Music has always been a really good way for me to learn. Give me a song, and I’ll learn is quickly, but trying to learn a poem is really difficult for me. It’s always been that way. I can easily remember all the songs I ever learnt. I can sing perfectly the parts I had to learn for school choir, so many years ago that I’m not saying how many. But I don’t remember much of what I learnt in classes at school, or even university for that matter.
So it makes sense that the songs I learnt as a child, had their impact. I still know them word for word. The songs regularly leap to mind and actually when I think about how I learnt how to live my life, it came from songs. That can be good, but it depends what those songs were. And like I spoke of in Happiness Is…, the songs I learnt in Sunday School made the biggest impact on me.
This isn’t a theological discussion of what children learn in Sunday School, but rather an explanation of my personal experience. I’m not saying it was wrong to use such songs. Actually I think music is an excellent tool in such settings. I’m simply saying that for me, they made their mark.
This is one song that perhaps left the biggest mark. It was sung to the Jingle Bells music:
J O Y, J O Y,
This must surely mean
Jesus first, yourself last and others in between,
J O Y, J O Y,
This must surely mean,
Jesus first, yourself last and others in between.
Note that I didn’t have to go looking for lyrics. I know this one perfectly so many years later. Whether or not this is my, or your, interpretation of what joy might be is not what message I got from singing this repeatedly. What I got from it is that I always had to put myself last. My needs didn’t count, but that Jesus came first and then other people. Actually this is a message I got repeatedly as a child. I’m not saying it was intentional for me to learn that what I needed didn’t matter, but it is the lesson that fixed itself in my head.
That ‘yourself last’ is what I heard over and over again, right through to well into my adult years. It was what would make me a ‘good Christian’, apparently. And if Christianity wants to believe it, that’s fine, but for me, it was actually very harmful to learn about where I came in the world.
I was last. My needs were last. Actually my needs didn’t matter because it was what other people needed that did matter. It’s an often taught principle in the part of Christianity that I grew up in, to put the needs of others ahead of yourself.
But what if I’m being harmed by my needs coming last? On a number of occasions this idea that my needs didn’t matter, caused me great harm (physically and emotionally) because other people took advantage and it was said that what they wanted was more important than what was safe for me.
The following is an example of the type of teaching I got, both as a child and adult:
We must aim to put Jesus Christ first in our lives. Matthew 6: 33 says “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you”.
If we want to know the fruit of joy in our lives we must do all we can to have a close growing relationship with Jesus Christ. We must seek to be like Him And to live for His glory in our daily lives. We must put ourselves last. Too often we are taught in these life that we need to blow our own horn .We need to praise ourselves. But God tells us to be humble and not braggers about ourselves.
In humility we are supposed to seek to live gentle lives for the glory of God. In our day to day lives we are to seek to help others. We are to seek to be light in our dark world. The lives of others and their needs ought to be the emphasis of our lives and we need to seek to be extended leaders pouring out ourselves for the glory of God. We are to seek to put others in-between Jesus and ourselves. We are to seek to be magnets that draw others to you our Lord. ( 1.)
Let me be clear that my point is not about whether individuals choose to ‘put Jesus first’. To me, that is an entirely individual choice and it’s not what I have the issue with. My issue is that I was taught to always put other people’s needs ahead of my own, and how I interpreted that (as a child and then an adult struggling with serious self-esteem issues) was that what I needed didn’t count. Even my safety didn’t count, and I saw this demonstrated in a number of ways over the years as both child and adult.
I don’t mean to offend anyone’s beliefs but for me this didn’t work, and I don’t even believe that God wanted me to get harmed by what I as taught was my Christian duty. I believe it is important that we practise compassion and be there for other people, but I don’t accept sacrificing my safety and my needs in order to do that. Let me put it this way: by having this teaching, I was harmed and I have spent many years very unwell because of that harm. That meant that I have been unable to be there for other people. Isn’t that crazy? If I had been protected then maybe my journey would have been different, and maybe I would have been able to help more people.
I totally agree with helping others, and much of my life at the moment is devoted to trying to do that. But I can’t do it unless I put my needs first. I have to make sure I am safe, and I have to make sure that my needs are met. If I don’t do that, I can’t adequately be there for others.
In practice what this means for me is realising that I, personally, can’t help some people because it is harmful, or at least triggering, for me. It’s okay for me to leave those people to someone else to help. I have to do this or I never get free from my own past hurts. Maybe one day I can use my experience to help, but for now my physical and emotional safety has to come first.
The lyrics of the song were harmful to me, but then I was taught this message repeatedly in different ways, and so I can’t completely blame the lyrics. I needed to know that I was important. I needed to know that I was safe. I needed to know that I was loved. And I needed to know that my service to others was not to be at the expense of myself.
It has been a long, hard journey to learn this, and actually removing myself from a church environment was necessary for me to ‘get’ that I matter. I’m not saying anyone else needs to do that, nor am I saying that I have given up my Christian beliefs. It’s just that these particular beliefs didn’t work for me. Actually they worked completely against me and I was hurt by them badly. I’m inclined to think that too often religious beliefs like these get warped by people who don’t care about what happens to others, and they simply cause harm.
“Putting yourself first is the highest level of service you can offer in the world. It allows you to serve your partner, family, friends and others with joy and generosity. As long as you put yourself first to keep your love tank on overflow, your heart knows no limits in its ability to love.”
- Susan Blackburn