Faith Has No Formula

Faith is a funny thing. It crashes over some people and trickles into others. There’s no formula, but Jesus is always there. He leads us into faith with exactly what we need in order to get there. It’s been that way since the first Easter morning…

Peter & John

John 20:1-10.

The knock came early, just after sunrise. Mary rushed into the room, out of breath. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Peter and John rushed out the door before she could close her mouth. (At least that’s how I imagine it.) Continue reading

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A Girl’s Gotta Eat (and so does everyone else): In Defense of Martha

This is one of those posts that reflects years of thought. I’m not kidding. I have been pondering this story since before the birth of my second child, and he just turned nine. I once got accused of being a Martha because I pointed out that, if our plan included a meal, someone would have to organize it. Food does not magically appear on the table (although Papa John’s online ordering with to-your-door delivery is surprisingly close).

I have always thought that Mary’s sister, Martha, gets a bad rap in Christian circles. This is probably because I am so much more like Martha than like Mary. I’m a practical girl. You say, “Let’s take a trip!”  I say, “Do we have enough gas to get there?” The kids say, “Let’s watch a movie!” I say, “Will it finish before bedtime?” In defending Martha, I am defending myself. So let’s really unpack this story (Luke 10:38-42) and get to the bottom of Martha’s situation . . . okay, her sin. Because there is no way she was wrong to fix those guys something to eat!

It seems that Jesus enjoyed being at Martha’s house. In fact, he came to love Martha and her siblings (Mary and Lazarus) intimately and even stopped in to see them one last time on His way to Jerusalem before His crucifixion (John 12:1-3). This is the family He trusted enough to let them endure profound grief for His glory. (See John 11. I wrote about this previously.) But the scene for today occurred earlier. Perhaps this was the first time Jesus ever ‘set foot’ in their home. We don’t know. At any rate, Martha invited Him and his companions to come in and have something to eat. The Scriptures say, Martha opened her home to him (Luke 10:38), demonstrating the natural hospitality of near-Eastern culture. Then she got busy. They had been travelling and were most certainly hungry.  Since they couldn’t order delivery pizza, it was necessary to actually cook.

Now this is where things get dicey. Martha got distracted by the preparations (v. 40a).  Let’s look at some of her options.

  • We can safely assume that Martha was fairly wealthy. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have invited all these people into her home. Therefore, she probably had several servants. She could have trusted them to prepare something nice and left it alone. But she didn’t.
  • Martha could have ordered food from other people (like catering) and paid them for their work. No one needed to know . . . unless they found all the take-away containers. This too was unacceptable.
  • If she wanted to do it herself, Martha could have made something simple—maybe some fruit and grilled meat if they wanted to eat quickly—or thrown some beans and rice in the whatever-functioned-like-a-crockpot-in-those-days and walked away. [Semi-random aside:  Remember when Abram prepared a meal for his three guests (Genesis 18)? They had to slaughter an animal and bake bread. Those things take quite a while. Sure, this is thousands of years later, but not much had changed. In many parts of the world, people still don’t expect to eat quickly.]

It’s clear that Martha had some pride issues because the preparations were taking every ounce of her energy and focus. She wanted to make German Chocolate Cake when no-bake cookies or boxed brownies would have been sufficient. But before you slam her, consider the fact that her motives may have been good. When I have someone special in my home, I want to serve them to the best of my ability. I want to give them the very best I have to offer—not for myself but as a way to honor that person. Perhaps Martha already recognized that Jesus was someone special; perhaps she was already growing to love Him (speaking platonically here); perhaps her heart was not that different from the widow with two small coins, who gave so generously (Luke 21:1-4). All of us have walked that fine line between honoring our guests and wanting to be honored for our exceptional hospitality (or any other gift from Him). My kids ask me why we have to clean the house before company comes over. There are days when it’s hard to answer honestly.

When the focus of that award-winning German Chocolate Cake jumps from the eater to the preparer, we have entered into sin. This is why God said He hated the Israelites’ worship in Amos 5. They went through the motions of worship, but with impure hearts. Just think about it:  (paraphrasing) “I hate your offerings because they are about you, not about Me.” He might say to me, “I hate your freshly mopped floors and your delicious muffins because you did it to make yourself look good, not to honor Me.”

Ouch.

We can’t really know Martha’s motives. I have read between the lines far more than is acceptable just because I see myself in Martha so often. Here’s what we know for sure:  Martha went to Jesus and complained (v. 40b). I can imagine her walking around behind the other men, stooping to whisper in Jesus’ ear. You see, Mary was behaving counter-culturally. She wasn’t supposed to be sitting in that room with all the men. There were clear lines of gender separation in that culture. So on top of being jealous because Mary got to listen to Jesus while she didn’t, and frustrated because she couldn’t get all the work done, we can assume that Martha was slightly embarrassed by Mary’s behavior. Her tone could have been a little whiney, or it could have been indignant. I lean toward the latter because I don’t think Martha was afraid of hard work or long hours. She wanted everything to be handled properly and in a socially-acceptable manner. Things just weren’t going the way they were supposed to go, and surely, Jesus—of all people—could see that! So she offered a solution that would help them both: tell Mary to go help in the kitchen.

