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Daze of Our Lives

Reflections based on Luke 10:38-42

By Cheryl Taylor

Smiley Face

Are you suffering from a Martha Complex? Whatever you think of Martha Stewart’s current plight, you have to admit that when it comes to home décor, cooking, and entertaining, Martha knows how to do things right. (It helps when you have a full-time staff of 650 people.) I call this the Martha Complex—the desire to be superwoman and do everything perfectly. I was told once that you know you’re suffering from a Martha Complex when you feel guilty because you haven’t converted your extra baby food jars into snow globes, and you haven’t been saving the lint from your dryer to make mittens on your homemade Christmas cards.

Whether we realize it or not, many women subconsciously feel pressure to live up to some ideal standard. It may be in the homemaking arena, like Martha Stewart, or it could be in many other areas of life such as ministry, parenting, etc. We often have artificial and arbitrary standards that we set for ourselves.

Our society makes us feel as if we should constantly be doing, doing, doing, and everything we do should be accomplished perfectly. Our lives are marked by constant activity, busyness, stress, and anxiety. Sometimes, we just go around in a daze, trying our best to be good Christians, ministers, wives, and mothers. We feel we’re doing well if we somehow manage to keep our ministries going; take part in church and community activities; transport the kids to and from school, sport events, and music lessons; all the while trying to keep on top of the laundry, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and a thousand other balls we’re trying to juggle at once. But over time, the pressure builds, and eventually we scream, “I can’t do everything.” This is the Martha Complex to which I refer. Living in a daze, with no time to stop and rest or reflect.

In Luke 10:38-42 we read about another Martha, who ironically, was a little like Martha Stewart. She was a busy hostess who wanted everything to be just right. I guess you could say this is A Tale of Two Marthas. Remember the story? Martha had invited Jesus into their home for dinner. No doubt Martha was a great hostess who obviously had planned a delicious and elaborate meal for Jesus. Sometimes people come down hard on Martha, but I think she’s gotten a bad rap. Like her sister, she was devoted to her master and longed to serve Him in the way she best knew how.However, in her eagerness to please the one she loved, she lost her focus and overburdened herself in preparation. The text says Martha was “distracted by all the preparations.” Maybe she too suffered from a Martha Complex. In that day, a bowl of broth to dip bread in would have been a common meal. But I wonder if she just had to try the latest gourmet hummus recipe, and she wanted to serve chilled yogurt, fresh melons, or roasted goat. She was anxious that all went well, and no doubt she had put a lot of effort into the preparations.However, in her effort to set a table worthy of the Son of God, she nearly missed the real banquet. Martha had fallen into the activity trap. Martha became tired and stressed, and before long she declared, “Lord, I can’t do everything.”

I think there is a little bit of Martha in most of us—bustling, busy, but well intentioned, doing things to serve our Lord. The age in which we live is one of feverish activity, and we get caught up in its fast, hectic pace. In the midst of the pressure and stress we too scream, “Lord, I can’t do everything.”

While Martha rushed, Mary was apparently relaxing and enjoying herself. The exact opposite of her busy sister Martha, Mary was content to sit at her Master’s feet, quietly listening to every word He said. Mary was so absorbed in listening to Jesus that she was completely oblivious to all the fussing and fuming of her sister. Even Martha’s disapproving looks did not penetrate her. Finally, stressed-out Martha was so frustrated that she irritably turned to Jesus and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me.” I think it’s funny that Martha is complaining, when she’s the one who invited Jesus in the first place. If there was anyone to get angry with, it was herself. Yet she appears to be irritated with both her sister and Jesus. How easy it is to get angry with those around us, and even angry with God, as if our stress is their fault. If serving Christ makes us difficult to live with, then something is wrong with our service. Perhaps in the busyness of ministry, we have lost focus, and are caught in the daze of the activity trap.

Jesus got right to the heart of the issue: “Martha, you are worried about many things.” Notice that Jesus didn’t rebuke Martha because she was fixing supper. A meal was in order. Jesus wasn’t concerned about Martha’s external abilities at all. It was her internal disabilities that He probed—the dark corners of worry and fear, the spiritual handicap of busyness that left her unable to enjoy the intimacy of His presence. Internal disabilities, the spiritual handicap of busyness—the activity trap—that keeps us from Him. What we do with Christ is far more important than what we do for Christ.

All of the activities with which we are so busy today will one day be gone, but our relationship with Christ will have eternal consequences. (“It will not be taken away.”) Like Martha, many of us here could have personalities that make us vulnerable to the activity trap. In order to prevent this, we need to look inside, deep into our hearts, and see what we need to do in order to stop the daze and spend more time resting in, and with, Christ.

This was the case in my own life. Some time back, I realized that I was caught in the activity trap. I loved my Jesus, and was trying to serve Him to the best of my ability, but the result was that I was way too busy, always on the go, trying to do everything. In addition to our positions at the seminary (my husband and I were each in doctoral programs) with two dissertations hanging over our heads, I was pregnant with our second child. My doctor confined me to six weeks of bed rest (try doing that with a three year old). Not long after, my husband starting facing some health problems and had to take chemotherapy for a year. He was unable to help out around the house like he always had. I came to a point where I screamed, “God, I can’t do it all anymore.”

