(or, Beagles, the Bible, and Birthdays)
Have you written on “birthdays?” My parents taught us the bible teaches that birthday celebrations are wrong and selfish. I remember King Herod being an example. I also was the example for my younger sisters as on my 6th birthday I acted selfish and ungrateful and I ruined having birthday celebrations for my 3 younger sisters. I don’t honestly remember how I acted, but it must have been terrible to ruin “birthdays” for my 3 younger sisters.
I can understand why some religious folks get uneasy about certain popular movies or books or styles of clothing or genres of music. But birthdays? Sometimes you can push a line of thought too far and pull the whole thing down with it.
Apparently, the argument goes something like this. The Bible doesn’t have much to say about birthdays—certainly not whether we should celebrate them—and what it does say doesn’t show them in the most flattering light. Pharaoh had someone executed on his birthday. Job cursed the day that he was born. Herod threw a wild birthday party that included him ogling his stepdaughter’s exotic dance and wound up with John the Baptist getting beheaded. So, the Bible never says outright that we should celebrate birthdays, and the few times they’re mentioned at all, it connects them with sinful things. That proves birthdays are evil, right?
That argument is just begging for a good reductio ad absurdum, so I’ll give it one. Let’s take another biblical example: dogs. Every mention in the Bible of dogs is negative. Dogs are symbols for false prophets and blasphemers. Dogs licked Lazarus’s wounds in the rich man’s gate. Dogs ate the body of Jezebel. Don’t cast your pearls before swine or give what is holy to dogs.
So…. what do we say to this li’l guy?
Given the theological considerations as established, the only thing that can reasonably be said under the circumstances is Awwwwwwwww! Who’s a widdle cutesy muggins and his widdle biddy puppy feetsies and—ahem. Excuse me. Where was I?
That’s just the point, though. I’ve met a lot of people who interpret the Bible hard and fast and legalistic, but I’ve never met anybody who thought puppies were evil—well, aside from chewing the furniture—even though the Bible seems to say so. We all know instinctively that puppies were made to be loved.
And what about house cats? The Bible doesn’t mention them anywhere, not even once. Yet I’ve never seen a debate on whether a Christian should own a cat. (Or, maybe more accurately, whether a cat should own a Christian.) Everyone knows that would be ridiculous. Who can’t love a kitten?
Yet the logic of this argument would be even stronger against puppies and kittens than it is against birthdays—if I can use the word “logic” to mean “fallacy.” The Bible only ever mentions dogs in connection with sin. Does that prove dogs are sinful? No; that’s the “guilt by association” fallacy. The Bible’s original cultural milieu considered dogs unclean. Does that prove dogs are unclean for us? No; that’s the “false analogy” fallacy. The Bible doesn’t mention cats at all. Does that prove Christians shouldn’t keep them? No; that’s the “argument from silence” fallacy. That’s a lot of fallacies, but that’s what the anti-birthday doctrine is made of.
Why does this argument fail so spectacularly? For one thing, because real Christianity is not Bibliolatry. If you try to use the Bible as the compendium of all knowledge—the source of all rules for living—the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy—then you’re not using it right. At least, not according to what the Bible says that Jesus said about what the Bible says:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39–40)
Scripture isn’t meant to point us to rules or principles for life. It’s meant to point us to Jesus, who gives us life. (I discuss this at more length in an odd article called God’s Little Instruction Book.)
So, what did Jesus say the Bible was all about?
Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:35–40)
The Bible, according to Jesus, can be summed up in two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. That makes sense, since the Bible is a book about Jesus, and Jesus embodies God’s love for us and for everyone (John 3:16).
In other words, if you read the Bible and you come away with more love for God and more love for the people around you, you’ve probably found the correct interpretation. If, on the other hand, you read the Bible and come away with less love—if it makes you, for instance, steal the happiness from a six-year-old girl and give her a load of guilt instead—then you don’t even need exegesis to know you’re doing something wrong.
So let’s reframe the question and make it about love. If we love God (as revealed in the Bible) and love our neighbors (as informed by the Bible), what should birthdays be to us?
Once we ask that, things get much clearer. First off, we discover that faith in Christ is certainly not a matter of keeping rules about special days or holidays or feasts. Here’s Paul, writing crisply as he usually does:
In view of these tremendous facts*, don’t let anyone worry you by criticizing what you eat or drink, or what holy days you ought to observe, or bothering you over new moons or Sabbaths. All these things are no more than foreshadowings: the reality belongs to Christ. Let no man cheat you out of your joy by wanting you to join him in his false humility and worship of angels. Such a man, presuming on the little he has seen, by using an unspiritual imagination, entirely forgets the head. It is from the head alone that the body, through its joints and ligaments, is nourished and built up and grows as God meant it to grow. (Colossians 2:16–19, Phillips)
*Read the first few chapters of Colossians to see which tremendous facts. It’s worth it.—EP
According to this passage, criticizing and condemning people about the special days they observe is a case of missing the point, a show of pride disguised as false humility, mistaking the symbol for the reality. Listen to that kind of critic and you’ll be cheated out of the joy and freedom that comes from Jesus’ love. You won’t grow by keeping those rules, because spiritual growth comes from Christ just as your body’s growth comes from your head.
