“Don’t just stand there – do something!” When’s the last time you heard someone say that? You’ve probably said it yourself. Even when we’re on vacation, we typically feel the need to be engaged in some form of activity. What good’s a vacation if we’re not doing anything, right?
We fill our lifestyles with action verbs, and that’s reflective of our society. For centuries, we’ve prided ourselves on “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” By the way, have you ever tried that? It’s not as easy as it sounds, given the pull of gravity and all.
Decades ago Frank Sinatra enthralled his fans by singing, “I Did It My Way.” I’ve tried that many times myself; too often I’ve then fretted, “Now what have I done?!” But when facing a crisis, dealing with worry, or just at a perplexing juncture in our lives, we think the solution is to do something.
Anything. Even if it’s the wrong thing to do. Better than nothing.
Lest we think this is some uniquely American thing, or even a 21st century thing, it’s not. Apparently, this human tendency has spanned the ages. We see it in the biblical account of the sisters Mary and Martha, when Jesus paid them a visit:
“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 only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:38-42).
Of these two sisters, which do you identify with the most? Many of us would side with Martha. After all, this visit might have been unanticipated, so there was much to do to extend proper hospitality to Jesus and His followers. Why shouldn’t Martha be aggravated to see her sister, Mary, sitting there, just listening to what Jesus had to say?
Except, with a soft but direct rebuke, Jesus gave Martha a lesson in priorities. Mary, apparently sensing a unique, even once in a lifetime opportunity to sit and soak up the wonderful things Jesus had to say, decided the necessary busy work could wait. The Lord seemed to agree.
“Yeah, but…!” Certainly the two women didn’t already have a four-course meal awaiting, just in case some special, unexpected guests came by. Surely Jesus didn’t send a text, or an email, to give them advance notice of His arrival with some friends. Showing proper hospitality was important in their culture, so there was work to be done – and someone had to do it.
All true, but from Jesus’ own lips we read His caution about confusing the important with the urgent. This comes to mind because many of us sense an urgency for our nation. We seem at an unprecedented crossroads politically, morally and most of all, spiritually. Time for action!
Starting in just a few days, a 10-day event (Sept. 18-28) called “The Return” will seek to awaken many minds, hearts and spirits. Perhaps even be used by God to usher in a revival that would sweep across every strata of society. Central to this event, sponsored by numerous Christian leaders, will be a “sacred assembly” Saturday, Sept. 26 on the Washington Mall in our nation’s capital.
This is doing something, right? Moving into action, right? Yes, and no. I’m reminded of the most impactful psalm in my life, Psalm 37. It underscores the importance of balance, that there’s a time to be a Martha, but also a time to be a Mary.
The psalm starts off with the active verbs we like so well, such as “Do not fret,” “trust in the Lord,” “do good,” “delight yourself in the Lord,” “commit your way to the Lord,” and “trust in him” (Psalm 37:1-5). But then, just as we’re about to charge into the sunset, eager to be doing the Lord’s work, we read words that seem almost like shouting “Whoa!” to a galloping horse. It says, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him…” (Psalm 37:7). Oh, man! Then, perhaps for emphasis or in case we missed it the first time, we’re told, “Wait for the Lord and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the land; when the wicked are cut off, you will see it” (Psalm 37:34).
In a later psalm we find a similar admonition: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10). What’s up with all this waiting, and being still? Doesn’t the Lord understand the time is now, and something must be done?
I have no doubt He understands. And perhaps, if the family of faith really gets serious about this call to the fundamental truths, values and virtues that have undergirded our nation since its founding, God will do some great things. Maybe even “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,” as Ephesians 3:20 declares. But the key is the last part of that verse: “according to his power that is at work in us.”
Too often we launch into campaigns and enterprises and missions, determined to do good things for God, forgetting that if He’s not in the middle of them, our best efforts will fall flat. So I think the premise of “The Return” is great. But the most important thing we can do, the greatest work we can perform, is the hard work of prayer. As we are abiding in the One who empowers us to carry out His will.
As Jesus said, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). Because when we’re engaged in a spiritual war – which we are – we’re instructed to put on the full armor of God, as described in Ephesians 6:10-18. And the most important piece of the armor is prayer: “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit” (verse 18).
We don’t need to wait until Sept. 18 to start praying, and we definitely don’t need to cease praying on Sept. 26. Without question, God is able. But for whatever reason, He usually chooses to do His best work in response to the faithful, fervent prayers of His people. Let’s not get so caught up in the busy work that we become like Martha and forget, as Jesus said, to choose what is better.
* * *