I began to allow God to do some open-heart surgery, and He began to reveal some of the root issues that had allowed me to get caught up in the activity trap. At first I was surprised because some of the things He revealed were things that, in the proper context, I had thought of as strengths. But as you probably know, sometimes our greatest strengths can become our greatest weaknesses if they get out of balance. Every strength has a shadow. For example, I like to think of myself as “determined’ or ‘persistent,” but taken to the extreme, my husband simply calls it “stubborn.”

This reflection highlights three things that God has been dealing with in my life to help me to stop the daze and rest in Him. These internal disabilities launch me into the daze of activity and prevent me from experiencing intimacy with Him.

The activity trap hinders intimacy with Jesus.
Ironically, intimacy with Jesus is the solution to the activity trap.

Daze Producer: Perfectionism

The symptom: the desire to do things perfectly

At first glance, perfectionism can seem like a good thing. After all, shouldn’t we be striving for excellence? Should we strive to achieve high standards and give God our best? I grew up hearing, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10; Colossians 3:2). And, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

But I’m talking about when a desire for excellence becomes an obsession for perfection; when one sets unreasonable standards and strains compulsively to achieve them; when the need to be in control gets out of control and dominates our behavior and attitudes. I’m referring to when perfection is necessary for self-esteem and peace of mind.

Consequently, perfectionists tend to have a constant overall feeling of never having done enough, or never doing well enough, or never being good enough. Their favorite phrases are “could have,” “should have,” and “would have.” Believe it or not, a highly religious upbringing (especially from a holiness background) can lead to perfectionism. Perfectionists tend to live under a giant umbrella of guilt, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and condemnation. This anxiety is usually accompanied by a legalism, which rigidly overemphasizes externals, do’s and don’ts, rules and regulations.

These heavy expectations that we place on ourselves and others, over time, take their toll. And if left unresolved, they will begin to produce anger and resentment in us. Because we’re tired of never being able to measure up, we develop a resentment against the oughts, against the Christian faith, against other Christians, and saddest of all, against God. Remember Martha’s irritation with Jesus?

The heart issue: fear of failure

At the root of perfectionism is a fear of failure, a feeling that we must measure up. We must realize that God accepts us just the way we are, flaws and all. In the Bible, “perfect” means whole or complete; it refers to something being mature. Never does it mean flawless. We are to be complete/mature, just as our Father in heaven is perfect. We are being changed into His image, and only one day when we see Him will we be like Him.

The cure: grace

We must accept that God loves us based on His grace alone, and not on our own merit. Every real diamond has its own unique flaws, which reflect its own spectrum of light. In the same way, our flaws, when God graces them, are the unique fingerprint of God on us. Paul said, “I will glory in my weakness, for when I am weak, He is strong.” Only when we see from God’s view can we allow His love to be reflected from us in a way that no other person can reflect it.

First steps:

  1. Recognize that perfection is unattainable—accept the fact that you’re only human.
  2. Recognize the costs and consequences of your perfectionism.
  3. Face your fears about not being perfect.
  4. Stop basing your self-esteem on external accomplishment and others’ perceptions of you.
  5. Set realistic and flexible expectations and goals. Ask yourself:
    Is this a necessary expectation?
    Does the cost outweigh the benefits?
    Am I flexible? Can this standard be adjusted if necessary?
  6. Begin to make small changes in your behavior.
    For example: start by not remaking the bed that your 4 year old just made
  7. Recognize and change your self talk.
    Don’t be so hard on yourself—show yourself the compassion you give to others.
  8. Share your struggle with a non-perfectionist friend; ask for feedback and support.
  9. Set strict time limits on projects: when the time is up, move on.
  10. Appreciate and learn from your mistakes and move on—don’t let them immobilize you.

So if we are motivated by perfectionism, this can be one risk factor for the activity trap.

Daze Producer: People Pleasing

The symptom: Seeking approval of others

Again, in the proper balance, this can be a good thing.

Philippians 2 tells us we should put others’ desires and good before our own. But if this gets out of balance, the desire for others to like us can become so strong that we live in bondage to what others think of us. John Ortberg, in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, describes what he calls “approval addiction.”

The addiction takes many forms (see sidebar).

Wanting approval from our loved ones is natural, and it’s wonderful to want to make others happy, unless those impulses get in the way of making healthy choices for ourselves. The problem arises when we are compelled to please others, to the point we are overwhelmed, and resentment develops—a high price to pay for someone else’s approval.

Approval addicts are always at the mercy of others.

Sociologist George Herbert Mead wrote about what he called the “generalized other,” the mental representation we carry inside ourselves of that group of people in whose judgment we measure our success or failure. Our sense of esteem and worth are largely wrapped up in their appraisal of our worth.

Our “generalized other” is a composite of all the Siskels and Eberts in our life whose thumbs up or thumbs down signal carries emotional weight with us. This may include our spouse, parents, professors, peers, boss, co-workers, etc. Of course, we never really know for sure the totality of what any other person is actually thinking about us. Part of the irony of the generalized other is that it is not really other at all—it’s what we think others are thinking.

