on earth “with” Christ; being empowered, helpful, hopeful people “with” Christ; being and buying and doing and giving “with” other people whom we love. It’s called a “with list.”
It puts to rest our dark moods of depression in December, whatever our circumstance. No more learned helplessness.
And it’s what Christmas is really all about.