Faith

Things I wish Christians would stop saying: “Joy means putting Jesus first, others second, and yourself last”

I first heard this phrase when I first taught Sunday school at a particular church. A plaque on the door read “J.O.Y. Classroom.” I had to ask what J.O.Y. stood for. Outspoken Shirley, unofficial class spokesperson, shook her head at me as if I had been living under a rock since my baptism. “How have you never heard this?” She counted on her fingers: “Joy means putting Jesus first, others second, and yourself last. See? J-O-Y. Joy!” She beamed triumphantly.

I grimaced inside. Spare me a platitude-strewn faith. Give me depth and meaning.

Worse, this particular platitude is just dead wrong.

But I get it: this saying discourages self-centeredness. I support that. Christians are meant to serve. As Paul said in Phillipians 2:3-4 (NIV):

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

As with so many things in the Bible, however, you can’t just take one scripture and run with it. You need to see what other verses say on the subject and look for the bigger, and usually more nuanced, picture they paint together. Jesus takes a slightly different view in Matthew 22: 36-40 (NIV):

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus is on board with us loving God first: he calls it the most important commandment. But then he goes and places others on par with ourselves. Love your neighbor, he says, as yourself.

Why don’t these two verses perfectly harmonize? Well, Paul was writing to a group of Christians who lived in the Greek city of Philippi. They were in disagreement over some matters. Paul urged them toward harmony and unity.

Jesus, in contrast, was talking to a Pharisee, someone who had deep knowledge of Jewish law. The Pharisees felt threatened by Jesus and kept trying to trip him up on the law so they could have him arrested for blasphemy. Jesus deftly sidestepped an ensnaring question while sharing a profound truth.

Within that truth, Jesus used a key word, agapao. It’s translated as love, and it carries a strong sense of caring, of doing, of serving — even of sacrificing self. This is God-powered love, the kind he offers to us. He wants us to give that love back to him first. But then he says we are to give it to others as well as to ourselves — to borrow and adjust some of Peter’s words, to look to others’ interests and ours.

When I survey the wondrous cross

Jesus gave all — and he had infinite resources to give.

If we unfailingly put others first, we will soon run out of gas. We restock our resources when we love ourselves. We can’t serve others to the exclusion of eating and sleeping, or of paying our bills — we need to love ourselves at least this much. If we keep giving away all of our money and food, we will stay homeless and hungry. I can’t imagine that God calls any of us to that.

We also need to love ourselves enough to fully live the life God has granted us. Sometimes this is about reaching out and achieving, working hard to accomplish a goal. Other times this is about recovering from past life difficulties. It even involves enjoying and embracing the good life has to offer. All of these things give us strength and experience we can share with others.

And we should live our lives in the way God made us to live it. If you were given boldness, live boldly. If you were given quiet thoughtfulness, live quietly and thoughtfully. However you live, turn daily to God so he can shape you for his service.

In no way do I mean to promote a selfish life. I promote living to serve and living to have rich resources to give.

And in case it isn’t clear, I condemn an ongoing selflessness that depletes and diminishes you. You may temporarily be called to such heroism, but nobody can sustain it as a lifestyle. I worry that platitudes like this create a standard that nobody can keep, and lead Christians to feel needlessly guilty.

You are just as important to God as the next person. Jesus acknowledged that when talking to the Pharisee. Take good care of yourself, and generously give your resources to serve others.


Other things I wish Christians would stop saying: “God won’t give you more than you can handle” and anything whatsoever about homosexuality.

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33 thoughts on “Things I wish Christians would stop saying: “Joy means putting Jesus first, others second, and yourself last”

  1. loneprimateinto says:

    This was a fascinating analysis of scripture and a nice examination of what might seem to be divergence in it. A genuinely enjoyable beard-stroker. It’s no wonder you have such a following, and deservedly so. :)

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    • I don’t know that I deserve a following – but I’m glad I have one! It’s not a large one, but people do seem to keep coming back. I’m glad you’re among them; you’re kind of my ur-follower, the first person who came and stuck around.

