A Word and a Prayer for When the Holidays are Tough

How God comforted me with one of the Bible’s most dysfunctional families

I typically dread the holiday season. The feeling begins to surface at the first sight of a pumpkin and costumes for Halloween; intensify around the time that grocery stores become jam packed with shoppers clutching their lists for Thanksgiving menus; and peak by the time December rolls around with back-to-back holiday parties seething with people repeatedly asking questions like, “So, are you going home for the holidays?” or “Have you finished your Christmas shopping?”

As simple as these questions sound on the surface, they imply that everyone has a ‘home’ to return to or, at the very least, a place that feels like one. They imply that there is a family or a group of people who will be gathering in joy and love to exchange gifts — I imagine while drinking hot cocoa and listening to the Best of Temptations Christmas. They also take for granted that everyone is ‘thankful’ for their family and time off to spend with them.

These questions would silently slice me like straight razors and I would push out an answer before I had time to process the wound. After so many encounters, I would find myself — for years — curled up in a king-sized hotel bed during the holidays counting the hours until my favorite day of the year (and the end of this painful stretch): New Year’s Eve.

And I know I’m not the only one.

In fact, I got into the practice of waiting around for insightful articles on how to cope with toxic family members or family estrangement during the holidays. I’d read them, save them, and occasionally send them to friends and loved ones as reminders why I once again bailed on their invitation to [insert event with ugly sweaters or family traditions here]. Then, I’d disappear into my hotel room and emerge a few days later, relieved and looking forward to the New Year.

But, in the past year, God has shown me that what I was doing was running and hiding, when I should have been surrendering and trusting.

A few weeks ago, I was reading a devotional when I came across the story of Hagar, the servant of Sarai and Abram (later Sarah and Abraham). Genesis 16 tells the story of how as a result of Sarai and Abram’s wavering faith in God, Hagar is forced to have sex with Abram to become pregnant with his heir. Rightfully so, once Hagar became pregnant she despised Sarai and treated her with contempt. When Sarai complained to Abram about Hagar’s attitude, Abram gave her the advice to handle her how she pleased, and Sarai chose to act in anger and abuse her.

When confronted with Sarai’s abuse, Hagar flees into the desert. It is there that the angel of the Lord appears and tells her that the Lord has heard her misery and reveals promises for her future and the future of her unborn child. The angel of the Lord tells Hagar to return and submit to Sarai. Her son would later be named Ishmael, meaning ‘God hears,’ and Hagar declares that she will call the Lord El Roi, meaning ‘the God who sees me.’

This story doesn’t have a happy ending by conventional standards: We don’t hear from Hagar for 13 years so we don’t know how her welcome reception was. And, when we do read more about Hagar and Ishmael, it’s because God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah was fulfilled with Isaac, and Hagar and Ishmael were forced out into the wilderness. While there, they become so desperate that Hagar cries out in prayer to the Lord to keep her son from dying of thirst, and the angel of God returns and declares that God has heard Ishmael’s weeping and will make his descendants a great nation (Genesis 21).

As odd as it may sound, the levels of dysfunction in this family story comforted me.

This story demonstrates the many complicated structures of “family” that are often overlooked during the holidays: There are those who are battling dwindling faith and acting out in anger. Marriages that are hanging on by a thread. Children being brought up in broken homes beyond their control.

We often celebrate the miracle of God’s faithfulness to Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, but I’ve rarely heard discussions about the level of trauma woven into the threads of this miracle. Hagar was raped (yes, I’m being technical here); Abraham was nonchalant; and Sarah was abusive. Yet, in the midst of all this we learn that:

1) God sees us.

2) God hears us.

3) God is faithful.

Herein lies the good news: Our God is big enough to see you, hear you, and be faithful to you and the people in your life who may have caused you pain during this season.

After years of running and hiding, I am learning that God was the missing component in the dozens of self-help articles I’ve read and the Hallmark movies I’ve binged while hiding in hotel rooms. Instead of turning to God with my pain and fear that I might never have that picture-perfect Christmas holiday, I was simply grinning and bearing through it all until I could finally pick my head up on the other side of the season. And the result was years of unnecessary heartache, guilt, shame, and rejection.

As I read Hagar’s story I felt tears form in the corner of my eyes at the thought of El Roi: the God who sees me. Often, we talk about how God knows us so intimately (Psalm 139) that he even knows the number of hairs on our head (Luke 12:7). But to be known and be seen are two different aspects of our intimacy with God.

Hagar presents us with yet another example of how our efforts to run and hide are no match for an omnipresent God. Just as God called out for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:9), the angel of the Lord makes inquiries about Hagar’s state of mind — a testament to how He is involved in every detail of our lives.

And, although the circumstances were not ideal, God’s very presence was enough to comfort Hagar and assure her that she was not alone. Years later, when she was in the wilderness with Ishmael, she remembered El Roi and cried out to God again in tears. And, once again, he saw her and he heard their cries.

This crazy Bible story is my comfort this holiday season, simply because it’s much closer to my real life than the picture perfect holiday cards stuffed inside my mailbox. And, it pulls me back from idolizing a perfect ending, a perfect family, or a perfect life by centering a perfect God who works all things together for good (Romans 8:28). I know that the same God who saw Hagar and heard Ishmael’s weeping in the wilderness sees me and hears me, and cares about my circumstances.

When I stumbled across this story a few weeks ago, it reminded me that the holidays, and especially Christmas, are not just about the families we were born into — and whether or not they are perfect — but a time to celebrate a God who has many names and whose character is given as gifts every day.

On Christmas we celebrate Immanuel, meaning ‘God is with us,’ in honor of our infinite God who was made flesh, and by doing so was able to endure the full range of experiences we have living in a fallen world. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit are the biggest indicators of a God who sees us, hears us, and is faithful. Within the triune nature of God we have a comforter, a counselor, an advocate, a provider, a source of strength, a protector, a friend. Yet, there’s still so much more.

And for this, I’m grateful.

This year, I didn’t buy an ugly Christmas sweater and I didn’t even put up a tree. I’m not dodging invites and I refuse to wallow in misery. I’m free of resentment and at peace with where God has me. I’m basking in the sight of God, embracing the feeling of being seen, known, and loved.

If you’re alone this holiday season, this is my prayer for you: I pray that you will cast off feelings of loneliness, rejection, and despair, and share your heart with God because he cares for you and he sees you (1 Peter 5:7; Psalm 55:22). I cancel the assignment of the enemy on your life and declare that any plans he has to use this season as a weapon against your mind will not prosper. I ask that God will open your eyes to new ways of seeing His hand upon you and grow your faith as He pulls you in deeper to the calling and purpose He has for your life. And lastly, I pray that you will experience God’s comfort through His presence (2 Corinthians 1:3–7) and peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).

I’m an ordinary person but I’m saved.