I have a confession.
This happened a few years back, during this same wondrous holiday season, when in place of peace and joy, I was feeling overrun, defeated, exasperated. Parenting wasn’t quite “working out” the way I’d hoped. I was worried (apparently more than he was) that my eldest was running outta time to shape up and make the cut (i.e., Santa’s “nice” list). Despite repeated warnings that “Santa is watching,” the thought of falling on old Saint Nick’s “naughty” list didn’t seem to phase my willful child.
I, on the other hand, was troubled. What’s the point of telling kids that Santa, or the elf on the shelf, is diligently watching and keeping track of who’s been naughty or nice and who deserves a gift from the North Pole, if any and every child who simply believes in Santa is eligible to receive a gift every year, no matter the infractions, attitudes or bad choices? Come on now. What are Santa’s standards?
Well, every Christmas, Santa leaves letters for our kids with their presents. Each letter starts and ends with praise, noting the things about said child that made Santa smile over the past year. The part I’m most grateful for, however, is where Santa backs us moms and dads up and manages to mention a couple “needs improvement” areas in-between, too. Wise man, that Santa.
Ok now, brace yourselves, my big-hearted softies. Here’s where I ‘fess up.
That particular Christmas, my eldest received a letter and only a letter.
I watched cautiously from afar as the kids raced down the stairs to tear open their presents. Though my heart ached, I hid under a camouflage of calmness and feigned ignorance as I watched Son search for a Santa gift while his younger siblings reached for theirs. Eventually, he sat down and read his letter. In it, Santa explained that while Son had shined in many areas, lately there was a hard-to-ignore lack of effort, owning responsibility, and showing respect – for others, for authority and for some key behavioral expectations – that made it hard to justify a present. Santa was confident Son could and would do much better and looked forward to celebrating Son’s improvement next year with a special gift.
Son looked up and broke the news to us. Santa hadn’t brought him anything. He handed the letter to us thoughtfully before proceeding to open his presents from friends and family. (And there were plenty too, so don’t be too sad for him, folks.)
Now, of course I felt sorry for my child. Of course I was saddened by the surprised, then downcast, look on his face. Of course I’d wanted him to enjoy a gift from Santa too.
But to spare him from forming a destructive habit of taking things for granted, of expecting without personal effort or responsibility, of not having negative consequences from which to learn and grow — I did the harder thing. I chose discipline over grace, suspecting the latter could be more harmful than helpful in this instance.
Now, I don’t know whether that Christmas morn was life-changing for Son and what impact our Santa memories will have on the kids. But this Santa story sure makes me thankful for our heavenly Father and the two “lists” He keeps with all our names written on them.
After all, to be perfectly honest, as adults, it would bite to think Someone is watching over us with a constantly scrutinizing, judging eye and pointing finger and always shaking His giant head at our ill thoughts, misspoken words and “bad choices,” and mumbling, “Nope. Not you. Not you either. Fail. FAIL. EPIC FAIL…” Wouldn’t it? And yet, I get the feeling many people view God, in one form or another, as a distant, cold, merciless tyrant in the sky just waiting to exact punishment, pain or havoc in our lives. And just because.
Unlike Santa, God isn’t some fantastical, fictional figment of man’s imagination. On the contrary, it’s man and everything known (and not yet known) to man that were figments of God’s awesome, boundless imagination, which He then created and put forth into the universe.
“For in him all things were created:
things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,
whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;
all things have been created through him and for him.”
Also, unlike Santa, while God actually does see all things, He’s not watching in order to see who makes it on a “nice” or “naughty” list. Because God doesn’t, can’t, judge as the world does. He is too holy to accept sin and darkness, anywhere, anytime. There are no gray areas and “borderline” cases with God. We’re either good and all good (i.e., keeping all of His commandments and living up to His perfect standard) all the time. Or we’re not. But no one could make that cut, on their own. Everyone is “naughty” if the standard is one of perfect holiness.
“Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt;there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 53:3, NIV)
No. “Naughty” or “Nice” aren’t how God makes His lists. God watches and waits with compassion for His children to repent — to say sorry and show remorse for their sins and wrongfulness — and to look to the one true hero of Christmas, God’s gift to us – Jesus Christ or Emmanuel (“God with us”) — to get us “in” or “on the list.” Accepting that gift means receiving the promise of God’s presence and eternal life with Him.
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” (1 John 4:9, NIV)
God’s lists are simply the “believing ” (or “in”) list and the “unbelieving” (or “out”) list. No one can earn his or her way “in.” Only Jesus could and willingly did pay the price for all. Acknowledging and appreciating that is our ticket in.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17, NIV)
So to whom is God’s gift available? “the world.”
And who makes the cut? “whoever believes in him.”
And what is God’s gift? “eternal life.”
Be glad then that God isn’t a scary jerk in the sky. That He’s always had and will ever have more mercy than me…er, Santa. That He’s not counting the checks against us or how many times we “clipped down” on his behavior chart from “green” to “yellow” or “orange” or God forbid, “RED.” (Eek!) I, for one, am eternally grateful that everything His Word, the bible, tells us and that everything my own life and personal experiences corroborates, that God is indeed a God of unfathomable love and grace and mercy for people, all people. His best and most prized creation.
This Christmas, let’s celebrate the invaluable and everlasting gift that doesn’t have to be earned, that was fully paid off by Another, that can’t be stolen or destroyed, that changes everything and makes everything possible.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV)