I apologize, this post is longer than usual. I recently spoke at my university’s chapel service and thought the message was one that others might need to hear. The transcript is below.
Presented February 2, 2022
Martha and Mary’s entertaining of Jesus in their home is a story that I’m sure most of you have heard numerous times. It’s a classic, in so many ways, and there is a reason that it is repeated often. We need to hear it over and over again, to be reminded. So, here’s our reminder today.
I chuckle when I read these verses, as I can imagine Martha running over to Jesus, flour on her cheeks, hair mussed up, and a trickle of sweat running down her cheek. She is harried and distracted, focused on providing a lavish feast for the Lord. With a huff and a furrowed brow she exclaims, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.” Jesus calmly and with a held back chuckle in his voice, responds, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion…”
The problem here wasn’t that Martha was busy trying to serve the Lord. Martha’s focus was on serving her guest—Jesus—which is a good thing. Unfortunately, her focus on serving kept her from focusing on her guest, himself, the good portion. Because her focus was not on the Savior, she became resentful in her service, blaming Mary. She accuses Jesus, of all people, of not caring! She tells Jesus, of all people, what to do!
The theologian, Oswald Chambers, once said, “The greatest competitor of devotion to Jesus is service for Him…” (Chambers, p. 740). Martha’s intent was good, but her heart wasn’t in the right place. She placed her service to God before her relationship with God. Because her focus was on the wrong thing, her fruit was distraction and anxiety. The Greek word used for distracted in these verses is Periespato, which means to be pulled or dragged in different directions. Martha was internally & externally pulled in opposing directions. On one hand, her heart wanted to just be with Jesus and on the other, she wanted to be a proper hostess and serve the Lord. She chose to focus on the task rather than the person.
Again, Martha was distracted and torn in different directions, anxious and worried, because her focus was not on the most important thing–Jesus. I confess that I am often the same. I’m a Type A overachiever, recovering perfectionist, empath who struggles daily with being distracted by the task, the needs and expectations of others, and wanting to do things “right”. I know I am not alone in this room. I read a while ago that 2/3 of college students and 1 in 5 adults experience significant or overwhelming anxiety. Most of the time our society deals with the symptoms of this anxiety—get more sleep, exercise, eat better, learn how to say no. We rarely look deep enough to find the root cause.
Having spent more than half of my life in higher education, I believe we need to be aware of how university life can breed distraction and worry. Some of you know that I finally finished my Ph.D. a couple of years ago—it was a long and varied path to get there. But many of you may not know that I had attempted twice before to start a doctorate program. The first time I was accepted but never took any classes…my kids were young and life was throwing me a few curve balls at the time. The second time, I was accepted, took a summer class, and went to fall orientation. At that orientation, the program director sat us down in an auditorium-type room—all in the front row. She asked us to look to our left and then to the right. She said, “Two of you will not be here at the end of this year. Most of you will fail. The only way to succeed in this is to make this your life, the most important thing until you complete the dissertation. My response was panic, anxiety, and dread.
When I think about this experience, there were four things that caused my worry and anxiety:
First, Fear of man—The need for approval. This is my second time trying to get a Ph.D.. I’m a failure if I quit now. What will people think?
Performance—achievement. Related to fear of man, performance is putting a value on your life only by your accomplishments. I lessened the value of who I am by thinking I was less than because I didn’t think I could finish, or even fully start the program.
Perfectionism—Getting it right. How could I pass, let alone get any A’s with that kind of pressure? How was I supposed to be a good student, a good wife, a good mother, a good worker?
Comparison—Ranking. I didn’t have to compare myself in my mind, the professor did it for me. It was blatant and obvious, and I had just enough self-doubt to feed it and let it grow.
My last and successful attempt at the Ph.D. was different. I had been given the role of Director of CIL on campus and had been teaching for some time. God, once again put it on my heart to pursue the Ph.D. I prayed a lot, asking Him if I was ready. He kept nudging. I finally enrolled at Regent University in Virginia Beach VA. At my first residency, at our very first orientation session, the Dean opened with prayer. Rather than put the fear of man into us, as my previous graduate director had done, she put the fear of God into us. She said, “For the next four years we, the faculty, pray that you order your life this way: God, family, work, Ph.D. If you lose your focus, I want you to call me.” I visited with her twice. We prayed, we thanked God, and we asked God for my focus to be redirected. He answered my prayer time and again. The fruit of that focus—a completed Ph.D. in four years, but more importantly, a deeper and stronger faith.
So often in life and on this campus, mostly unintentionally, I see worth being measured by how busy someone is, how much someone has accomplished, or how well someone has met someone else’s expectations. But here is what I know, without doubt, and have witnessed to be true…if all our striving and activity, seeking to serve others, even the good things, leaves us without time to be still and in God’s presence—to focus on the giver–the fruit of that distraction is anxiety, not peace. And, if we do not have the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding, we do not have the good fruit of love, kindness, gentleness. Instead, we are consumed by anxiety and resentment, just as Martha was. I love Martha. I am Martha so very often. But, I have to remember, as Matthew 6:21 says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” So, I leave you with these questions. Where is your focus? Where is your heart? I praise God if you have found space and time to keep your focus on Him. I pray that if you have been distracted, you can recommit to focusing on Him. If you are struggling with that, email me, call me, stop by. I will pray with you.
As always, To God be the Glory! Amen.
Contributed by Liz Hunt
Chambers, O. (2000). The complete works of Oswald Chambers. Discovery House.