I used to think I was more a Mary than a Martha.

About twelve years ago, sitting in a ladies bible study, I listened as the godly older women around the table sighed over how much they saw themselves in Martha. Martha, the one anxiously doing the serving and complaining rather than sitting expectantly at the feet of Jesus like her sister Mary (see Luke 10:38-42).

My newly-married-without-children self chimed in, “I think I’m more of a Mary, actually–I love sitting with the Word, listening to sermons…but sometimes maybe to a fault. I’m maybe a little bit lazy.”

I’m sure the older, wiser ladies at the table couldn’t help but chuckle or gasp inwardly at my inexperience. To their credit, they did a good job of smiling and nodding rather than lashing out, “Yes! You are lazy! Just wait until you have kids! You have no idea!” These were gracious women.

Mary Martha heart Jesus

Johannes Vermeer: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Public Domain

In recent years, I’ve come to see that my preference for quiet and contemplation is just that–a preference. A personality trait, if you will. It’s easy to imagine it’s a spiritual virtue in and of itself, but the Lord is calling my bluff. And I’m recognizing, along with those lovely ladies from twelve years ago, just how much I relate to dear Martha.

There’s a separation, a disconnect, between my still-and-quiet time and my active-doing time. I’ll read the bible in the morning in perfect peace and within five minutes of stepping into the kitchen, I’m barking grouchy reprimands, put off by the fact that my kids need to be reminded, once again, to wash their hands before setting the table. Can’t you help me out with the serving by doing the obvious?

Lord, can’t you tell my children to make my life easier?

Jesus speaks to me as He spoke to Martha, “Lauren, Lauren, you are worried and troubled by so many things.”

That’s not to say that my children were choosing “the better part” in that moment, but it is to say that I sure wasn’t.

I can put the stresses of our days out of mind for a little while when I have my coffee and a quiet room all to myself. But if I’m honest, that’s not a trusting, “Mary” heart. That’s just getting what I want: the pleasure of quiet, comfortable spirituality.

I think I have the “Mary thing” going, but really I’m a “Martha” who is only at peace or at rest when she’s getting the help she thinks she’s due and the quiet atmosphere she thinks is necessary for spiritual things to take place.

As Rachel Jankovic says in Loving the Little Years, life at home with kids is life in a rock tumbler–we’re always bumping up against each other. How we respond to all the bumps and bruises and duties of everyday life tells a lot more about our maturity and spirituality than some bible-and-mocha time does.

What happens to “Mary” when I do have to roll up my sleeves and feed the boys who are bouncing around my kitchen like pin balls? Where does she go when it’s time to wash the dishes? It’s as though she flies away, back to that quiet corner where I left my bible. “Mary” doesn’t seem to come with me when it’s time to get things done. It’s like I’m “Mary” for 30 minutes out of my day, and “Martha” for the rest. 

Martha Jesus Mary heart motherhood

My selfishness and desire for the ideal and comfortable spiritual experience, especially when I imagine that such an experience is somehow a “Mary thing”, actually leads to a lot of the resentment and laziness that underlies the worry, irritation, and grumblesome “service” of my not-so-quiet times.

Seeing myself as a spiritual “Mary”, I peer through dagger eyes of self-righteousness at any who would dare disturb my supposed inner peace. And even the daily work to which I’m called becomes an affront to my desire for “better” things.

When the pendulum swings and procrastination finally gives way to panic, “Martha” comes out in full force, barking commands and working feverishly–anxiously, resentfully–to catch up on the work that “Mary” let slide. Self-righteousness turns to self-loathing and guilt. The work to be done becomes oppressive, and so do I.

There is, of course, no “Mary” to be found in the whole scenario. The very thing that I imagined made me a “Mary” fuels the “Martha” reality of my waking hours.

Mary’s heart was capable of resting, of listening to Jesus, even in what was probably a crowded and busy environment, an environment that clearly caused anxiety for Martha.

Martha’s problem wasn’t in her serving but in her heart.

Same environment, two different responses.

One sat in tender dependence, focused on the Son of God who loved her; the other served with furrowed brow, focused on what she wanted but wasn’t getting.

One demonstrated a heart capable of resting whether seated or serving; the other couldn’t have rested at the moment even if she had suddenly decided to plop down next to her sister.

O that we would have our eyes so fixed on Jesus that our rest in Him would permeate not just our devotional time but also every act of service.

O Lord, you loved both Martha and Mary. Your rebuke was gentle and revealed the storm inside Martha. Thank You for revealing, at least a little more today, the storm inside of me. Forgive me for trying to control so much, for fidgeting and fighting through my days rather than sitting with You in them–and with the people You’ve given me. Please continue to expose and calm the storm in my heart. And teach me to rest in You and know Your love even in the midst of daily chores and service and failures and disappointments.

It’s a mercy of the Lord when we begin to see our hearts more clearly. It’s painful, to be sure, but it’s also an invitation to repent and reaffirm the gospel of grace. Jesus deals gently with us because He already paid the penalty for our sin on the cross. 

The ladies at my bible study twelve years ago knew this far better than I did at the time, and so they dealt with my naivete quite gently, too.

When the Lord exposes our self-deception and reveals our sin in places where we thought we were doing well, it’s an invitation to know not just the depth of our sin, but also, so much more, the depth of His love.

May we rest in grace. And from that place of rest, may our daily work be a labor in love–a kind of serving that sits at the feet of Jesus.