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.
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.