What’s More Important, Praying or Doing?

I want to thank Tony for his question: what is the balance between just praying for good things or taking actions to make them happen?

To get the answer, let’s look at the gospel story today.

Jesus is sharing his wisdom with two sisters who are disciples. Mary sits at his feet. Martha’s stuck in the kitchen. Martha’s pissed off. She’s stuck cleaning up again. Jesus, she asks, can you get her to help me out here in the kitchen?

Jesus response is “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about so many things, but few things are needed—or really only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and I’m not taking it away from her.”

Most people interpret this gospel to mean that we should focus more on our spiritual teaching and less on day-to-day activities. But I think it is a bit more complicated than that and we need to dig a little deeper.

Let me start by asking you…

Do you relate more to Mary or Martha?

Or to put it in another way are you a prayer or a doer?

Marys are those people who pray and study the word. They are spiritually curious and can’t get enough deep thinking. They can go down the rabbit hole of spiritual experience. They may even get a divinity degree.

Marthas are the people that things are done. They make sure the house is clean. They are the ones after everyone has left the party who are there sweeping up. Event planners love Marthas because they show up early and leave late. Marthas fund their 401K.

If you are a fan of the widely popular TV series, “Handmaiden’s Tale,” you now know why the servant class of an apocalyptic future America are called Marthas—the workers.

Martha’s don’t like how they appear in today’s text.

Martha types love to quote the Bible verse, “God only helps those who help themselves.” The only problem is that it is not in the Bible.

I saw a great quote, saying: “Yes Lord I’m willing to sit at your feet all day, but would you please send Martha to clean my apartment?”

Our tradition offers some unique insights into this topic. Swedenborg condemned the Christianity of his day who he felt had moved away from the action and were focused only on words. Swedenborg countered this type of Christianity by saying it is not so much what you say as what you do.

Love, he argued, can never really be simply a word, it only comes to life in action.

In fact, he also spoke critically of religious cultures who abandoned society for isolated monastic prayer life arguing that to grow spiritually is to be useful to others and engaging with others. You can’t do that by simply escaping into a prayer life. You need to do it in the community.

The story of the man stuck on the roof, which I’m sure many of you have heard illustrates this.

A guy was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help.
Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”
The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.”
So, the rowboat went on.
Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.”
To this, the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So, the motorboat went on.
Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”
To this, the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So, the helicopter reluctantly flew away.
Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you, but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”
To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”

The moral of the story is you can’t just pray you’ve got to do. God works through actions.

In another gospel passage, Jesus tells us that if we are at the altar praying but you have a fight with someone, first go and be reconciled.

So, do that would seem to say that both Jesus and Swedenborg side with the Marthas the doers.

But not so fast.

Swedenborg also describes our lives as completely dependent on God. Every breath we take every move we make… God is working through us. He warns us to beware of our own arrogance. When things go right, we might naturally think, “I did it.”

That, he warns us, is a delusion.

If you ask me to share my bio with a client on a call, I’ll give you a long list of things I’ve done that I’m proud of. But the truth is any good any of us do is a product of God working through our lives.

Here’s the paradox. We are called to action in this world. Followers of Jesus are supposed to be transmitters of love and bringers of justice. When we do brave things or forgive horrible actions, we are only able to do that by the grace of God. It’s not us. It is our turning to God and having him working through us even if we are not aware of it.

I’ve had many spiritual leaders come to me in a crisis noting that they had prayed about their finances, but prayer didn’t pay the rent and now they were in trouble.

This focus on the inner life at the expense of navigating the daily world makes these spiritual leaders not useful to the world because they are focused solely on bopping from their own crisis to crisis. They could use a little Martha.

The flip side is also true, we live in a Martha culture. There are thousands of self-help books on how to get your life organized, how to make more money, how to be more productive. The most popular course that I taught at a Georgetown program is online called “How to Change the World with an Empty Email Box.”

I’ve also met many people who are incredible time managers and efficient change makers who never stop spouting metrics. They are at the top of their game. They know it and they are recognized for their achievement.

After years of accomplishments and keeping their heads down, these folks often come to me with a different question. What’s the point? What happens when I die? What do I love beyond the metrics?

In their busy life organizing the kitchen, they missed the one chance in the history of the world to sit at the feet of God and hear his wisdom. So caught up in getting things in order, they missed the force that brings order to the universe.

At our church, we’ve been pioneering a concept called spiritual entrepreneurship. In fact, this month marks the ten-year anniversary to the date our denomination let me experiment by coaching a spiritual entrepreneur. The idea of a spiritual entrepreneur is the marriage of Mary and Martha. It is going deep with Mary at the foot of Jesus to get clear on why we are doing what we are doing? It is the process of creating pure intentions.

It is also going deep with Martha getting things legally organized, paying the bills, and making enough money to be generous to others in need.

Take a minute and reflect on your own life. Do you see a series of smart moves you made with some mistakes? Or do you see God’s hand nudging you in directions you often didn’t want to go?

When I study my breakthrough moments. I study the breakthrough people who came into my life and made it better. The more I analyzed this, the more I conclude that these breakthroughs all came by the grace of God. Writing off synchronicity in your life to dumb luck or a random universe is to miss the reality that your life has been in the flow of divine providence. We’ve been moving down a river and decided to bob here and turn there, but because if we’ve asked God to guide me, miracles and incredible people have come my way.

Swedenborg shares a secret that God uses our own desires and moves us toward a better choice. At times I feel I’ve been tricked into the right thing.

One way I think of it is like GPS. If we take the time to program into our GPS our desire to serve God, then the directions will keep coming. When we take a wrong turn, it will announce “take a U-turn” “turn left.” If we pray first our actions can be guided even when we make mistakes.

Prayers are putting in the correct purpose into your life’s GPS and starting your drive is getting out there and doing it. It would make no sense to program your GPS and sit there. It would make no sense to set out on a trip not knowing where you are wanting to go.

The divide between Mary and Martha isn’t a battle we should choose to pick sides on it is a call to integration between our souls and our bodies or meditations and actions. Both are crucial.

What should we emphasize our Mary or our Martha? Should we focus more on prayer or getting things done?

The answer is yes.

The answer is integration.

If you are a Mary who could sit for hours at the feet of Jesus with no regard to cleaning the house? Then, you probably need to go clean the house.

If you are a Martha who could resent the fact that you are left cleaning things up while others get to sit and talk spirituality, then go sit at the feet of Jesus and get out of work you resent and pray.

A person that gets things done without prayer or spiritual guidance is likely to be lost in the actions and eventually ask, “Why are we doing this?”

A person that spends all of their time praying, teaching, or talking about faith is likely to get lost in the belief that their ideas alone are actions and ask, “Why is nothing changing?”

So, if we’re supposed to be integrating our Mary and Martha sides, why does Jesus side with Mary against Martha.

If you read closely, only Martha is complaining. She’s doing the work and resenting it. He’s saying, “I’m only going to be here a short time, the dishes can get done another day. Come and join us.”

I wonder had Mary complained about Martha not sitting at his feet, he might have suggested they go help Martha so they could all relax.

It is not prayer versus action it is prayer and action.

The two must be integrated, together.

We must learn to seek God’s guidance and act on it.