I grew up in a Greek Orthodox home. My father was Methodist, but we attended my mother’s Greek Orthodox church regularly whenever I was a child, up until my teenage years. Over those years, I went on a few religious retreats, attended a Christian summer sports camp, and was involved with some club-type activities involved with the church.
I currently identify as Pagan, but my reason for conversion is a story for another day. I am writing this because one quote always got under my skin. Often times in church, I would heard a priest say, “Put God first, others second, and yourself third”. I would sometimes hear a youth group leader say that as well. Let me tell you why that is problematic.
“God is first”. In theory, this sounds great. In theory, you should be doing the “right” or “morally right” thing, as far as the church is concern. The church (at least in the Greek Orthodoxy that I was constantly bashed over the head with, metaphorically speaking) put a lot of pressure on you, spiritually and/or otherwise to “be a good person” and to “to not sin, sinning is bad, sinning is evil, Eve is responsible for the first sin”. This is incredibly sexist (putting all the problems on the woman because during Biblical times, women were solely property to be passed from father to husband). There’s also the issue of victim blaming and “soul shaming” as I will call it.
Saying “God first” puts incredible pressure on someone, especially when it comes to pre-martial sex (or other “common things” that a church would find “sinful”). A person should never feel guilty about any action they do, because it disagrees with their religious belief. I recently read a quote that ran along the lines of “If doing something, say engaging in sex before your married, gives you high levels of anxiety, because it disagrees with your religion, it might be time to change your belief systems”. It was like a light bulb went off in my head. This makes so much sense and I think would bring people great relief. However, many are also absolutely terrified of conversion. They’re afraid of being treated as outcasts from their religious group, and/or being not accepted into whatever religion they chose to follow next. Is transitioning from one religion to another difficult? Absolutely (you’re often learning a whole new set of beliefs, “rules”, etc that often accompany a religious movement). However, sometimes it really is the only way to truly feel “at peace” with yourself.
Saying “God first” also runs into issues with stigma against those who are chronically ill, physically disabled, and/or those who have mental illness. Too many times I have seen things like “Pray the pain away”. Now, this might work as a placebo, but honestly, the person is still going to be in pain. Jesus might have done miracles when he was alive in his time; but unless he appears again, there is not going to be a “miracle touch” for someone whose suffered from anorexia their entire lives, or having been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Mental illness can NOT “just be prayed away” and often requires medication and/or counseling from a professional psychologist.
Let’s move onto “others second”. Again, this sounds good in theory. In theory, you should put other’s needs in front of your own. However, in real life practice, this can often lead to seriously damaging relationships. It can also lead to you getting hurt. If you put someone else’s needs always above your own (say a good friend or a spouse), you will not fulfill your own wants and desires. You will never open that book you want to read, because your spouse doesn’t like that genre and doesn’t feel comfortable with you reading that book. You will never cook for yourself, because you always want to make sure your friend has something to eat.
Am I telling you to be a selfish jerk? Absolutely not. What I am saying is that it is fine to help others, as long as you leave enough time, space, and energy for yourself. Everyone needs a little bit of “me/alone” time (even if you’re living with your significant other). This time can just be small moments (like if you naturally wake up earlier and/or stay up later than your spouse).
In theory and under “normal” circumstances, this phrase (God first, others second, yourself third) can help people get on with their day-to-day life. However, from my point of view, this is just another way to make people feel guilty and/or shameful about themselves.
Put yourself first, be happy with yourself. Raise your self esteem, smile more, and open doors for people. Little changes in behavior can lead to big changes in your life. Religion should be a tool (if you chose to use it) that helps you have your life feel fulfilled, not something to be used as a weapon to make you feel bad about yourself.