by Patrick Means
I remember the first time I was exposed to the philosophy that taking care of your own needs is sinful. I was ten years old. It was Vacation Bible School, and there, amidst the clutter of Kool-Aid and plaster plaques of praying hands, Mrs. Kleinsapper was explaining the J-O-Y principle.
"Children," she intoned, "always remember that joy is spelled J-O-Y. The only way to be happy in life, the only way to please God, is to put Jesus first, others second, and yourself last."
Since then, I’ve heard the same philosophy sounded in a thousand different sermons on the sinfulness of selfishness. It’s not the kind of philosophy that a Christian finds easy to challenge. It’s rather like questioning the sacredness of motherhood or the divinity of Jesus Christ. Programming against the "S" word has been so strong that the mere hint that a particular action is selfish is enough to intimidate most Christians today.
The J-O-Y approach to life presents a special problem for Christians in recovery. We often find that our attempts to take care of ourselves are branded as nothing more than unrepentant narcissism. According to the J-O-Y principle, unhappiness and pain are to be treated by forgetting about our own needs and giving ourselves totally to the needs of others.
ONE COUPLE’S STRUGGLE
I received a letter from a gifted young couple a few years ago describing their own struggle with the J-O-Y principle. Bill and Ann were Sunday School superintendents and youth group sponsors in their church. But they were also the parents of young children, and when their involvement in Bible studies and other church activities reached four nights a week, they went to their pastor and his wife.
"We need to cut back on our responsibilities," they shared. "We feel it’s harming our family life."
At this point the pastor’s wife burst into tears. "How can you possibly say that three or four nights a week is too rough for you," she sobbed, "when five nights out is a good week for us?"
Thoroughly shamed, Bill and Ann resumed their pace for several more months until serious cracks developed in their marriage and family. That’s when they finally went to their pastor and told him they were cutting back.
"We want to love the things we do for God," they told him. "But at the current pace we will soon hate everything we are doing. And we don’t want to risk hating Him as well."
Christians in recovery will almost certainly need to take some time off from the front lines of service in order to heal – its part of accepting the fact that we’re human, that we have limitations and needs that can be ignored only at our own peril.
When Elijah fled from Jezebel in I Kings chapter 19 and sank into a suicidal depression, the Lord didn’t rebuke him for his lack of faith or his lack of dedication. In fact, God didn’t attempt to treat his depression with a spiritual solution at all. He sent an angel with food and told Elijah to eat and sleep – and when he woke up, to eat and sleep again.
Jesus took time out from serving others to rest and to be alone. He knew the value of having boundaries – that if you give until the cup is dry, you’ll soon have nothing left to give at all.
CHRISTIANS WITHOUT CRACKS
The J-O-Y principle is based on a faulty model. It’s based on a model of Christians without cracks, super-beings who have no needs of their own and thus are free to give unstintingly of themselves to others.
But that’s not God’s view of us. While loving us and believing in us, He knows we have needs. Hebrews chapter 4 tells us that Jesus our high priest sympathizes with our weaknesses because he lived in a human body, too. And Psalm 103 says that God has compassion on us just as a father has compassion on his children because He "knows our frame," and knows "that we are but dust".
You see, the J-O-Y principle is not only based on a faulty view of what it means to be a Christian, but on a faulty view of God as well. Our God is not a demanding taskmaster who resents us taking time to meet our own needs. He’s a compassionate father who wants us to learn to take care of ourselves.
But learning to take care of ourselves is no easy task. It means learning to say "no" to the addictive allure of always being there for everyone else. We may have to put up with disapproval, or even harsh criticism when we begin saying "no" to those who’ve always heard "yes" from us before.
My own addiction to work and to people-pleasing was so strong that it took the complete breakdown of my life and ministry before I was forced in weakness to reshape my lifestyle to better meet my own needs. Now, on the other side of it all, I don’t know why I let the J-O-Y principle tyrannize my life as long as it did.
I’ve found that it is possible to love God with all your heart and also to live a rich, deeply-satisfying life. There is time to serve others and also time for play and rest and creativity and wonder – the kinds of things that keep our cups so full that we have more than enough to share with others.
I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of joy I really want.
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