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  2. This was one of my favorite posts of yours, Jim. Very strong and well written. The paragraph that really spoke to me was the one starting “If we unfailingly put others first, we will soon run out of gas.” How very true, and contradicting with the “JOY” idea so prevalent among Christians.

    I’ve been told that one several times, and it runs the risk of alienating listeners and making them feel like they’re doing something wrong – definitely not a good way to encourage others to follow us!!

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    • Oh, thank you so much. A pastor I know saw this on my Facebook page and commented that he prefers the acronym Jesus Overcomes You for JOY as it speaks to the sublimation of ego to Jesus’s will, and how when you do that you tap right into the joy God has to offer. I like that better!

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  3. Steve Miller says:

    Thank you for for being a rational Christian, Jim. It is very important that we love and value ourselves in order to know how to love, value, and aid others, rather than to judge them.

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  4. Raquel Ford says:

    I heard this platitude (as u call it) for the first time today from a priest and I thought it made perfect sense. Jesus healed in so many different ways, so this works for others, maybe not for some including you. There’s always a first time for everyone, be charitable.

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  5. Liz says:

    It’s human nature to put our basic needs first before strangers or even loved ones. Unless I’m situations of choosing between feeding our kin or ourselves, human nature feeds our kin. Am I right? We still must love until we can love no more. It doesn’t mean we can’t love ourselves while also loving others. In fact by loving others we ARE loving ourselves. God promotes turning the other cheek, but we must remember he also preaches of walking away in situations where things or people may hurt us. The acronym JOY is simply a three letter word. There is no way one can put all of Christ’s teachings in 3 letters. Please take it with a grain of salt as a REMINDER to love our neighbors AS ourselves. By loving Jesus too, you are loving yourself because Jesus loves you. So you are forgetting that part as well. The acronym is not intended to be a bible lesson. It’s an extremely brief FUN play on words. I hope I have been somewhat helpful to broaden your understanding of the not so serious, silly, acronym for JOY. Gb.

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  6. Rev. Robin Swinsburg says:

    As a Christian and pastor I understand where you are coming from, HOWEVER, I think you are “over-analyzing” this. You make a good point of emphasizing how as believers we need to take care of ourselves, but we live in a world of Narcissism. Most people and too many Christians believe, think and act as though the universe revolves around them. I run into more people who place themselves first in life, than I do those who run out of gas. Jesus said, “I have not come to be served, but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many”.

    Rob Swinsburg

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    • Oh, I’m not at all in favor of narcissism. I just want to avoid Christian preachers and teachers advocating making oneself so nothing that Christians don’t practice proper self-care. That’s not in keeping with Jesus’s teaching and behavior.

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  7. John S. Knox says:

    Eh. I think that loving oneself comes easy and quickly to most seeing how selfish and narcissistic we are, naturally. Putting others first–well, that takes a strong will and a good attitude. Mostly, this article bothers me because it promotes an un-Christ-like mentality. I do not think Jesus worked on loving Himself first and then others; He sacrificed and gave up Himself for others, consistently and eternally. Perhaps Jesus did this because He fully understood and felt the love of God for Him. Perhaps that is what stops us all from loving others first–we do not feel lovable, but God does love us despite our foibles and transgressions, and with confession and repentance comes reconciliation and recognition of restoration. So, I say instead of working on loving yourself, work on acknowledging and embracing the eternal fact that you are loved by a God who offers you a life of eternal joy and connection in Him.

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    • Oh my, don’t confuse loving oneself with selfishness and narcissism. I’m talking about the kind of love that God has for each of us. I’m asking us to embrace that love and act as people who are loved that deeply. God wants us to pour ourselves out in his service, but he also wants to see us take good care of ourselves.

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    • Maea says:

      I’m a little late to this post, but I agree with Jim for one strong reason: boundaries. There is nothing in the Bible which says setting healthy boundaries for ourselves is unholy. I don’t interpret it as “loving one’s self” as much as I believe it’s about caring for one’s self. We’re supposed to take care of the “temple”– our bodies. We’re supposed to take care of our minds and spiritual growth. Without those things we can’t contribute in the loving way we’re called to serve.