Before we look at what Jesus said, let’s look at what He did not say. This is significant.

  • He didn’t deny that there was a lot of work to be done.
  • He didn’t tell Martha to quit making the preparations;
  • He didn’t tell her to sit down;
  • He didn’t suggest a simpler meal.
  • He also didn’t say that He was hungry, though,
  • or tell her about His favorite food.

Instead, His words make me think He reached out and laid his hand on her arm. He connected with her, looking beyond the dirty apron, the burn on one hand and the worn-out potholder on the other, the sweat dripping down her temple, the frizz of hair that had escaped her headscarf. He stopped whatever deep and important conversation was developing (or whatever joke was being told, because we know Jesus liked to laugh!), waiting until her eyes met his, and spoke into her heart: “We don’t need a lot, Martha. The social conventions aren’t important; I’m not going to ask Mary to leave here when she is learning so much about Me.” Perhaps I’m going too far, but I like to think that there was gratitude in His tone . . . something which told Martha He appreciated her service and understood her situation.

I spent years trying to comprehend the “one thing” of which Jesus spoke. Remember? He said, Few things are needed—or indeed only one (v. 42). This just puzzled my Martha mind . . . until recently. Mary chose to focus on Jesus. Martha chose to get distracted, and she complained. In those actions, we see her sin. She invited these people into her home then didn’t pay attention to them. The one thing needed was to prioritize Jesus.

I don’t think Jesus expected Martha to drop the potholder, wipe the sweat from her brow, ignore the burning rice, and sit down there with the others. We don’t know for sure because –frustratingly—the Word stops there. We don’t even know how Martha responded. It seems more likely, however, that she simply needed to adjust her mindset.  While Mary sat and worshiped, Martha would serve and worship. Both functioning within the will of God.

Later, Paul would say, In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). Your mindset has nothing to do with sitting-haha!

So, my fellow Christ-following Martha-types out there, there is NOTHING WRONG with cooking dinner. There is certainly nothing wrong with hospitality, and there is nothing wrong with giving God our absolute best. We can go ahead and bake the German Chocolate Cake if we can do it without losing focus and without detracting from our one-on-one time with Him . . . because the sin is in the why. Are we distracted from knowing Him by serving Him? Are we more interested in what people will think than how God will be glorified? Get these things sorted out, and our service becomes an act of worship, which is what God intended when He created you and me.

We serve God for His pleasure, not our pride.

Inform or Implore?

Sometimes, it looks like Jesus put the disciples into awkward—even difficult—situations on purpose . . . like He knew they were going to be tested.  I would have hated it if I was one of them, but I love watching what happens from my 21st-century perspective!

For example, in Luke 8:22 He said, “Hey, let’s take this boat across the lake.”  Then He fell asleep in the boat—deeply asleep.  A big storm came.  Did He know that it would come?  Did He want to test their faith?  I tend to think that He did.

Well, they failed the faith test.  First, they were afraid, but this is not their failure.  It’s okay to be afraid when something big and scary happens.  The Creator built us that way.  It helps us survive.  Then, they woke up Jesus.  That’s not their failure either.  Talking to God is a good thing to do when you’re afraid.  That’s what we tell our kids, isn’t it?

So where are they lacking?  Or, as Jesus put it, “Where is your faith?”  Answer:  They assumed that Jesus couldn’t take care of the situation; they thought they were as-good-as-dead.  They woke Him up in a panic, saying, “We’re going to drown!”  (Makes me wonder why they even woke Him up; I mean, if I was about to die, I’d just as soon be asleep when it happens—less scary that way.)  Looks to me like they just wanted Jesus to be aware of the situation.  Instead, they should have said, “We need you to take care of this.”

It’s okay that they didn’t know how He would handle it.  He just expected them to believe that He could and would.

Sometimes our (okay, MY) prayers focus more on informing God of the situation than on asking Him to handle it, more on complaining than complying, more on the crisis than the Christ.  If I really believe that He is sovereign, then my prayers need to reflect an “asked and answered” attitude.

Know what I mean?

“Do Me a Favor?”

This idea of doing favors and owing favors came up in my English class late last year, but it had to . . . percolate through my brain . . . and integrate with some other input before I saw the spiritual application.  Other input like:

We have limited the impact and meaning of Christianity by majoring on personal salvation given to us in and through Jesus as Redeemer while effectively leaving the Jesus as Lord part out of the equation.