The heart issue: Fear of Rejection

I believe that at the root of a people-pleasing orientation is a fear of rejection, a fear that people won’t like us for who we really are. So vast amounts of human behavior, though painstakingly disguised, are simply attempts at trying to win the approval of others. We get caught up in “impression management.” (I don’t watch much TV, but…) We need to be freed from the need to create an impression. We must accept that God loves us based on His grace alone, and not our own worth.

The cure: Live for an Audience of One

\We spend so much time and energy trying to please people, but in the end it is only what God thinks that matters. We are to live and breathe to serve an audience of one. Paul rails against this addiction when he wrote to the churches in Galatia. “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. Every moment I’m serving people, I’m not serving Christ.” In our spiritual journey, we must evaluate whether we are moving closer to conformity to the image of Christ. If we are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” this means, in part, refusing to allow other people’s approval or disapproval to dominate our lives. God’s “well done good and faithful servant” is the only approval that will matter. When we live for an audience of one, then and only then, will we experience true spiritual freedom.

First steps:

  1. Recognize the potential dangers of the “disease to please” and the underlying reasons for your “approval addiction.”
  2. Accept that you can’t please all the people all the time.
  3. Start living for an audience of one: our number one desire should be pleasing the Lord.
  4. Get into the habit of saying, “I’ll get back to you.”
  5. Learn to say no when a request is unreasonable, unrealistic, or unhealthy for you.
  6. Don’t bottle up negative emotions inside. Learn to express them in thoughtful and considerate ways.

Daze Producer: Performance Mentality

The symptom: A constant need to achieve/produce

Again, we are talking about strengths out of balance. Our life is regularly made up of doing things, as we fulfill our responsibility to serve God and others. The Book of James even tells us that “Faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17).

But I’m talking about when one becomes obsessed with “production” (see sidebar). If you can’t stop to help someone because it will disrupt your routine and keep you from getting done all the things you need to get done today, you probably have it. We all know that if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person. While true, it’s not always healthy.

The heart issue: Fear of Intimacy

Sometimes it becomes easy to hide behind our spiritual activity—after all, intimacy can be threatening. Getting close to Jesus means we can no longer hide our inadequacies. His light illuminates everything that is wrong and ugly about our lives. Unconsciously, therefore, we may flee God’s presence rather than pursue it. And Satan spurs on our retreat by telling us that we’re okay, because we’re busy doing all this work for God. He gets us to believe that as long as I can keep myself busy doing/achieving all these things for God and others, then I must be doing okay spiritually.

The world tells us that what we achieve and accomplish determines who we are, but the Bible teaches that who we are in Christ should be the basis for what we do. It’s not always easy. Intimacy with God may require us to leave our comfort zones. Some people feel uneasy in the presence of God. They dismiss the act of worship as too emotional, preferring the intellectual pursuit of Bible study or doctrine. Or they simply have trouble being still because “that’s their personality.” But regardless of our temperament, regardless of our emotional preference, we are all called to intimacy with God.

The cure: Process Spirituality vs. Product Spirituality

Product mentality: it’s all about getting to the destination.

Process mentality: it’s all about the journey there

Process spirituality is concerned with faithfulness during the ongoing journey rather than living from one spiritual achievement to the next. The good news is that the way to God is not the path of perfect performance. No matter how much you try, you can never earn God’s favor. There is nothing we can do that is going to make Him love us any more than He already does .

First steps:

  1. Recognize that God loves you for who you are, not what you do.
  2. Develop patience: reduce your need to “get it done yesterday.”
  3. Put time in your schedule for “non-productive” free time just to relax and get away from the pressure to be producing.
  4. Focus on the process of doing an activity, not the end result. Evaluate your success on how much you enjoyed the process.
  5. Learn to enjoy success/achievement with healthy satisfaction; eliminate the need for self-deprecation or false humility

Challenge: Only One Thing is Needed

Are you tired of the daze of your life? Are there things in your life that set you up for the activity trap—strengths out of balance that end up hurting you instead of helping you? What is it in your life? Is it perfectionism, trying to please people, feeling like you have to always be productive? Or is it something else?

The story of Martha is a challenge to us all. The problem is not that we do things, and do them well. The problem comes when we lose focus and become worried and distracted by our activity, when we cannot even take a break without feeling guilty.

It is easy to confuse duty with devotion. If we are not careful, our devotion can become just another duty. Our spiritual activities such as reading the Bible, prayers, ministry, etc., can become little more than items to be checked off our to-do list. Once we get caught in this activity trap, we will begin to go crazy, for in the end we discover, ”Lord, I can’t do it all.”

But we don’t have to do it all!!! Only one thing is needed, and that is found in true intimacy with Jesus. I can’t do everything, but I can do one thing. Maybe the most spiritual thing you can do is to stop what you’re doing, and take a break—and who knows, maybe even a vacation!

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Cheryl Taylor

Cheryl Taylor is the Doctor of Ministry adviser at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri.