Inskpill No. 14: The Martha Syndrome




I have recently been mulling over Luke 10:40, where Martha is “cumbered about much serving” and does not listen to the Lord teach, while her sister Mary absorbs His every word. After all these years I found I still wrestled with the idea that I am like Martha and not like Mary. Running around serving and being perfect in a worldly way, missing the whole point of Jesus’ presence, failing to do what would please Him most? That sounds like me, all right. Or at least the person I used to be. Good at pleasing humans. Not so good at pleasing God.

The idea used to haunt me. Growing up, people thought I was a good kid, but this bothered me more and more. I knew that God could see the dark places in my heart, and I figured he couldn’t be too impressed with me. If everybody could see what He sees, I thought, then nobody will love me. (Lies from the devil are always the diametric opposite to the truth. The fact is that if we saw one another the way God sees us, everyone would love everyone!) So while I understood that Mary did well and Martha did not, I saw myself as “a Martha”, as if it were some kind of irreversible spiritual disease. (We can call it the Martha Syndrome.) I so wanted to be a Mary, but I knew that I could never be. That was for Mom, for Dad, the spiritual people, the people with real faith.

I think plenty of people have the Martha Syndrome, believing the same lie that they are inherently flawed: “There are holy, Jesus-loving, spiritual people . . . and then there’s me.” If Satan can get you to believe that you are inherently flawed, then you will never believe that God’s grace can reach you. Sure, grace helps a lot of people, but not me, you’ll think. You may believe in Jesus but you’ll never see yourself as his best friend.

It’s time for us to blast this lie together.

First, recall that in Luke 10:41 Jesus first spoke words of understanding and grace to Martha before correcting her. He knew she was troubled. She was trying to meet her spiritual needs with physical deeds. With a veneer of perfection that, as Jesus put it, could be taken from her. For some reason we tend to read this passage as an instance of Jesus telling off a self-righteous little harpy, yet His voice is clearly that of grace and not condemnation. We would do well to remember that no verse of scripture is intended to shame God’s children. If you find one that appears to do so, you had better take a closer look. Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to save it.

Now look at John 11:5. “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.” Who is mentioned first of the three siblings that Jesus loved? Martha; and I believe there is a specific reason for that.

Up until this point, Martha hasn’t done anything terribly special as far as we know. It was her sister Mary who sat at his feet to listen. It was Mary who anointed His feet and dried them with her hair. (John 11:2) What had Martha done? Interrupt Him to tattle on Mary. It is clear, then, that the love of God is IN NO WAY dependent on what we do for Him. The scripture emphasizes that JESUS LOVED MARTHA. The first time I read that, four or five years ago, tears sprang to my eyes. It was my first inkling that being “a Martha” might not be such a bad thing. My Martha Syndrome began to grow less severe.

Later in John 11 it is Martha to whom Jesus calls Himself The Resurrection and the Life. (Maybe that was the lesson she missed when he was teaching in her living room.) Farther into the chapter she still has doubts and gets a couple of faith adjustments, but she boldly places herself among the first believers with the words “I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God.” The Holy Spirit, speaking through the Apostle John, knew that those of us who identify with Martha’s flaws or have made her mistakes, desperately need to know that Jesus loves us just as much as much as the most passionate people leading His church. What’s more, He believes us to be just as capable of deep connection with Him, just as destined for greatness. He corrected Martha because He believed she could handle the truth. He believed in her. Now consider this for a moment:

Jesus also believes in you. He believes in YOU. Whoever you are, however little you think you can do. Remember that Almighty God believes in you.

Now, let me reiterate the point that we are not trying to avoid “being Martha”, because that would mean avoiding being a believer, beloved of Jesus. That is who Martha truly was. If we believe that, and believe the same about ourselves, then the Martha Syndrome, the lie that we are inherently flawed spiritually, is no longer a reality in our lives. So, we are simply to avoid doing certain things that Martha did. I am referring to the story in Luke 10 again. In verse 40, it says “Martha was cumbered about much serving.” (Emphasis mine.) Here’s the snag I hit reading this the other day: isn’t “much serving” a good thing? What about people like me, who recognize a calling on their lives to serve? How are we supposed to know when to serve and when to sit down and listen? I asked God about it, and He answered me with the following train of thought.

What does God prize the most in a servant? If it isn’t being the world’s hardest worker, then what is it? Let’s look at Matthew 25:21,23. What does the master call the servants that please him? “Good and profitable”? “Good and hard-working”? Nope. “Good and faithful”. One servant made him less money than the other, but they were both faithful, and that’s what the master truly wants. He gave them both the same reward. Of course serving God often involves hard work, but if you think that’s all there is to it, you’re missing the point. 1 Corinthians 4:2 says “it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful”. What does faithfulness look like? It looks like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him. At that moment, it was Mary who was serving Jesus, not Martha. Martha obviously knew she ought to serve the Lord. She just hadn’t figured out what service He actually desires. John 12:42 spells it out. “If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there also shall my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my father honour.”

So there he was, sitting on the family sofa. And there also was His servant Mary. She was following Him. And He honored her faithfulness.

My (probably) final remark is thus:

Suppose you are suffering from spiritual inferiority syndrome. You feel that you were born distant from God and that you always will be. The answer to your problem is in the story of another Biblical woman who had every reason to feel distant and unnoticed by God. You see, to become a Mary you need to do a Ruth.

Ruth was a Moabite, who were a pagan people with a dark origin. Her knowledge of God came from her Israelite husband, brother-in-law, and mother-in-law. When her husband and his brother died, leaving her to decide between staying with her people or go with her beloved mother-in-law to live in Israel, It would have been easy for her to think, “Yeah, I see He is the real God, but these are His chosen people. I’ll never really be one of them. He’d never take on a Moabite as His child.”

Instead, however, Ruth made a choice. A gamble, in fact, on the love of God. (His love is the only thing you can bet on and win every time.) She clung to Naomi, her last link to Israel and to their God. And she said:

“Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16). And she followed this with a vow to remain with Naomi until death. This, friends, is some other kind of faithfulness. For all Ruth knew, all that lay ahead of her was poverty and the rejection of the people of Israel. But God always rewards faithfulness. One day Ruth’s name would be listed in the lineage of Jesus: the wife of a wealthy man, the grandmother of King David. She, a Moabite.

My point? As God rewarded the faithfulness of Ruth, so He will reward you, and so He would have rewarded Martha that day in Luke 10, if she would have given Him a chance. All she had to do was entrust her messy, cranky, un-spiritual self to His grace, and follow Him. God does not show favoritism.

“But how do I do that?” you ask. “How do I follow Jesus when I have no idea where He’s leading me?”

Go somewhere quiet and listen to Him for a while. Jesus is always speaking to you. You’ve got to start hearing. So go find him! He’s sitting on your dresser, or your couch, or in your car, or the bottom of your purse. He’s got hundreds of pages and “Holy Bible” written on His spine. Open Him up and let him talk to you. (The Word, remember, is God. John 1:1.) Even if you only have time for a chapter, or half a chapter, or a paragraph of the New Testament, in the morning or before bed, He can reach you with it. Faithfulness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, so every one of us – the Marys and the Marthas – has it inside. We can do it. Let’s sit down at Jesus’ feet and listen.



Top photo by Evan Kirby for

Bottom photo by Ondrej Supitar for

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