The Christmas season means different things to different people. One of the biggest factors in determining this is the stage of life we may find ourselves in. And it’s in these stages I think we can find a deeper understanding of what Christianity means to us, as well.

(Note: in this article, I’m discussing Christmas in the non-religious sense. For a discussion of the religious elements, see this article.)

When you’re young, Christmas is all about what you get. The month leading up to the magical morning is spent wondering about what gifts you’re going to unwrap. Maybe a letter to Santa is penned and shipped. Maybe you snoop around looking for where mom hid your gift. The main priority is about the presents under the tree.

Once we grow a little older, though, and get a bit more perspective (and maybe a little more money in our pockets), we learn how true it is that it’s more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). We learn that when you give to someone else, you get both the joy of picking out a gift for someone AND the joy of seeing them open it and use it.

And, finally, the older you get, as people go their separate ways in life and start their own families, and as older family members pass on from this life, perspective on Christmas changes yet again. Getting and giving gifts is still a fun tradition, but the true beauty of the holiday is being with those we love. Those who have lost a parent, a spouse, or a child will tell you just how much more acute the pain is at the holidays. It is not so much the gift giving and receiving that is missed, but rather just being together.

Our Christian lives share a similar pattern of understanding as we grow and mature.

At first, it’s common for Christianity to be about what we get. We get the promise of heaven, the avoidance of hell, and we get a God who hears us when we are hurting or in need. All of those are good, important promises to cling to, but the more we mature as Christians the more we realize the blessing of service.

As that realization comes to us, our focus is less on passively receiving blessings and more on actively blessing others. The immature never gain a sense of duty as Christians. They just remain for the things Christianity promises. But all those who grow will realize that they are expected to walk in the good works God has prepared for them (Ephesians 2:10). Not to be confused with a burdensome list of duties, instead we find that these commands make us more and more joyful as we obey them and spread God’s love to others.

Still one stop remains in our Christian maturity. As with Christmas, giving and receiving still remain part of the equation, but there comes a time where we realize the greatest value of our walk – our relationship with God. The ability to know Him is the greatest blessing we could ever have. “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). Everything we do as Christians should have the end goal in mind of growing closer to our God and growing more like Him. Paul demonstrated this in Philippians 3, where he talked about everything he gave up. The purpose was not heaven, or the completion of some list of duties, but rather that he may gain Christ (3:8).

When Christianity is only about what we get, it’s terribly easy to slip into doing only the minimum we feel we have to. Why do we see so many Christians content with coming once per week and not serving their church family? Because they are doing what they feel they must to get what they want out of Christianity – comfort and hope of heaven, namely. Why is “spiritual, but not religious” such a widespread problem? Because people believe they can get what they need out of God on their own terms. Yes, it’s good to focus on the promises and blessings God gives, but only as an extension of Himself. As author John Piper has often asked,

“If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”

When Christianity is only about our sense of duty, two dangers arise. We can either pat ourselves on the back with a self-righteous sense that we have done our duty, or we can beat ourselves up with the knowledge that nothing we can do will ever be enough. Neither is the correct angle. It’s in our helplessness that Jesus saves us (Romans 3:20, 5:6). If you feel burnt out, realize that Christianity is not about doing enough for God to be saved. It’s about trusting that Jesus did enough on the cross. Live as someone confident that you are saved through Him, and not through yourself.

Focus on the promises God gives, and don’t neglect your Christian duties. But never lose sight of the true joy of Christianity: we have a Father who loves us, a Savior who died and rose again for us, and a Spirit who comforts us. The Almighty Creator cares about insignificant little me (Psalm 8:4). He wants me to talk to Him. He smiles down on me, and wants me to live with Him eternally. That’s the very best thing about being a Christian.