Only it wasn't.
It was JOY in capitals, JOY the acronym, JOY which meant Jesus --> Others --> You.
Jesus first, always Jesus, and then look to the needs of others. When those needs are met, if there's anything left in you, then go ahead and indulge in caring for your own needs. Quickly though; soon enough, it will be time to start at the top again. Jesus. Others. You.
Then I got older, joined the ranks of married women, of mothers. JOY wasn't enough anymore; now it was a very specific order:
With that in mind, our children were given the next prioritization. After all, motherhood was a woman's greatest calling (whatever that meant for the unwed or childless among us, and however that fit with being ranked #3 on our list of priorities). We were raising up the next generation of great Christian leaders; it was imperative that we tend to them after our husbands. Always, though, impress upon them the fact that we esteemed our husbands above them. They must know which relationship we prioritized.
Once the needs of home and family were cared for, it was time to turn outwards. Meet the needs of others. Volunteer, serve, get involved. Tend to the children's ministry. Bake cookies. Visit the sick and the elderly. Sign up for this, that, and the other. Sometimes this step was broken down more specifically (such as "extended family, church, work, others"), but the idea was the same. Others others others.
At last would come the obligatory closing: you have needs too, so find time to meet them. Just be sure it's done after your obligations to God, your husband, your children, and everyone else.
That, I read over and over, was to be the order of my life. A nice tidy checklist, simple to follow and indisputable in its order of importance. Check, check, check, top to bottom. God husband children others you.
If only life were so linear.
I tried, for a time, to fit into this Good Christian mold. A bit of prayer time or Scripture reading and check, first thing off my list. Next I'd ask my husband if there was anything he needed. Being an extraordinarily unneedy person, he'd usually just give me a curious look, a shrug, and an easy pass to go on with my day. Another check, although I'd spend my day hyper-focused on his needs, determined to meet them whenever they may finally arrive. I'd worry if dinner wasn't perfect or if I fell behind in laundry or if heaven forbid the child was being too much of an "inconvenience" to him.
The rest of the day was spent tending to our firstborn (check). When he was asleep, I'd take care of whatever external obligations had built up over the day (check). Finally, it was time to meet my needs...usually by falling into bed exhausted. What other needs could I afford besides food and sleep?
I am immeasurably grateful that this pattern was short lived. Soon, through an unexpected string of events, I began my journey towards a more intentional way of life. It wasn't enough anymore to simply unquestioningly do what was expected of me. I wanted to know why. I wanted to know if it truly had any firm foundation. I began to dig deeper and in doing so I came to a more holistic, authentic, and life-giving understanding of God than I'd ever had before.
Lacking in both logic and biblical backing, the ladder of priorities was one of the first constructs to go. Life was not so simplistic and compartmentalized; life was messy and interconnected and beautifully so. Life was not a checklist, a hierarchy, a ladder, or a straight line. It was circular, it ebbed and flowed, it changed with the seasons and the needs and the joys and the challenges. It demanded balance and give-and-take, not ranks and tidy checks on a list.
Although I didn't have words for it at the time, I soon found myself embracing a more circular view of my priorities. Instead of simply being the first item to check off in my day, God became the center and source of everything, with the things close to my heart radiating outwards like the spokes of a wheel. God was part of all areas of my life; it was all worship when done as worship.
With the checklist gone, I began to learn how to weave my priorities into the everyday fabric of my life. Everything connected, overlapped, and somehow worked together. My time with God was no longer required to be independent of my time with my children. We lived those relationships together and God was everywhere, in all of it, in our songs and our discussions and our praises and our activities. My husband, too, became part of it all; even when he was away, I sought to honour him and consider his needs and desires, not out of obligation as a subordinate but out of love as his ezer kenegdo, his valiant ally. Others, too, became part of our everyday lives, all of us living life together.
We don't always get it right, but the freedom found in letting go of the rankings has allowed us an authenticity we didn't have when I was trying to separate life into ordered compartments. Sometimes needs arise in one area and demand precedence over other areas. We embrace that and work with it rather than trying to force it into its proper rung on the ladder, ignoring it until the higher rungs are taken care of. As long as we allow God to be at the center and everything else to radiate out from Him, things seem to fall into place.
Everything is from Him and through Him and for Him; He alone makes everything good.