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Of distraction and active holiness

” … Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him (Jesus) 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 10:41-42.

HOW do you normally respond to the passage above? Over the years, my own reaction has wavered between guilt and frustration. Guilt in that the tyranny of “urgent” tasks too often distracts me from the more important work of spiritual growth. Frustration in that there is so much that needs doing. If I neglect the urgent tasks I am responsible for, who will do them?

While Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, who will buy the food, prepare the meal and clean up the dishes?

Feelings of guilt and frustration in the light of Christ’s admonition of Martha are not new and have produced different responses by Christians through the ages. One emphasis has been on spiritual passivity known as “Quietism”. Quietism holds that the believer should wait upon the Lord in all matters of spiritual significance; refusing to take any action until she has received direct and specific guidance from the Holy Spirit as to when and how to act.

For Quietists, only the discipline of waiting for direct spiritual guidance can cure our fleshly impulse to take matters into our own hands simply because these things “need to be done”. Accordingly, we should avoid basing our actions according to conscience, practical wisdom, or even the general guidance of Scripture. Only as we “let go and let God” are we able to overcome the guilt and frustration that arises from our tendency to act out of our own strength.

Though Quietism has proved attractive to many over the years, such spiritual passivity is very difficult to maintain consistently not only in light of our human nature, but also in the light of what the Bible itself teaches. Simple survival requires activity and that activity entails habits, will, memory and common sense. If we passively waited upon mystical prompting before we made any decision or took any action, we wouldn’t last long. Moreover, emphasis on special guidance ignores the truth that our very survival requires God’s continual presence and power. This does not deny the important role special conscious prompting of the Holy Spirit plays in the Christian life, only that it is one small facet of the whole complex manner in which God leads and directs our lives. Moreover, the clear call of Scripture is to holy activity.

As Ephesians 2:10 points out, it is God who set out in advance the good works we are to do. The clear implication is that our holy activity fulfils God’s will through our active response to His sovereign grace. Thus, rather than waiting for some mystical prompting to do good, according to Titus 2:14, we are to eagerly pursue the good. Certainly, there are times when we must patiently “wait” upon the Lord, especially at those times when circumstances thwart our good intentions. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean we can neglect the needs of our neighbour, ignore the directives of Scripture, or refuse to make decisions in our waiting. Rather, even our waiting is a chosen and active trust in the Lord; a holy activity that doesn’t imply spiritual passivity or monastic retreat.

One of the great champions of such holy activity was John Wesley. In sharp contrast to the Quietists of his day, Wesley declared, “do all the good you can.” His call was not to a renewed self-reliance, nor a defence of Martha’s attention to lesser things. Rather, his call to action was based on the firm conviction that godly activity fulfilled the Christian calling to order our habits, activities and will in accordance with the Lordship of Christ. Accordingly, the difference between Mary and Martha is not passivity versus holy activity, but between distraction and active holiness.

Emphasis on holy activity doesn’t deny the importance of the presence of the Spirit in all we attempt to achieve. It simply doesn’t limit that presence to those activities specifically enjoined through mystical prompting. Nonetheless, holy activity, if it is truly holy, should take note of four things.

First, it is appropriate that when we face any task we should make an honest and prayerful assessment of our responsibilities, our opportunities and the tasks set before us. Secondly, before we set out we need to recognise our need for divine assistance in that we can do nothing fruitful apart from Christ. (John 15:5). Third, we should go about our task with a sense of calling, confidence and courage knowing that we are doing the works God has set out for us to do. Finally, in all that we do it is imperative that we thank God for His assistance as well as ask His forgiveness in any area that we have fallen short of the mark.

Pursuing our tasks in this manner will do much to do away with the guilt and frustration we sometimes feel and produce the good fruit of satisfaction and peace. Satisfaction in the recognition that we have served God this day and that He is honoured and glorified by what we have attempted in His name. Peace in the recognition that it is God who works in us to bring about His purposes through our activity.

The Rev Dr Tom Harvey is a lecturer at Trinity Theological College and works with the Singapore Presbyterian Church as a Partner in Mission from the Presbyterian Church (USA).