To Do Or Not To Do

A study on Martha & Mary

I’m not sure about you, but I’m the type that uses a “to-do-list” to get tasks completed. I find that my productivity increases during the day when I first make the time to write down what I need to accomplish. Also, there’s a high degree of satisfaction when I complete a task and cross it my list. Doesn’t it feel so gratifying knowing that tasks are being accomplished and work is being taken care of? I hope I’m not the only one!

However, I can see the potential pitfalls of viewing my day solely in terms of ‘to-dos’ and errands. The danger of being so task-oriented is that I can get so consumed by checking off what needs to be done, that I can neglect relationships along the way. My measurement of success can be defined in what I do, rather than whose I am. This brings me back to a constant reminder that we are called human “beings” for a reason…not human ‘doings.’

Perhaps you have found that you are stuck in a lifestyle of busyness.  And much like trying to clean a house…you find it’s never-ending! I have found that once a task is completed, there are always more good deeds to do, responsibilities to fulfill, and action items to complete. You might be thinking… “How am I supposed to be faithful with what I’ve been given, without exhausting myself?” “Is there an appropriate balance to what I should do?”

There may be a reason why you are reading this, now, especially if you have been struggling with doing too much, wearing yourself out in the process. The Lord wants to help you through this process! I’d like to turn your attention to a short passage of Scripture, where Jesus is invited into the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Their approach to how they interact and serve Jesus are quite different, which illustrates powerful ways of living a spirit-filled life today.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” – Luke 10:38-42

There’s a ton of revelation here, but let me point out two:

1.           MARTHA SERVED, MARY SAT

This might be an obvious distinction, but the implications are huge. Imagine how you would feel if the Son of God said ‘yes’ to coming to your home? I’m positive there would be a mad scramble at getting the house cleaned so it looks spotless when Jesus would arrive.

But “Martha was distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40 ESV). In her affection for Jesus, she did what was natural – to serve him. To make sure that Jesus (and most likely the other disciples) would have a clean home filled with the preparations needed to make any house visit ready – refreshments, food, games… well, who knows about that one, but you get the picture!

Serving, itself, was not the problem. Rather, too much focus was on the serving, than on the Savior, himself. Martha prioritized the tasks above the relationship, which, ironically, was meant for Jesus. Her distractions led her to become distant from the Master, as she focused on her lack rather than being filled by drawing near to Him.

What did Mary do? She simply “sat at the Lord’s feet…” (Luke 10:39). On the outset, you might become frustrated with Mary, like Martha did, because this is also her house. Doesn’t she have a sense of responsibility here? Why is she not serving like Martha is? You might be justifying Martha’s response and initial frustration… I understand you!

Here, again, is what we have to realize – Mary’s posture indicated her heart’s position. In other words, sitting at Jesus’ feet revealed that she was ready to receive from Him, rather than give to him. Martha’s serving seemed to be out of obligation, whereas Mary’s sitting was done out of curiosity, hunger, and relational connectedness. Martha was quick “to do”, whereas Mary was willing to, “be still and know that [He] is God” (Psalm 46:10). There seems to be a relational dissonance that Martha could not understand because, in her mind, the tasks were of greater value than the relationship itself.

This serves as a gentle warning for each of us – we can become tempted to find our value in what we do rather than who we serve. It is of greater value to carve out alone time with Jesus than it is to simply do things for Him. Let’s not put the cart before the horse and think that simply serving is our way to intimacy with the Lord.

2.          MARTHA DID GOOD, BUT MARY DID WHAT WAS BEST

Jesus did not say that Martha, in serving Him, was wrong. Rather, He made the distinction, between the two sisters, as to which is better. This is an important distinction to make – Mary’s choice to sit and listen was of better value than Martha’s tendency to run around and serve.

This is a great point for you to consider in your relationship with the Lord, especially if you are serving in any ministry capacity – are you easily persuaded to forsake the great for the good? To sacrifice more than you should instead of spending quality time with the Lord, listening to what He has to say? I know, because this is a tough one for me!

The enemy knows that if he cannot get you to fall into sin, then his next step is for you to suffer from burnout. Burnout happens when there is too much serving and too little time in the secret place with the Holy Spirit. It’s easy to serve too much because, let’s face it… people need you! There’s work to be done! There’s also the natural satisfaction of seeing a ‘good job well done.’ Yet, all too often, pastors, lay leaders, and good-hearted Christ-followers, become victims of burnout each day. It’s truly a shame to see. Hence, the necessity to do what is best rather than what is good. 

Listening to what God has for you is better than sacrificing your time to accomplish more tasks for Him. Don’t just take my word for it! Samuel says a similar word to King Saul as he disobeyed God by offering sacrifices to the Lord (which seemed ‘good’ to him) instead of fulfilling the word of the Lord:

“And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22

Sitting at Jesus’ feet, quieting your soul, and listening to what He has to say, is greater than serving and sacrifice. To modify the classic line in Shakespeare – ‘to do or not to do, that is the question:’ If you are tempted to “do” because you ‘have to’, ask the Lord, where’s the root of the busyness coming from? Is there a tendency to ‘do’ because you do not know how to ‘be’ still? Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you where, in your schedule, you can sit at Jesus’ feet in the secret place. The Lord wants you to know Him, in an intimate way, and there’s no better way than taking time to simply be with Him.

Have a blessed week!

5 Comments

  1. This is a very interesting, insightful passage. Hearing the Lords voice and becoming familiar with it is required by all believers. Having the Lord come to your home would be the greatest moment of anyones life. The preperation is important, as the scriptures says have our own house in order because we know not what time He comes. If Chist came today would we be ready or trying to complete work we hadn’t yet done? As you mention that both sisters were right, Jesus is such a humble man that all He requires in love, devotion and faith. Jesus Himself feed 10,000 because He know it was needed. In Revelation 3:20 the scriptures say “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” Be ready! So based on that scripture Martha was right as well however she just wasn’t as ready as she needed to be. As He said both were right, Martha has a heart of service and to serve the Lord is a great thing and to listen to the Lord is also great. I do believe where Martha may have lacked understanding is when she grumbled about serving alone. I feel in her mind she did not only want to fill her mind with the Lords wisdom over a meal but wanted to nourish His body and give what she could to Him. We are all called to different areas in the body of Christ, one thing that is important to remember is all areas are needed but we need to serve with a greatful heart.

    1. Author

      Thank you for your response Toni. You are correct, we are called to be faithful as Jesus illustrated through the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. My hope is that we can be faithful not just in the good, but in the best of what He’s called us to each day. For many, it’s easier to serve others than to sit at Jesus’ feet… but what is better? As you mentioned, Martha’s attitude focused on her lack of need (my sister needs to help me) rather than meeting Jesus intimately, (sit, be still, and listen with her sister) which would fill the true need. The Martha in me continually has to be reminded of Mary’s position so I can rest with God, rather than serve incessantly for God.

      1. Thank you for the reminder, it is in the stillness we can hear the voice of God.

  2. Very insightful. Thank you.

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