As my family sat down for dinner, I lit the first candle on our advent wreath. My young children, Lauren and Jared, smiled with Christmas anticipation, but I lacked the energy to smile back.

Memories of past Christmases haunted me. My six-figure income had purchased material happiness, something I thought we needed and deserved. My wife Tonya and I would buy nice gifts for the kids and we’d spend vacations shopping, eating out, or relaxing on the beach.

But those times were gone. The recession hit and I’d lost my job. Debts piled up. Tonya returned to teaching but her job would never afford us the lifestyle we considered acceptable.

I wondered, “Will we ever be happy again?”

Life began to change

At church, we began sitting in a back pew. People had heard about our financial struggles, and I didn’t want to discuss it. I hoped nobody would notice us. After worship one Sunday, I was rushing my family out when I heard, “Patrick, wait up!” My pastor was smiling and holding an envelope. “Someone left this on my desk for you.” Inside I found a $50 grocery store gift certificate and a note that read, “Merry Christmas! From a friend.”

My face burned with embarrassment. Tonya and I treasured our self-reliance. I never asked other people for help — I rarely even asked God.

“I can’t accept this,” I said.

“You have to,” the pastor replied. “I don’t know who it’s from.”

I stared at the gift certificate for a moment and sighed. We did need the help. I slid it into my pocket.

Over the years, we’d joyfully supported our church and other charities. But I relished accepting that gift certificate as much as a punch in the stomach. The old adage seemed true: it’s better to give than receive. On the way home, I gazed out the window as a wave of humiliation rushed over me.

Christmas anticipation

Throughout December, our children’s excitement grew. Lauren bounded in the door after her last day of school before Christmas. “Let’s go out for pizza!”

“Sweetheart,” I said, almost whispering, “we can’t afford that anymore.”

“But I want to do something special.” She glanced at Tonya. “We always go out for pizza and a movie.”

Lauren was right. Normally, we loved to celebrate special occasions by eating out and seeing a show. It seemed unfair that we could no longer enjoy the fun things in life.

“Tell you what,” Tonya proposed. “Why don’t we make homemade pizza together?”

Lauren beamed. “That’d be great!”

The four of us gathered around the table and made pizza from scratch — kneading the dough, cooking the sauce and adding the toppings. When dinner was ready, we dimmed the lights and ate by candlelight. Afterward, we all cuddled on the sofa and watched a movie borrowed from the library.

“This was awesome!” Jared said as the movie finished. “Let’s do this every week.”

Christmas morning, Lauren and Jared raced downstairs and found two scooters under the tree. My wife bought them using money she had received as a Christmas gift. Tonya and I had agreed not to exchange gifts that year.

Humble happiness

As I watched the kids admire their presents, I thought of the magi bringing gifts to Jesus. He was born into the most humble of circumstances. My income level had once made me proud — I’d thought I could create happiness from my salary. But Jesus preached that we must be humble if we are to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:3-4).

I started to realize that self-reliance separated me from the kingdom. If I was to discover real happiness, I needed to depend on Jesus and appreciate His gifts. But to experience how He takes care of us, I’d have to die to myself and draw closer to Him.

During the next weeks, friends continued sending us anonymous gift certificates or cash — either through our pastor or the mail. We were blessed by other surprises as well, like an overdue rebate and a long-forgotten inheritance check. With the help, we chipped away at our debts.

“God’s taking care of us,” Tonya commented one evening, smiling. “We’re going to be OK.”

A growing confidence in God’s provision gave us peace. New possessions had once excited us; now saving money brought us a special kind of joy. We took Jared’s advice: most Fridays we made pizza and watched a library movie. And we bought generic groceries, clipped coupons, and shopped for clothes at thrift stores. Each dollar saved deepened our relationship with our Provider.

By the next December, I’d adjusted to our new lifestyle. Reflecting on my earlier anxiety, I realized God had given me a Christmas gift:

“The secret … both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).

Used with permission from In Touch Magazine, December 2004. Copyright © In Touch Ministries. All rights reserved.

Photo Credit: Patricia