When Usefulness Is a Burden

When John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, found himself going blind late in his life, he began to wonder what use he would be now his “light was spent,” as he writes in “Sonnet 19.” He wrote of how his talent was put away — useless — and he wondered wretchedly what God expected of him now. In the same poem, he turned to God, reflecting on how his soul was ready to serve, if not his body, and reminded himself that God is served just as much by those “who only stand and wait.” 

In a life where service had found expression in doing, Milton had uncovered a profound truth. 

A world of doing

We live in a world packed with doing and getting and being better and trying harder. Productivity should be our number one aim, the narrative goes, and this is even evident in the Christian life, too, when we find ourselves caught up in the busyness of serving and striving. Somewhere along the line we’ve learned that because God is pleased by our works, we should always be earning God’s favour as his useful tools. After all, we’re always being told we can and should be “used” by God.

It is true that working and service can and should be a place of flourishing. We are made to create, to help others, and to be generous and careful stewards of the planet. We are created to learn and to put our reflections into practice. But a problem can arise in two areas:

  1. When ‘doing’ becomes our only identity; and
  2. When we are too weak to ‘do’ anything much at all.

In order to dig into these issues, let’s explore a well-known story from Jesus’ ministry. It’s one that has often been used to pitch ‘doing’ and ‘being’ against one another – almost making the two protagonists enemies representing the good and bad way to live, but I believe that the story of Martha and Mary gives us a better pattern for both the works of service and the work of being.

The work of serving vs. the work of being

In Luke 10, Jesus visits the home of these two sisters and is served by them both in different ways. Mary and Martha lived in a society where women were undervalued and where education for women was highly unusual: Women were meant to serve men. So when Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, then, there would have been more than a few glaring looks, and not only from her sister — to sit at the feet of a rabbi meant to learn from that rabbi as his disciple. Mary’s choice, so often presented as the easy or even lazy option, was in fact difficult — she was defying social mores in her hunger to know the things of Jesus.

But Martha was being pulled in many directions at once, and we can empathize with her feelings of being unfairly treated by her sister. It’s also easy to imagine what she felt like because our own world today drags us in so many ways — telling us who we should be and how we should do better. Martha was doing what was expected of her according to her world, but she was missing out. Knowing this, Jesus gently chides her. His repetition of her name, “Martha, Martha,” implies a great tenderness for her in all her worry and anxiety. But his tenderness comes with a challenge: Mary has chosen this better way — and you can, too, Martha. You can lay down all your anxieties. 

“Come to me,” Jesus said to his disciples, “all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). The text infers that it wasn’t Martha’s busyness that was so much the problem as the anxieties and worries that swept over her: in sitting at Jesus’ feet, could she too find a new way?

Jesus’ words don’t give the notion that Mary sitting at his feet was passive, or lazy, but that she, too, was working. She was serving, and in this moment she would gain more strength to serve in practical ways, too, as is evident later on. It seems obvious that we are not called to either one or the other of these postures: We are called to sit with Jesus, and we are called to serve — we are called to abide in the vine, and bear fruit — and in this, we find true flourishing. But service may not always look like doing, as Milton found. Doing, after all, is not that which defines us as human beings and children of God.

What do you do?

When our work defines our identity, we may have lost something intrinsic to us in the process. We may have become so caught up in the lie that productivity makes us better, more rounded people and that our worth is defined by what we do, that we cannot see outside of that – and when we fall, the crash is louder and the bruises larger. The first question people often ask others when meeting them is “What do you do?” 

Here it is, written loud: The thing you do defines your importance. When a person cannot work, through ill health, disability, grief, or any number of things, this question can become both a burden and a condemnation. Who am I, then, if I cannot justify myself to others through what I do? Am I still serving God? Am I even valuable to God, like this?

Like Mary, in our doing-soaked world, maybe we too should take some time to sit at the feet of Jesus, to wait with him there, and to discover new things about who we really are.

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