      I think what bothers people about the ideas of self-care, boundaries, and even giving one’s self love is these ideas sometimes require telling others “no.” Somehow, it’s become part of Christian canon teaching that telling people “no” from time to time when we need to care for ourselves is a bad thing. Taking care of yourself and “refueling” isn’t narcissism. As an introvert, I kind of notice people who are a bit more extroverted take issue with this, JMO.

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  8. Si says:

    But the news about Jesus spread all the more, and great crowds came to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. Yet He frequently withdrew to the wilderness to pray.

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  9. For what it’s worth, I don’t think this to be a trite exposition of how JOY can be expressed; actually, just the opposite. I do believe, from what I know about the Pharisees, that we can all just assume that they loved themselves, as do most of us; although the Pharisees took that self-love to extremes. Jesus’ statement probably took that into account. I also think we can assume that the Pharisees had no great love for anyone other than themselves, based on how they looked down their noses at and burdened the people who they were leading with miscellaneous and additional foolishness that had nothing to do with the Law of God, but was rather power and pride run amok. As a result, they, as a class, are characterized in the Bible as some of the most “joyless” characters ever. If ever Jesus’ words had a specially designed target audience, these scrooges would be it and there is a message there for others who have eyes to see and ears to hear, as well. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross daily and follow Him. We are meant to be salt and light and that occurs as we allow the “Living Water” of Christ to pour forth out of us into the lives of others. If Christ is our source, and He is, I don’t think we really need to worry about taking care of ourselves because we have the greatest caregiver there ever was and ever will be!

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    • I recognize and try to lean hard on God’s supply. However, I’ve seen this notion of total self-sacrifice used to manipulate Christians into giving more, beyond their capacity. In a way, I’m speaking out against this. If you’re tired, sleep. God gave us sleep to replenish ourselves. If your hungry, eat. God gave us food to restore our bodies. This is the kind of thing I’m talking about in terms of taking care of oneself.

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  10. Liz says:

    I was taught J.O.Y. as a little girl by my grandmother and I have taught it to my children. We use it that each one builds on the last as a checklist to check our words and actions. We use it this way: Ask yourself this, J- Jesus first. Am I behaving the way the Bible has taught me to? The way Jesus taught? Are my actions and words glorifying Him? Next, O-others second. Am I treating others the way that I should? Am I loving my neighbor as myself? Are my actions and words going to be harmful to my neighbor? (And I remind them that their siblings are also their neighbors!) Lastly, Y-yourself. If you have answered yes to the first two, whatever you do for yourself should be good and following those three steps will help your life be full of joy.

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    • It’s good to hear that as you were taught it this wasn’t used to justify you not taking care of yourself, which is really my thesis in this post. However, I still think that J.O.Y. is just too simplistic. Perhaps it’s a good starting point, but it’s not a good ending point.

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  11. JOYboy says:

    God the Father said that He is well pleased with His Son and for the apostles to listen to Him. The Father has given ALL authority to His Son. Jesus says whoever wants to follow Him he must first deny himself, pick up the cross DAILY and follow Him. Heaven rejoices over the one sinner than 99 righteous that dont need to repent. Its all about that one person, that one lost soul that God wants to reach. Its definitely putting Jesus first then Others then Yourself that you will be able to see spiritually which one is that lost one… And you will be able to have JOY along with the angels of God in heaven

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  12. Jim Rohrig says:

    Really Jim. You have to be critical about a simple little acrostic poem like JOY. What does the Bible say about unwarranted criticism? How about encouraging each other instead. Sometimes simple teachings stay with us longer and using this simple poem is a nice tool. Especially with children. So I would encourage everyone to keep a little JOY in your life.

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  13. duff says:

    I am reminded of Mark 3:20,21: Then the multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, “He is out of His mind.”

    Christ certainly put others before Himself, to the point where His family tried to stop Him. Of course the cross is the supreme example. If He is our model it seems we should do likewise. You are certainly right that we cannot do this in our own strength. It can only be done through the power of the Spirit and motivated not by the need or worth of our fellows but by His love for us.

    Paul, following Christ, modeled this as well. Philippians 2: 17 reads, “Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.”

    Peace and Joy to all through Christ our Savior.

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