Doing is important. We spend our days doing and thinking about things we want and need to do. Our identity and sense of value is wrapped up in what we do. In a real way, we are what we do; what we do determines who we are.
When we define our faith life, we likely look in only two locations. Being a Christian concerns, first, what we believe. Second, it concerns what we do. Regardless of how many times we might hear that we are justified by faith, we still think in terms of “works-righteousness.” We secretly believe that we will be judged by God for what we have and have not done during this lifetime. And of course there are plenty of passages in Scripture to justify such a position.
Then we come to the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha in Luke 10. Imagine what it would have been like to have Jesus and His band of disciples show up at your doorstep. Your likely immediate reaction would be: what am I supposed to do? Martha and Mary answered that question in markedly different ways. Most of us identify more with Martha than with Mary; most of us would have quickly begun to do what Martha did: fix your guests a meal; show them gracious hospitality. Most of us would have understood Martha’s throbbing frustration with her sitting sister, Mary, and why she came to Jesus to ask for His help in prying Mary away from cleaving to Him and His every word:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).
Jesus does not give Martha the answer she is seeking or expecting. What the Lord came expecting was rapt attention. That is why He entered their home, not to eat but to teach. Martha got distracted from this pivotal understanding by the immediate tasks she saw before her: meal preparation, dishes, seating arrangements. No longer was hers a labor of love; now it was merely “work.” And here is Mary, seated at the Lord’s feet, doing nothing, not helping at all in this seemingly essential task of hosting.
With her distraction from Christ comes worrying, fretting, which robs Martha of the joy of having Jesus in her home, an honor she will never forget. Martha is under stress and pressure, and wants her sister to help relieve her of looming responsibility. Rather than interceding for Martha, Jesus praises Mary and the choice she made to listen to Him. He makes it surprisingly clear that there is in the end only one thing necessary, and Mary has chosen it. What is the one thing necessary? When You said, “Seek My face,” My heart said to You, “Your face, Lord, I will seek” (Psalm 27:8 NKJV).
Again, we identify far more with Martha than Mary. We feel more her plight than Mary’s passion for being with Christ. Martha we would call a “do the right thing go-getter” and Mary lazy, a shirker of duty. Yet our perspective is different than God’s. God rewards those who seek Him with their whole heart: When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord (Jeremiah 29:13-14a).
To seek the Lord, and to desire to be with God is the highest calling. Here is how God will reward those to seek to cleave to Him and His words: Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation (Psalm 91:15-16).
For most of us, a life spent away from the world and in prayer would appear as a wasted life. Instead of desiring such an existence, we would experience fear, and the feeling of entrapment. The truth is, most of us are not called to such a solitary life; we are called to be a Martha as well as Mary. I cannot imagine myself happy as a full-time monastic contemplative. Yet it is my desire and task to be with Christ constantly. In addition to beliefs and behavior, being a Christian is above all about being with Christ.
Most of us, however, prefer to remain as Martha rather than become as Mary. We therefore choose to become distracted by life’s many tasks, about which we worry. We fret, we fear, we have stress and struggle to find relief, let alone peace, especially the peace of Christ. And we tell ourselves that God is pleased with all we do in His name and for His purposes. Perhaps we resonate with Paul’s admonition, interpreting it to mean: be a Martha rather than a Mary, a doer, rather than a “be-er-with”: Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13). Yet even here, the emphasis must be placed on the reality of God being in us, enabling us to “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Divine connection empowers work.
The reality is, we need “Mary moments” in order to empower “Martha deeds.” We need daily times of prayer and Scripture to connect with Christ, who will then strength, guide and direct our “Martha deeds.” Christ will enable us to sense what is a true distraction and what is of Him and His will for us.
During a recent “Mary moment,” the Lord gave me four words to empower “Martha deeds:” “Choose faith, not fear.” There is an instant when you choose one or the other, faith or fear in specific situations. You have make this choice very time. To choose faith, not fear means: remain connected through your faith with Christ; in so doing, you simply cannot fear. You cannot have fear and faith at the same time. If you are afraid, that means you have forsaken faith; if you have faith, you cannot, you will not fear.
The one thing necessary for a life of faith, a life without worry or worldly distractions, is to practice the presence of Christ. This most important area of our faith is also our weakest and least practiced. Prayer for most of us is a few words or thoughts of intercession and pleas for help. We know far too little about nearness with Christ. How long since you have sat in spirit at the feet of the Lord, through prayer and Scripture? Yet that is the one thing necessary, leading to a life of faith and peace. Chose faith, not fear.