In the midst of this season’s twinkle lights, Christmas music, shopping, and festivities, the refrain of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” has been echoing in my mind: “Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy. Oh tidings of comfort and joy.”

These tidings (or news) refer, of course, to the gospel message—that Jesus came to earth to save wayward man. But comfort? And joy? I haven’t been feeling them much lately. In fact, the holiday’s frenetic sights and sounds, so often artificial in flavor, have merely revealed by contrast just how challenging real life can be.

One real life lesson God has been teaching me over the past 15 years is that my personal comfort is not his priority. My husband and I have done our best to raise our children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Yet we have struggled with teenage rebellion and depression. We have tried to live healthy lives, yet multiple surgeries, radiation treatment, and two heart attacks litter our medical history. I know others facing greater hardships: a husband dying of MSA, a disease like Lou Gehrig’s; a wife in a lengthy battle with cancer; a single friend with chronic, excruciating pain. Life has been hard, and some days quite dark, even though we each love God and desire to serve him.

Does that mean God is not with us? Do only those with seemingly easy lives enjoy God’s favor? Is physical comfort something we should even expect in this world? No, no, and probably not. In our self-focused, consumer-driven society, immediate gratification tries to play god. (Think fast-food restaurants, next-day delivery, and our inevitable impatience at traffic lights and grocery stores.) But that is not how El Shaddai, the Lord God Almighty, works.

Romans 5:6 is stark both in its human description and its heavenly prescription: “When we were utterly helpless, with no way of escape, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners who had no use for him.” We—sinful, ungrateful mankind–had a need. God met that need through the gift of his son. At just the right time. What amazing comfort we can take from this fact! But until Christ returns and makes all things new, we’ll continue to face struggles in this fallen world.

Scripture bears this out poignantly in the record of Christ’s advent. Consider a young Jewish girl from Nazareth named Mary. She was chosen to bear the messiah. “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” announced the angel Gabriel as he shared God’s plan (Luke 1:28b). And what was God’s perfect plan for this devout young woman? She became pregnant before she was married—a moral outrage in the eyes of her community and culture. Her fiancé determined to divorce her. She made a difficult journey to Bethlehem while pregnant, arriving to find no place for them to stay, and bore baby Jesus far from the help of family and friends. No part of this plan was easy or physically comfortable. Yet God’s favor was explicit.

Consider Joseph. Chosen to become Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph is acknowledged as “a just man” in Matthew 1:19. And how did God show his favor to this just man? Joseph’s fiancé became pregnant before they were married, forcing Joseph to decide whether to have Mary stoned–the legally-dictated punishment for the apparent adultery–or to quietly divorce her. He received instructions in a dream to take Mary as his wife still, to name the child she was pregnant with “Jesus” (Immanuel, God with us), and to raise this important son that was not his own. He was forced by the Roman government to leave home and job to travel the 70 rugged miles to Bethlehem for a census, helping his very pregnant wife. Once there, he was unable to secure proper lodging for them even as Mary approached labor. Easy? No. Angst-free? No way. Still directed and blessed by God? Definitely.

Finally, consider Jesus. The author and sustainer of all creation “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), and “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). This one, of whom the Father said “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22), “was pierced for our transgressions…(and)…crushed for our iniquities.” For what purpose? Isaiah 53:5 continues: “the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

God is with us, but His favor does not guarantee the easy life we often crave. In fact, sacrifice seems to be a recurring theme in this Advent narrative. Mary was willing to accept God’s plan: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Joseph was obedient: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25). Jesus himself relinquished his heavenly majesty and authority to become a poor human baby, confined by time, constrained by flesh, with the mission to live a perfect life in this imperfect word, die a humiliating and agonizing death bearing the sins of mankind, and rise again having conquered sin and death for all who call on Him.

This Christmastime I’m reminded that the physical comfort I so often hope for is not at all what that Christmas carol is about. It’s about the spiritual comfort of knowing that Jesus—Immanuel–has come so we are not alone. We continue to trudge through the darkness of this fallen world, but Jesus—the light of the world–guides us, strengthening us and assuring us that even the most difficult path is, in the scope of eternity, only a “light and momentary trouble” (2 Cor. 4:17). Christ calls us to willingly follow him, to be obedient to his leading, to sacrifice our selfish desires for God’s greater purposes.

And we shouldn’t fear doing so. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” declared the angel Gabriel as he shared the news of what would come (Luke 1:30). The angel speaking to Joseph affirmed the same: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear…” (Matthew 1:20). As we face the challenges in our own lives—today’s struggles and tomorrow’s unknowns–we too should take courage. “Fear not, for I am with you,” God assures his people in Isaiah 41:10. “Be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

You and I must decide whose will is more important—God’s or our own. Let’s make ourselves available for God’s use, as Mary did. Let’s choose the path of obedience, like Joseph. Let’s love as Christ did when he came, lived, died, and rose to rescue mankind. And whether life is good or almost too hard to bear, “let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God…the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). This Advent season let us look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith…(who) is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). As the Christmas carol reminds us, Christ’s advent sows comfort. Obedience and sacrifice reap joy!

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New Englander Debbie O’Brien homeschooled her son and two daughters over 19 years while writing and editing on the side. With the loving support of her husband of 34 years, she now helps homeschoolers at Christianbook, chases her three grandchildren, herds her two Siamese, and awaits God’s next step in this journey called life.