I don’t know if it is the same for you, but I have found that the Lord quite often uses the holiday season to convict me.
In his grace and wisdom, God sees fit to use the time-honored tradition of bringing the most eccentric and peculiar people together under one roof in the name of family to, as Paul says, conform me to the image of his Son – Romans 8:29.
The Lord also providentially uses the holidays and its stresses of packing cars, driving across country (in traffic), answering the “are we there yet” question 152 times to remind me that my hope only comes from him – along with my forgiveness.
These trip troubles, relational stresses, and materialistic cravings that so often accompany this season remind us of where our hearts are not, and where our hearts should be.
I am sure we all feel it; maybe some of us have even said it: “Thanksgiving should not only be a holiday; it should be an attitude that defines us as believers.” Giving thanks is what we should be doing every week, every day, every hour.
Yet, even with such laudable thoughts in mind, it was not always gratitude that filled my heart but rather a short temper and a slow, steady burn caused by the stresses at hand and, if completely honest, the exorbitant amount of food in my stomach.
Instead of thankfulness, Thanksgiving was producing conviction. But God, in his grace, turned my struggle into gratitude.
You see this year God came at me from a different direction. The problems and pressures of the holidays had its effect; however, there was something unfamiliar gnawing at me this time and it was not the sweet potato casserole.
This year my conviction centered not as much on what was directly in front of me but rather what I had begun to overlook. You see, somewhere between the ill-advised trip to the mall and the gratuitous marches to the refrigerator, God overcame the effects of my tryptophan-filled stomach to show me the gift that I had been taking for granted: his bride, the church.
I had forgotten to give God thanks for His bride – the recipients of God’s grace and a result of Christ’s redemption. As my conviction settled in, I began to realize that my personal experience was probably indicative for many of us.
If you are like me, you probably focus your attention on individual salvation and your personal walk with God – both highly important things to consider – but forget the corporate reality of the church in the process.
It should be noted the New Testament emphasizes both the individual and the corporate. When we think about it, most discussions of salvation are done within the context of the church as most letters are written to a community of believers.
Through the lens of Scripture, one of the biggest gifts God gives to individual believers is the church, because it is the church that God uses to bring about our sanctification and make us more like himself.
Take Ephesians 2:21-22 for example. In verse 21 Paul shows us that the church is being joined together and is growing into the holy temple of God.
Paul continues, writing that in Christ the church is being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (vs. 22). This “being built together” highlights the corporate work of sanctification that takes place in the ministry of the church.
The Spirit uses the biblically-based practices, ordinances, and members of the church to make God’s people more like Christ and prepare them for eternity with their Savior. Simply put, the church is not only a collection of individuals who are the recipients of sanctification; the church is also a corporate catalyst by which the Spirit brings about our sanctification.
To see this clearly, let’s look at a quick example of what the church does. For many churches, their central practice is the study and preaching of God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Timothy 4:1-8; 1 Timothy 4:13).
Why do we gather to study and hear the word preached? When we think about the context of the church itself, we could say that the primary point of teaching and preaching is the sanctification of believers. The church is by definition an assembly, or congregation, of like-minded disciples of Christ gathered together to worship the Lord and to grow in grace.
One of the main reasons Christ comes to this earth is to gather a people for himself so that they may be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16; cf. Leviticus 11:44; Exodus 9:6).
So as Paul tells us, Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word – Ephesians 5:25-26.
Here we see the importance of the church to Christ: He dies as a substitute for her. Paul goes on to tell us that he dies for the church so that the church might be sanctified and made pure.
And how does this take place? God sanctifies the church through the purifying power of His word.
So, you see, we gather corporately in Christ to be made holy like Christ. We gather to hear the word preached to be cleansed of all “spot or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:27).
Christ establishes his church so that we might be washed by the word of God, made “holy and without blemish,” and eternally stand in splendor before the Lord.
As God reminded me this holiday season, the church is of great importance. It should not be an afterthought, nor should we take it for granted.
We must remember that Christ came to die to establish this community (Romans 4:25; Galatians 1:4) and that God uses his church to sanctify us, so that we may be prepared to spend eternity with Him.
So as we work and minister, gather with friends and family, and even when we lie down on couches to rest up for the next meal, may we praise the bridegroom for making us His bride.
Let us remember Christ, the head of the church, as well as the church, the body of Christ.
May we always be thankful that we have Christ and we have his church, that community of believers God uses us to make us like Himself.
Ryan Lister, PhD, is an assistant professor of Theology at Louisiana College’s Caskey School of Divinity