–Alan Hirsch, in the forward to Sacrilege, by Hugh Halter

Think about a time when someone approached you and asked, “Will you do me a favor?”  When did you answer that question in your mind?  Did you need to know what they wanted first?  Probably not, unless you are a very suspicious person.  Most of the time, we answer immediately because our answer is based on the relationship we have with that person rather than on the task they will request.

In addition, that person knows the depth of the relationship, and we trust the person to ask for something that ‘fits’ the level of relationship we share.  We also understand that favors imply reciprocity.  You “owe” me in direct proportion to the magnitude of the favor I do for you.

There are certain people who could ask me for a kidney, and I wouldn’t hesitate to give it.  They could ask me for a $1000, and I would walk straight to the ATM.  (These few people know who they are, so don’t try it if you’re not one of them!)  It really doesn’t matter what they ask because the relationship is so deep and so strong that I will do it regardless of what it costs me.  And I will not expect to be repaid.

When we surrender ourselves to be Followers of Jesus, it’s so much more than signing up for the Heavenly choir!  We have given Jesus permission to ask us for as many favors as He wants–from huge to hardly noticeable.  Our answer to Him cannot be based on the significance of the task or the number of ‘favors’ we’ve already done for Him.  It must be based on the existing relationship we have with Him.

Here’s what typically happens:  He says, “Get ready.  I’m about to call you to something.”

We reply, “Well, what is it?  I probably need to pray about it first and decide if I’m ‘up to it’.  Then I need to see how it fits into my schedule and what repercussions I should expect.”

NO!!!  The conversation should be more like, “My child, I want you to . . .” and we say, “Yes, Lord” before He even finishes the sentence.  In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”  “Yes, Lord,” he answered (Acts 9:10).  Then God tells Ananias to go to Saul/Paul–a scary proposition!  Ananias has some . . . let’s call them ‘hesitations’ (9:13-14), but he has already said “yes”, and there’s no doubt that He will obey.  A willingness to say “yes” doesn’t mean you’re foolhardy; it doesn’t mean you’ll never be afraid.  It means that you trust the One Who Asks, and you agree with Him regarding the status of your relationship which, as I said, determines your response.

So if we approach obedience like we approach favors for friends, we will consider our relationship with Jesus, and answer based on its depth and importance to us rather than looking at the task.

The relationship determines the response–not the risks, rewards, or rights.

And what, you may ask, about the reciprocity aspect of favor-doing in this context?  Well, He already gave everything, didn’t He?

But Lord, this stinketh . . .

I’m old enough to remember when the only version of the Bible that people read out loud was the King James. As a kid, I thought “stinketh” was a great word . . . okay, I still do. Martha (the ever-practical one) says this to Jesus when Jesus tells them to open Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:39). But these days, the part of the story that really floors me is earlier:

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” 

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory; so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.  -John 11:3-6

You know what happens. Lazarus dies while Jesus sits around twidling His holy thumbs.  That’s just wrong! Why would Jesus do that?

Because Jesus waited, Lazarus suffered to the point of death.

Because Jesus waited, Mary and Martha experienced three days of immense grief.

Because Jesus waited, Mary and Martha questioned Jesus’ purpose on earth (Jn 11:21).

Because Jesus waited, Lazarus may have had to return to earth from Heaven. That would be awful.

Jesus waited because He loved this family. That sounds backward. They were His friends–possibly the best friends He had outside of the disciples. Where does he go just before the triumphal entry? To see Lazarus (Jn 12:1). What makes Jesus weep? Mary and Martha’s grief (Jn 11:35).
With love comes trust. Jesus entrusted Mary, Martha, and Lazarus with a very difficult task, knowing that they would be faithful all the way through it. He wanted to show His power over death, and they could join Him in doing it. Jesus knew that–more than anyone else–Mary, Martha, and Lazarus could ‘handle’ this time of darkness. This is what Jesus does to/with His friends.

Jesus knew these friends could
handle this time of darkness,
even when they didn’t know it.

It’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t ask this family if they want to undertake this difficult task, if they are willing to help Him, or if they are ‘up to it’. He knows them better than they know themselves, so He knows what they can and can’t endure. If He had asked, they probably would have said ‘no’. So would we.

I think we’re being presumptuous or careless when we say “I am a friend of God.” Really? Have you considered what happens to Jesus’ friends? Are you sure you want to say that? According to tradition, Peter was crucified upside down. Ten other disciples were martyred, and John was exiled for years. Even Jesus’ own mother had to watch Him be crucified. Think what that did to her. And Jesus knew in advance that it was going to happen. God has shown me several other examples that I will post later, and I think the Hebrew exodus (see Between a Rock and Hard Place) fits here, too.

Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14). That doesn’t sound like a very equal friendship to me. The closer we get to Jesus, the more He will ask of us. That’s scary. In fact, the only possible comfort in such a thought is that we are THAT close to Jesus.
Well, there is another comfort. (Did you really think I wasn’t going to mention it?!?) It’s for His glory. Jesus said those very words to the disciples (John 11:4). If He asks something difficult from you or me, He already knows that He will get more glory by our endurance than He would if we didn’t go through it. Our experiences aren’t sport or entertainment for Him. He doesn’t want us to suffer. He weeps with and for us just like He wept with Mary and Martha. Everything He allows to happen has a singular, ultimate purpose: His glory. His secondary purpose is usually our personal, spiritual growth, but don’t loose sight of His primary purpose!

Everything He allows to
happen has a singular,
ultimate purpose: His glory.

God started showing me these things more than a year ago. It didn’t take me long to realize that He was preparing me for something…that increased intimacy with Him also meant increased expectations from Him…that something was going to happen in my life or my family’s life to potentially shake us to the core. About three months ago, we watched one of  our children crumble under a difficult set of circumstances. But because I knew that Jesus Himself had walked us directly into the situation, I also knew He would and will be glorified through it. Like Martha said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (John 11:27), we said, “We believe that You are sovereign and that Your primary objective in this situation is Your own glory.”

Did that make our situation easy? No. Knowing that Jesus claims us as friends…knowing that He is sovereign…the situation, well, it still ‘stinketh.’ And like Martha, we told Jesus straight-up that it stunk. He already knew anyway. He already knew that it would be difficult, but He knew that He could trust us to stay close to Him, to stay faithful to Him, through the difficult situation. That’s why He could let it happen to us.

So when He sends you through something difficult, don’t run away. Don’t fall back. Hold your nose and watch for God to raise glory from the stink.

Stinky situation? Hold your nose and watch for God to raise glory from the stink. (click to tweet)

What about you? When have you experienced God’s glory through a difficult situation? Please, do share in the comments!

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Have you ever had one of those moments when the Holy Spirit stretches out His big highlighter and causes the words to just jump out of the Bible?  I had one of those recently while reading a children’s Bible story book to my son.

When the Hebrews left Egypt, God sent them through the desert.  You can read it for yourself in Exodus 14.  I remember studying this in graduate school—how there were shorter, more direct paths to the Promised Land.  God sent them southeast when their destination was northeast.  He sent them toward the Red Sea, for which they had no boats, when they could have walked across that little spit of land that is now the Suez Canal.  He intentionally put them ‘between a rock and a hard place’.  (This idiom apparently comes from a Greek myth, but nobody knows for sure.  I tried to look it up.)  So why would God do that?  And what does it mean for me?

1.  It brought Him greater glory—both among the Hebrew people and among the nations.  “I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD” (Ex 14:4).  Sure, He’d already sent ten plagues and miraculously allowed millions of people to just walk right out of slavery, but that wasn’t enough.  They needed to see and experience His direct deliverance.  That meant a trip through the desert first.  The desert preceded the Red Sea:  the dryness preceded the trial, and the trial produced the glory.

2.  With God, it’s rarely about the destination.  God’s primary purpose was not “to get to the other side.”  This dramatic deliverance should have helped the Hebrews trust Him later, like when there was no food or when the spies came back with a discouraging report.  It didn’t work, but that was the people’s problem–not God’s.

3.  God ensured that it would be a LONG time before Egyptians could chase them again because Pharaoh had to re-build his whole army.  The Hebrews couldn’t see this at first.  All they saw was the sea and the army (the rock and the hard place).

Now what does all this mean for me?

It means that God sometimes directs me (and you) through something difficult on purpose.  The trials, the challenges, the ‘dry spells’ have purpose.  His goals (our spiritual maturity and His glory) are not the same as our goals (finishing, accomplishing, succeeding, relaxing, or something similarly self-aggrandizing).

Just like Jesus’ time in the wilderness, those dry places in our lives refocus and test us.  The Hebrews focused on the test:  What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?  . . . For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness  (Ex 14:11-12).  They blamed Moses and saw only the ‘common sense’ outcome, which would have been tragic.  Jesus, on the other hand, remained “full of the Holy Spirit” (Lk 4:1).  Even when Satan directly and specifically tests Him, His focus on His Father never wavers.

“A saint doesn’t know the joy of the Lord in spite of tribulation, but because of it.”  –Oswald Chambers (MUFHH)

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.   Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  –James 1:2-4

This is the pattern for me to follow.  Knowing that the struggles and the trials have purpose makes them easier to endure, but I still tend to dwell on the circumstances.  He calls me to maintain my focus on Him at the same time.  I need to think, “He brought me to this place so that He could deliver me.”  In His deliverance, I will find greater joy–joy that I could never know without this trial.  And He receives greater glory–glory that I would not be able to offer Him without this same trial.