The Problem with JOY


JOY problemMy summer was fabulous. We banished rigid schedules and made way for long days of sunshine and fun. The kids and I would spend hours at the lake with friends. We read books together, played games, took adventures… It was perfect.

As seasons always do, summer ended. The kids went back to school and regular routine returned.

I didn’t quit working over summer; I just managed a somewhat lighter and definitely shifted schedule. I would work early in the morning and late at night devoting the bulk of my daylight hours to family instead of clients. As a result, adjusting to my fall schedule was actually great. Suddenly, I had more time and more quiet in the house. I found myself taking on the renewed workload with ease.

That was the first week.

The second week of school provided a different story. Volunteer opportunities returned with a vengeance. One particular opportunity is very dear to my heart, but doesn’t always fit well with the rest of my life. It was this responsibility that pushed me over the edge.

That Tuesday afternoon the director of this ministry called for “just a few minutes” to talk about the fall season. The call turned into a two-hour meeting that dumped five new assignments on me, all of which needed to be done ASAP, preferably before the next morning. Mind you, this call came at the end of my workday. I literally had to hang up on this person to avoid being late to pick up my kids from school.

I could have said “no.” I could have hung up sooner. I could have enforced boundaries in a number of different ways, but guilt kicked in. She thanked me profusely for my service and reminded me that she “just can’t trust anyone else” with these tasks and how grateful she is that my kids are back in school and she can depend on me again. Wanting to be the “good Christian girl,” I girded myself, bent over, and took on all the burdens that she had saved for me.

It didn’t take long for me to realize my joy had disappeared.

It took much longer for me to realize that perhaps JOY was the cause.

As a kid I was taught – and maybe you were, too – that the route to true joy is in maintaining proper priorities. J.O.Y. became an acronym to help us remember.

  • Jesus first.
  • Others second.
  • You last.

When you keep your priorities in that order, joy results. At least, it’s supposed to.

Love others as you love yourself.

This teaching, I suppose, is based on the Gospel of Mark where Jesus discusses the greatest commandments.

One of the scribes approached. When he heard them debating and saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked Him, “Which command is the most important of all?”

“This is the most important,” Jesus answered:

Listen, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.

“The second is: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other command greater than these.”

— Mark 12:28—31 (HCSB)

We can layer this with any number of Proverbs about the dangers of pride and self-serving attitudes. The product remains:


But is that really what it says? Does God require us to prioritize ourselves below and only after everyone else?

Um … No.

These verses do not encourage us to love others more than ourselves, but to love others as ourselves. For some, that means prioritizing others higher than we currently do. For others, it means prioritizing ourselves higher than we currently do.

I fall in that second camp. I want people to be happy and, even nearing forty years old, I find myself constantly trying to prove my worth and value to others. In this perpetual pursuit, I too often neglect myself.

Tie that weakness to a teaching that measures my devotion to God by my degree of self-sacrifice, and we have a disaster brewing. This over-spiritualized, self-deprecative thinking can quickly drive some to frustration, burn-out, and depression, even making us susceptible to abuse from others.

Here’s the truth: God desires for us to love Him first and foremost. God desires us to love His children next. That includes your neighbor, but it also includes you. It includes me.

Care for your well.

Sometimes loving others requires healthy boundaries for myself.

What’s more: we cannot love others well, we cannot serve them well, if we are an empty well. If I’ve run myself dry, I cannot quench the thirst of others. I need to have something to give.

That September my well started full, but I saw clear signs of evaporation. I was nearing empty and was pretty sure I knew why. I had to do something about it.

First I prayed. A lot.

Second I committed to express my limitations to my dear friend and ministry partner. To my great surprise and relief, she totally understood! Together we were able to establish guidelines that were healthier for me and still effective in accomplishing our common goals.

Far too often Christians – especially those of us raised in conservative, fundamentalist communities –mistakenly measure spiritual devotion by degrees of self-sacrifice. We believe we should feel the pain of denying ourselves and taking up our crosses. We fear saying “no” to any ministry opportunity. This isn’t right.

Jesus Christ came to give us freedom, not burdens. He came to grant us life abundant, not increasing pain and suffering. He came to save and restore and to bind us together in joyful community.

Don’t be afraid to say “no” when you need to. Don’t think it’s selfish to create personal boundaries. This is healthy!

It is in the harmony of service and rest, of fasting and feasting, that we find joy. It’s not in running dry, but in a consistent pattern of giving and filling, all to our King’s glory.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, consider these links:


What warning signs tell you your well is running dry? How do you refill it?

Talk to me!

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