The fact is, God doesn’t particularly care whether we celebrate Birthdays or Name Days or Saint’s Days or Sweet Sixteen or Bar Mitzvah or Quinceañera or whatever growing-up ceremonies you happen to have or not in your culture. He cares about your heart. He cares whether we celebrate the people we love, starting with our children. Children are blessings, so parents ought to treat them like it. This is where the attitude behind birthdays matters most.
To see why, we only have to look at the way God treats His own Son:
“I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.’” (Psalm 2:7)
Psalm 2 is a striking messianic psalm. It describes every nation belonging to the kingship of “the Lord and His Anointed”—the latter identified as “the Son” to whom we should “do homage” (Psalm 2:2, 12, NIV). This particular verse is crucial to the biblical theology of God, Christ, the Trinity, things like that. Because He is begotten by God, the Son of God is fully God—“begotten, not made” as the Nicene Creed puts it. The New Testament writers quote Psalm 2:7 at least three times (Acts 13:33, Hebrews 1:5, Hebrews 5:5) to make the case for the deity of Christ. This is not a small point.
God the Son in His deity did not begin at a point in time but comes eternally from the Father (cf. John 1:1–3, John 8:58). Psalm 2:7 might also be taken to apply to the Incarnation—when the Son of God was begotten as the Son of Man—or the Resurrection, when He became “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:15) and was “declared to be the Son of God in power” (Romans 1:4).
The point is this. Even though the Son is fully God and fully eternal, even though there never was a time when Christ was not—when the psalmist tells us “the decree of the LORD,” he tells us that the Father celebrates His Son’s birthday.
“Today I have begotten You,” He says. It’s not a statement about time but about identity and belonging: “You are My Son.” By pointing out the begetting, the eternal birth, the Father names the Son as His own. The Father gives the Son His approval and tells us to honor Him, to love Him, to bring Him our homage and gifts. The Father pours out His love and delight on His Son, naming Him “My Son,” celebrating the identity of the Divine Child on the “day” of his begetting.
Nor does this end with God, or at least it shouldn’t. God is “the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Ephesians 3:15). The way God treats His children is the way human fathers are meant to treat their children. That’s why Jesus could base an argument for God’s goodness and provision on the fact—wait for it—that even sinful parents give their children gifts:
“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:11, NASB).
This is where the evil of the anti-birthday doctrine reveals itself. It’s a savage irony that these systems of doctrine claim to be based on verses about children being blessings from the Lord, then turn around and say it’s wrong to celebrate birthdays but right to burden children with mountains of guilt in the name of God. That’s not how you treat a blessing.
Parents, let me be blunt: Don’t you dare ever, ever put your doctrines before your daughters. As Christians, we follow the One who said “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them” (Mark 10:14). If your theology doesn’t involve you tangibly expressing your love and delight and celebration and joy in your children, then your theology is worthless. If you can’t love your own son or daughter whom you have seen, how can you love God whom you have not seen?
It’s not a stretch to say that all of Christianity is built on the truth that the Father loves and celebrates His Son. Trusting in Christ means believing what the Father said about Him:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17, 17:5, Mark 1:11, 9:7, Luke 9:35, et al. This comes up a lot.)
The Father loves His Son and does not hesitate to say so in public. These are the words of a Father affirming, delighting, and approving His Child. God doesn’t say He is pleased with Jesus because Jesus is so good or holy or unselfish. God says He is pleased with Jesus because He is His Son, the Beloved.
We should never lose sight of this truth: If we are the children of God (John 1:12-13), this includes us. God loves us and is pleased with us. God doesn’t wait for us to meet a list of biblical requirements before He loves us, any more than we need to study everything the Bible says about dogs before we decide to love that puppy. God expresses His love to us in words and actions and sacrificial gifts—even the unimaginable gift of His firstborn Son. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
Should we celebrate birthdays? Well, God does—not because of the birthday but because of the birth. Whether you ever got a birthday party or not, know one thing for sure. God is glad you were born. God is glad you’re you. God loves you. You were born, and born again, to be loved. You are God’s beloved child. In you He is well pleased.
God celebrates His children. God celebrates you.
Have a question you’d like me to write on? Contact me!