A Handmaid's Tale: Looking into the "Martha Syndrome"

Confession: This has nothing to do with the sordid tale of the popular book or mini-series by this name, as the subtitle of the article surely reveals. Instead, I use "handmaid" as it was commonly used in Bible times – as that of a female servant. Moreover, I use it the way traditional writers used "man" or "mankind," to represent us all. Consequently, I have managed to please everyone! If not, I don't really care. I just want your attention long enough to tackle a subject that ought to be considered by every hard-working human and every Jesus-loving Christian.

This is essentially a Bible devotional, so we need a text and here it is:

Luke 10:38-42New Living Translation (NLT)

Jesus Visits Martha and Mary

38 As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. 40 But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”

41 But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! 42 There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”

New Living Translation (NLT)

Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

In this little slice-of-life story, Jesus deals with a subject many Christians and entire Christian sects hardly see as a problem; i.e., the Martha Syndrome.

What is the Martha Syndrome? According to the Christian Medical Society:

The Martha syndrome is not described in any textbook and yet it is easily recognizable in our patients, our families and friends, and in ourselves. It has two diagnostic features - the need to be continually busy, and anxiety about getting everything done.

Martha, Martha, Martha

I have known many Marthas, both male and female (and that has nothing to do with the current transgender debate) – men and women who, quite nobly and honorably and rooted in the "Judeo-Christian work ethic," cannot be still. They must ALWAYS be busy. They are usually fussing at (or about) whoever is not JUST as busy as they. Whether it is Thanksgiving dinner or Saturday morning housework or just before bed on any random weeknight, if they are awake, they are busying themselves with something. They have to be doing. They can never just be.

There are plenty of psychological and spiritual soccer balls to kick around the field named for poor Martha.

First things first.

Jesus is not endorsing laziness or lounging around while someone else does all the work. That is as much a character flaw as being busy because you just have to be busy is a sign of something internally wrong.

In context, Jesus had just discouraged some people from following him because he knew they were too committed to creature comforts to be a Jesus-follower:

Luke 9:57-62

Following Jesus

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you any place you go.”

58 Jesus said to them, “The foxes have holes to live in, and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest his head.”

59 Jesus said to another man, “Follow me!”

But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the people who are dead bury their own dead. You must go and tell about the kingdom of God.”

61 Another man said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me go and say good-bye to my family.”

62 Jesus said, “Anyone who begins to plow a field but keeps looking back is of no use in the kingdom of God.”

New Century Version (NCV)The Holy Bible, New Century Version®. Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

In other words, Jesus put stock in sacrifice, giving up comforts, and working hard.

There is no service without sacrifice

Anyone who wields the Martha story to chop a hard-working person down to size just so they feel better about "sitting on the stool of do-nothing and whittling on the stick of do-less" (thanks, Dad, for the constant visual from my childhood) is wrong, wrong, wrong. Do not justify laziness by misusing Martha to beat up the person doing all the work.

There IS no following Jesus on a bed of ease. If you are coasting through life and committed to nothing much, you aren't even on the same road Jesus travels.

That said, being busy and working hard is not a substitute for a genuine relationship with Jesus...or your spouse...or your kids...or anyone else who matters to you. Nor is work a substitute for worship. Nor are you intended to work ALL the time. God gave his people a Sabbath and mandated a cooling-down, resting-up period.God said, one day in every seven, "Just

God said, "One day in every seven, just chilll."

Busyness is not business

At the fine company where I work, I am charged with management of a growing workforce. Some of them are really hard workers. Most of them. But I have found it is just as important for us to work smart as it is to work hard. In fact, if you have to choose between the two, working smart is probably the more important.

When I was a young man, the first pastor on whose staff I served used to tell me, "Do something, even if it's wrong."

He was a former Marine (there are no ex-Marines) and he believed in work. He told tales of having to paint things that had already been painted ten times or more and did not need another coat. The Marines keep you busy. He kept me busy, too, and taught me that churches don't build themselves, church buildings don't clean themselves, parking lots don't pick up their own trash. He taught me that "ministry" is work.

I am grateful to have learned that early in my adult life.


"Looking busy" or being "busy for the sake of being busy" is neither honest nor productive.

Busyness is no way to run a business and it is no way to live a life. Before you get to work...

  1. Identify your purpose,
  2. plan your work,
  3. Equip yourself to work your plan,
  4. Then, Go ahead! Get busy.

Work is not worship...unless it is

I grew up in a strict independent, fundamental, premillennial Baptist fellowship. My grandfather was pastor of the church I attended for a good portion of my youth. He actually included all of those descriptive words except "fellowship" on the church sign.

Big Granddad, as my siblings and I called him, worked as hard as any man I have encountered and anyone who knew him will attest to the fact that he never wasted a moment's daylight, never shirked a chore, never put off until tomorrow what needed doing right now.

Among the favorite songs sung at the First Independent Baptist Church of Mineral Wells, Texas was We'll Work 'Til Jesus Comes.

We'll work 'til Jesus comes

We'll work 'til Jesus comes

We'll work 'til Jesus comes

And we'll be gathered home.

That's the chorus. The notion of working until Jesus comes is repeated THREE times consecutively. You know, in case you missed the idea the first two times.

You can, however, substitute work for worship and that's unhealthy and unwise. Jesus addressed it here:

Matthew 7:22-23

22 On the last day many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, we spoke for you, and through you we forced out demons and did many miracles.’ 23 Then I will tell them clearly, ‘Get away from me, you who do evil. I never knew you.’

