Martha Syndrome: Confessions of a Woman on a Whirl

Martha syndrome Photoclub

My husband Jim says I have chronic P.M.S. Oh … it’s not what you think—it’s PERPETUAL MARTHA SYNDROME. And, as my husband will attest, like Martha of Bethany —who welcomed Jesus into her home for dinner but didn’t have time to sit and listen to him —I have a tough time sitting still.

It’s just there’s so much to do and the list is never-ending! But in the spirit of getting a lot done, I’ve seen my own identification with Martha as a negative trait that needed changing.

The Martha Syndrome

I’ve heard countless sermons on the story of Martha’s dinner party (Luke 10:38-48). And basically, they’ve all criticized Martha, the one busily sitting at Christ’s feet. Inevitably, my response to such sermons has been a great wave of guilt and conviction. This is followed by a note to myself on the refrigerator in big, bold letters: “BE MARY … NOT MARTHA!”

For the next week or two I’d try to be Mary. I’d try to sit quietly and listen to the Lord. But soon I’d be picking lint fuzz-balls from the couch as my mind raced ahead to my “To Do” list.

Before long, I’d go back to feeding the baby with one hand and clipping coupons with the other. I’d catch myself making mental memos of calls to make while bathing the dog. And then I’d be making those calls on the phone while pruning the roses. When baking bread, I’d put the dough in a covered bowl in the trunk of my car to rise. And then I’d punch it down while out running errands.

Martha Syndrome in Action

I remember one evening in particular when we had company.

After dessert, we decided to play a board game. As each person took his or her turn, I’d run to the kitchen and do a few dishes. By the time we finished the game, the dishes were done. “Sit down Martha” my husband Jim chided. I did —knowing I could now enjoy our company with a clear conscience and clean dishes!

The next night I folded laundry and wrote thank-you notes throughout the movie we’d rented. You might as well wave “bye-bye” to Mary … Martha was back!

One afternoon, while I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor and praying as I scrubbed, it hit me—maybe Martha wasn’t such a misdirected gal after all. Maybe she’d just gotten a bad rap. Maybe all she needed was a microwave! Sure, she didn’t have her priorities in order. But hey, if it weren’t for Martha, no one would’ve eaten!

Even though my husband urged me to take it easy at times, he still marveled at my ability to pack twice as much stuff into each day. Could it be the Martha in me was a gift, provided I used it for good and not guilt?

Identifying with the Martha Syndrome

Soon after, Martha’s story came up at my Bible study. My teacher, Kris, said, “Wouldn’t you love to go to her house for dinner? She’d be the gracious hostess. Everything would be lovely and delicious …the original Martha Stewart!” Kris asked how many of us identified with Martha. About three-fourths of us raised our hands. At least I’m not alone.

We made a list of Martha’s personality traits. In her favor, she had the gift of hospitality. She opened her heart and her home to Jesus even though she knew little about him. She had a servant’s heart and a teachable spirit. When Jesus corrected her, she received his criticism. She was a woman of action whose biggest shortcoming was her self-righteous complaining about her sister Mary. Martha held Mary to her own standard rather than a biblical one.

In Luke 10:41, Jesus counters Martha’s frustration with Mary. He said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things. But only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part.” Jesus never told her to be Mary. He told her not to worry about unimportant things. Jesus didn’t order Mary to help Martha. But he didn’t order Martha to stop serving and sit at his feet either. Preparing the meal was a valuable service. But Martha’s grumbling detracted from her good deed.

Attitude Adjustment, Please!

Martha wasn’t so bad. She just needed an attitude adjustment! And so did I. Being able to juggle many things at once gave me the opportunity to serve many people. Yet I had a tendency to go overboard. I had been a hot line listener for a crisis pregnancy center. But before long, perhaps because of my inability to say the word “no,” I became Director of Education at the center. Then I got involved in the Speaker’s Bureau and was soon busy speaking on behalf of the unborn at schools and churches. That’s a Martha for you!

However, I finally questioned my motives. Was I serving myself or the Lord? Was I going on my own strength or his? And was I driven or called? And just who was in the driver’s seat? As I left our baby daughter, Brittany, with a girlfriend for the third time that week, a wave of conviction hit me. I’d resigned from teaching high school to raise our daughter. Yet here I was, running all over town —for a good cause that my family and friends applauded, mind you!

But after that convicting moment, I asked God to do some pruning. I shared my concerns with the center and decided to resign. After a year away, I’ve returned to the hot-line at a crisis pregnancy center. But my late-evening shift doesn’t conflict with my role as wife and mother. So I’m still able to serve others, but without neglecting my family.

Continual Adjustments

Even so, my attitude continues to be adjusted. My daughter and I had lunch with a good friend, “Mary,” and her daughters. She asked if we would prefer white or wheat, crunchy or creamy. That was it —peanut butter sandwiches! And even though they weren’t cut in little triangles with a fruit garnish, they tasted great. Plus, we had a lovely time together.

That was another revelation for me! I realized the point of having guests over isn’t to win the clean kitchen award. The point is to enjoy their company. Forsaking fellowship for a sink full of dishes was selfish of me. Just let ’em soak! And a peanut butter sandwich served with loving calm tastes a lot better than any made-from-scratch meal prepared by a stressed-out Martha.

I have finally accepted the fact that I will always be a Martha. After wrestling with her for almost a decade, I’ve learned, as Popeye (the cartoon character) said, “I yam what I yam.”

Rather than striving to be Mary I can be the best of Martha —the transformed Martha with the servant’s heart and a teachable spirit. I know now that the Lord has given me certain strengths and weaknesses. And depending on how I handle it, my busyness can be both.

This article is written by Suzanne Grissom who is a freelance writer. It was featured in 1995 in Marriage Partnership Magazine (which sadly, is not longer being published). 

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Filed under: For Married Women

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2 responses to “Martha Syndrome: Confessions of a Woman on a Whirl

  1. (USA)  This really helps to make me not have such low esteem for myself, because I have the Martha Syndrome. My spouse felt I was not serving the Lord, because of the, “Woe me, Martha Syndrome.” At least your explanation states that one can have a transformed heart, and do a double take review. Maybe also, Martha’s guests stated they would help her later, and maybe we would have seen another miracle with food?