The second greatest Christmas present I ever received

The first, of course, is Jesus Himself.

The second was about ten years ago when, in the throes of chronic depression, I woke up on Christmas morning happy. There was no reason for it, it simply happened.

I wasn’t exuberant, I was tranquil. I felt free. Everything felt quietly right. I had no guilt. No worry. I wasn’t even bored. As far as I can recall, it lasted all day, although I noticed it less as I got used to it.

Over the next few days, it gradually faded and the familiar depression returned, but for some reason that didn’t bother me particularly. Normally I would have clung desperately to an experience like the one I’d had, but in this case worrying about holding on to it seemed unnecessary, somehow. Inconsistent, even.

Besides, having felt it once made all the difference.

Partly, it gave me hope. Knowing that it was possible for me to feel like that made it worthwhile to work my way back to it. In future weeks, when I returned to the Scriptures to understand joy, one of the things that I realized was that joy is a process. Psalm 16 said:

You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.

I started reading this as saying that I am on the path of life, headed towards the perfect joy that is found in His presence, but not there yet. The fruit of the Spirit is joy, but fruit takes time to grow.

It also let me know what happiness was supposed to feel like. It’s hard to describe why that was so important, but it was. The closest analogy I can come up with is learning something physical. I remember rehearsing dance moves for a school musical. In the first few minutes, we would be shown the pieces of a particular step. We’d copy the way we were shown to move the left leg, the right leg, our bodies and arms. I’d try to do the step myself, holding together all the directions in my mind at once, and it would feel awkward and confused. Then, at about the third or fourth try, there would be a moment. By accident, I’d do it the right way, and from then on it was a lot easier. Once I’d felt it, I could repeat that by memory — not as a complicated series of disconnected body movements, but as one, essential, unified action. The step wouldn’t be perfect yet. I still had to think about how to move the left leg, the right leg, etc., but now those were merely minor modifications to a movement I already knew how to do.

Learning the right kind of tennis stroke or golf stroke worked the same way. Once I’d actually done it, I could repeat the same action by memory, and just tweak the stroke in small ways to get it right.

This was just like that, but instead of the feel of a smooth backhand it was the feel of being happy. I could remember what it felt like, and aim at that.

I’m still not sure why it happened. I speculated for a while that maybe I had some sort of forgotten dream whose effects were still lingering when I woke. These days, I am taking the idea of demons seriously, and I wonder if God lifted some sort of demonic oppression for a day. Maybe it was just the inner metaphorical demons of guilt and fear and despair that He temporarily released me from. Actually, I don’t think the two explanations are mutually exclusive.

The one thing I’m sure of is that I didn’t earn it. It wasn’t because I changed my attitude, or disciplined my thought life or finally surrendered my heart to God. It just happened to me.

Recently I was reflecting on my life so far. Those years of depression were one of five really difficult life struggles I’ve had. Each struggle was incredibly sad in some way. With each one, God eventually delivered me. Each made me stronger somehow, and became an essential part of my life story, so that I became ultimately glad to have gone through it. Even though I was deeply and desperately involved in each struggle, in each case there was something important God did that I could not or would not do for myself. In each case there was a moment of unexpected grace. In the case of depression, that moment was a Christmas morning a decade or so ago.

Merry Christmas, everyone. May God be as bountifully good to you in your need as He was that day to me!

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