New Century Version (NCV)The Holy Bible, New Century Version®. Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

In other words this bunch was saying something like, "We never bothered getting to know you, Jesus, but we did learn how to approximate what you did. We worked real hard at it."

Jesus is like, "Sorry, working at something good is not a substitute for a personal relationship with your God."

Jesus is saying, "You are doing ostensibly good things for all the wrong reasons. You are trying to coopt godliness for your own gain. That's wrong and it has nothing to do with what I am all about. I don't know you and you certainly don't know me."

If you are using your own works as a means to please God, you are doing it wrong.

Ephesians 2:8-10 

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

Not of works, lest any man should boast.

10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

King James Version (KJV)Public Domain

A relationship with Jesus Christ is not built on what you do for him, but on what he has done in you. You ARE his "workmanship", which is the Greek word, poiema, meaning something akin to "Masterpiece." You are the crowning jewel of HIS creation. You, as a believer, are HIS Masterpiece. You are the work of art hanging in the gallery named By Grace.

My grandfather, thankfully, understood that. His hard work was not the product of trying to win God's favor and get a pass to Glory Land, the way a kid may do chores to earn money to pay for a ticket to Disneyland. Big Granddad worked hard BECAUSE of grace. He worked hard because he believed he had something others needed in their lives. He worked hard to improve the lives of others, to serve their needs, to show them a Christ-like selflessness.

He mowed widows' lawns and rebuilt starters and alternators on old jalopies for members who were cash poor, so they could start their vehicles and get to work and feed their families. He and my grandmother cooked and delivered meals to the sick or the down-on-their-luck folks.

For Big Granddad, work was part of worship. That is biblical!

James 2:14-26New Century Version (NCV)

Faith and Good Works

14 My brothers and sisters, if people say they have faith, but do nothing, their faith is worth nothing. Can faith like that save them? 15 A brother or sister in Christ might need clothes or food. 16 If you say to that person, “God be with you! I hope you stay warm and get plenty to eat,” but you do not give what that person needs, your words are worth nothing. 17 In the same way, faith by itself—that does nothing—is dead.

18 Someone might say, “You have faith, but I have deeds.” Show me your faith without doing anything, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe there is one God. Good! But the demons believe that, too, and they tremble with fear.

20 You foolish person! Must you be shown that faith that does nothing is worth nothing? 21 Abraham, our ancestor, was made right with God by what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar. 22 So you see that Abraham’s faith and the things he did worked together. His faith was made perfect by what he did. 23 This shows the full meaning of the Scripture that says: “Abraham believed God, and God accepted Abraham’s faith, and that faith made him right with God.”[a] And Abraham was called God’s friend.[b] 24 So you see that people are made right with God by what they do, not by faith only.

25 Another example is Rahab, a prostitute, who was made right with God by something she did. She welcomed the spies into her home and helped them escape by a different road.

26 Just as a person’s body that does not have a spirit is dead, so faith that does nothing is dead!

The Holy Bible, New Century Version®. Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Real worship involves work.

Not all work involves worship.

The virtue of motive is the value of work

Martha's complaint to Jesus comes off as childish. It smacks of a child "telling on" a sibling for not helping with the chores. She might have had a legitimate complaint if the circumstances were different. If the Savior of the world were not right there in her own house, cooking and cleaning might have been the right thing to do. But she was given a rare, fleeting moment to be still in the presence of God Himself, to commune with Him.

Martha was also motivated by inner turmoil.

Things were getting tense for Jesus' followers. The boiling point was near. Soon, Jesus would be arrested, abused, placed on mock trial, and killed. His followers were beginning to feel the heat.

Jesus understood her inner turmoil and addressed it. He did so lovingly. He nudged her in the right direction. "Martha, Martha," He cooed, "You are upset and worried and so you are fussing over details that aren't important."

Did you ever know someone who handled stress like that? A Dad goes to the garage to change oil that doesn't need changing or mows a lawn that doesn't need mowing, just to quiet the troubles in his mind or to avoid the conflict inside the house. Or he busies himself to take his mind off of his worries. Or a mom does the same thing with the laundry or cleaning the kitchen. Just focus on details so you don't have to face the pain of whatever reality overwhelms. (I know I stereotyped the sexes, so change the roles if it makes you feel better, but don't lose the message.)

Want to know why Jesus has a problem with Martha? Because her work and worry demonstrate a lack of faith.

Mary is there, trusting Jesus, believing His words and his plan. Martha is trying to make it better with a pan of fresh dinner rolls or a sparkling kitchen.

If work is the fruit of faith, it is a wonderful, beautiful thing that blesses the worker and those who witness or benefit from the work. If work is a substitute for faith, it is just a pain-killer that will soon wear off and leave the worker miserable and mad that he or she is carrying this burden all alone!

You were not meant to bear that burden. It is not yours!

Work because you care, not because you have cares.

1 Peter 5:7King James Version (KJV)

Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.

King James Version (KJV)Public Domain

Another song we sang in Big Granddad's church sums it up:

Trust and obey,

for there's not other way

to be happy in Jesus,

but to trust and obey.

Yeah. That's it. If you are resting in Jesus, work is not a drudgery or a burden. It is exhilerating, fulfilling, empowering, rewarding...and productive.