Birthdays under the magnifying glass of the Word

Birthdays under the magnifying glass of the Word

Renee EllisonDec 12, '21

 Are you feeling that birthday celebration expectations among your children's friends could get out of hand?  Do you find that you are spending more and more of your life on birthday party expectations and pay-backs and reciprocities?  Does your schedule get eaten up by unexpected additional parties you hadn't counted on; are you flattered but exhausted?  Are you bothered by the increasing over-the-top materialism?  The plastic restaurants that will do it all for you?  You like it, but don't like it?  Feel trapped?

Are the origins of birthday parties even biblical?  What were its specific pagan practices and for what reasons were they done?  Do we still do those today?  Why?  I remember the day when it struck me as a young mother that playing musical chairs was an awful game.  What kind of values does wanting to hog a chair while pushing another child away, teach?  Wouldn't I rather like to teach my child to give UP his chair out of deference for another?  There are many things like this that we grew up with in our culture that were simply handed down to us that have not been examined biblically.  Teaching the story of Little Red Riding Hood is another.  What kind of values are in that wretched story of fear and anxiety and unreality?  I can't name a single person who has ever had to face having a wolf for a grandmother, so why put all that trash in a child's head?  Whatever for?  To what end?!

If you love birthday parties, this blog post won't be for you.  But if you have a nagging feeling that something might be off in relation to them, or that you feel more and more uneasy about them, or feel like you are on a roller coaster of expectation from all your friends that you can't get off from, there might be some liberating thoughts for you from the Bible.  Scripture says to "Love one another"; it never mentions doing that more (or better) on one day over another!  If you were ever to take a fork in the road regarding birthdays, initially, your friends might be outraged that you won't come to their exhausting parties, but you can be sure that they will cock their heads when you show them more love and thoughtful kindness on an ordinary day, more than they are used to from others.  All our messages about who we are, or who we are becoming, don't have to get said on a single day!  So here is some food for thought.

The following verse is striking:

"They imitated the nations around them, although the Lord had ordered them, `Do not do as they do’ and they did the things the Lord had forbidden them to do” (2 Kings 17:15, NIV).  Apparently it is not enough that we obey the decrees and statutes of Scriptures.  Do we see that we also must not do what the heathen do—actions that are typical of heathen behavior?  Should we be putting heathen parts of Christmas and birthdays away, etc., under the ban?  Many of us are still attempting to accommodate both—and this is syncretism.  Are we obeying one and still doing the other?

We, as a family, have grappled with this caving into syncretism in several areas.  Although the pagan practices found in holidays were fairly easy to jettison and replace with Biblical ones, we've had a whale of a time jettisoning birthdays completely.  We, personally, as a family still struggle with birthdays.  Although we ended the external parties and invitations long ago, making others focus upon us, which after all is what happens (and many young mothers have come under the tyranny of ever more lavish birthday parties from ever more friends—coming under a subtle tyranny of giving far more time and money to it than they would really rather give), we still privately give gifts to each other, or do dinner, i.e. there is some attention drawn to it.  But I'm newly alarmed via this verse about what we perhaps lose of His presence, of His favor, of spiritual heart rest, when we engage in this apparently mild idolatry for a few hours.  Does a mincing degree of it have some death in it for our spirits?  I wonder.

There is nowhere in Scripture where we are told to do birthdays.  Accounts of ancient birthdays give us some light on the topic perhaps.  Pharaoh’s birthday celebration led to the restoration of his cupbearer and the death of his baker, as recorded in Genesis 40:20-22; good for one but not so good for the other?  These ancient birthdays were the occasions for rash behaviors sometimes, and were founded on heathen practices, not godly ones.  Heathens, in fact, initiated the customary birthday practices: making round cakes to worship the sun on that day; spanking the birthday person to expel wicked spirits; gathering friends, family and loved ones around so as to fend off the attacks of the demons on that day.  Candles were for the sun god.  Wishes were wishes made to demons.

The Messiah Himself never instructed us to celebrate birthdays—even His own.  He shifted the focus elsewhere to remembering his death, instead: "Do this in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:24), drinking the cup at Passover.  There is no Biblical mention of giving gifts to each other as a means of celebrating His birth.  The few examples of birthdays that are in Scripture are devastating—Herod's birthday being one of them, at which time John got his head chopped off (Matthew 14:8).  Job's sons were apparently doing birthdays, having parties on "their days" and it was apparently not a blessing; their father went out and sacrificed to cover any sins they may have committed, cursing God in their hearts (Job 1:5).

Perhaps the root of birthdays may be a bit of self-worship?  It may be what makes us so uncomfortable when everyone at a restaurant sings happy birthday to us.  It might be that a mere mortal was never designed to be able to deal with  "worship"—only God was made to be able to stand it without making Him squirm or having it go to His head.  It may be that the only reason He requires any worship for Himself is that it looks good on us—that it was designed for our benefit—much like we as parents, insist that our children say thank you.  We don't need the thank you, the child needs to say it to put his own spirit in a grateful posture for his own well-being—to take his spirit out of agitation and death over little issues and big.  It may be that worship of the Almighty is the survival adrenalin from heaven that keeps the mortal life "centered" in the most life-giving place.

If you find yourself wondering about all of this, carefully observe the emotional dynamics among people at birthdays, and see what you conclude.  Consecration could be not only about doing but also about not doing.  Just like with healthy diets; it is not only what one puts into one's mouth, but what one doesn’t eat, that brings about optimal health.  Thinking biblically about every single detail of our lives may take us in some surprising directions with some surprising benefits.  The important thing is to think, rather than to react—and to pay attention to our misgivings.

For much more on this topic, read our book on Biblical Holy Days vs. Pagan Holidays


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