When I was starting out in the Christian faith and becoming involved in youth rallies and programs, we were introduced to a simple understanding of the way to really live life. We were taught JOY—the way of life was Jesus first, Others second, Yourself third. Some religious supply company or organization even produced a banner that was quite popular among many more conservative Christian groups—I think I had one that I carried around and posted prominently where ever my theological student wanderings took me.
The JOY idea is one of those religious catch phrases that sounds really good and is simple enough that anyone can understand it—and it has the added benefit of providing the perfect three-point outline for a sermon. It works on many levels, which is probably why it became something of a fad among some people for a time. It was also the perfect counter to the open self-centeredness that was becoming a significant part of our culture at the time.
But no matter how many levels it works on, it is a flawed statement. The theology is wrong and the approach to life it fostered was wrong. In many ways, it was a disguised version of the same old selfishness that plagued humanity from the beginning. In one of the perverse twists of apparent reality, putting ourselves last amounted to taking pride in our humility and our ability to take the last place. Following JOY, we all strove to be the least important, which ultimately meant that we are all pretty sure we were really important and therefore had to work hard to present ourselves as unimportant. Selfishness disguised as unselfishness is still selfishness.
The JOY approach did capture one basic truth—that the way to overcome selfishness is to put Jesus first. I suspect that the developers of that idea were not delving deeply into that part of the theology and psychology of the concept—they seem to have been more concerned with having us submit or defer to others.
Theologically, we human seem to have a built in need to serve something or someone. Sometimes, we serve ourselves; sometimes we serve something that benefits us; sometimes we get caught in something that ultimately harms us—but we all seem to need something beyond ourselves to follow and even serve. This gets confused and wrapped up in our selfishness and it sometimes becomes really difficult to determine where we end and the thing we serve begins.
Jesus, however, shows us a way to serve in a way that helps us deal with our selfishness without pretending we are less selfish that we really are. Mostly, he does that by example. Jesus never claimed to be the least of the least; he never developed a sense of false and sick humility. He was the son of God. He was God in human form. He had power and authority and was sinless and perfect and all that.
He was well aware of his place in the universe—all humanity depended on him and his decisions. He put humanity before himself in the sense that he gave up what was rightfully his; he accepted limits and limitations that he didn’t need to accept; he put up with stuff that he could have easily avoided—and all the while, he was aware of the fact that he was divine, powerful and didn’t have to do what he was doing.
He chose to do it as part of his commitment to the divine will. Jesus the son was serving God with his full being. He gave himself to God and for humanity, knowing exactly who and what he was and just how important he was. He was self-aware but not selfish.
That, I think, becomes the goal for us as his followers. We seek this sense of self-awareness of who and what we are and who and what we can be through Christ. Rather than trying to make ourselves unimportant, we can and should recognize the importance we have in God’s eyes. We are valuable to God; we are worth something to him; Jesus was willing to both die for us and rise to life for us.
My awareness of who I am because of God through Jesus allows me to commit to him—and gives me a way to overcome the selfishness that is at the root of all the evil in life. As believers, we are to develop self-awareness of our place with God.
May the peace of God be with you.