(Almost) no mother yells the first time. “Can you please put your dirty dish in the sink?” “Can you pick up these toys?” “Put on your shoes, please.” That first request is usually done calmly, evenly, and with expectation that it will be imminently fulfilled. Somewhere between the third to tenth repeat of that request, the mother’s volume increases and her gentleness decreases. “Why doesn’t anyone ever put away their dirty dishes?!” “If these toys aren’t picked up in five minutes, I’m donating them all!” “Why aren’t your shoes on, yet? We have to go!”
Although there are mothers who act this way because they are abusive, that is not the case for most mothers. Most mothers are simply stressed and overwhelmed.
We see this in other relationships, too – co-workers who are supposed to be collaborating, teachers and their students, spouses, friends…we all quickly become overwhelmed when we feel unseen and unheard. We become stressed. And, when that stress persists for a long time, our fuses become shorter and we “snap” more often.
Mental Health vs. Trust
I have witnessed far too many people excuse chronic stress, anxiety, depression, unresolved trauma, or other mental health conditions as, “Things that will improve with more prayer and trust in God.”
Of course, any and all crosses become easier to continue bearing if we rely more fully on God. But prayer and trust do not necessarily cure us of our crosses. Sometimes, suffering is just a part of what God is asking of us. Sometimes, having to endure therapy or medical treatment for a mental health condition is part of that cross that he is asking us to carry.
In considering the case of St. Martha, we don’t know if she was struggling with any mental health condition. We do know this – that mental health diagnoses are real, and that this passage in Scripture should in no way be taken to mean that chronic stress and worrying and anxiety can be healed if we pray more.
However, the story of Martha is one that does hold an important lesson for all of us, including those of us who struggle with clinical anxiety or chronic stress.
The Cross and Trust
My husband teaches at a seminary, and I have experienced the busyness and stress of cooking for a house full of priests and seminarians. I can relate to Martha, and the amount of work she was doing, for those first priests and seminarians. I can also relate to the experience of being so wrapped up in the preparations that you forget who it is that you’re preparing for.
I don’t know the intimate details of the relationship between those sisters of Bethany, but I’m sure that there was a lot behind Martha’s breaking point (when she asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her). I’m sure that behind her request was a tremendous amount of stress, and perhaps self-imposed expectations of what went into being the perfect hostess.
When Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, he is speaking less to her specific actions and more to the disposition of her heart. Mary was choosing contemplation in that moment. Likely she had already helped Martha a good deal with the preparations earlier in the day, and she was taking a moment to rest in the presence of Christ. What Jesus was doing for Martha was inviting her to admit her own need for that refreshment. For, from that time of rest with him, she could perform her tasks from a place of love, not worry.
Of course, even Martha’s increased trust in him could not remove her suffering. We encounter Martha and Mary again, at the death of their brother Lazarus. In this exchange, Martha does not demand that Jesus do something to alleviate her suffering. Rather, she expresses her faith and belief in him, who she knows she can trust in the midst of her suffering.
But, her suffering isn’t immediately alleviated. Yes, Jesus does raise Lazarus from the dead. But first? He weeps. He weeps with Martha and Mary. He doesn’t dismiss their pain. He acknowledges it and enters into it with them.
So, too, it is with us and Jesus. Trusting in him will not cause our suffering to vanish. Although we might worry less by leaning on him, that trust won’t necessarily heal us of clinical anxiety. But – our suffering will be transformed. It is one thing to weep. It is another to trust that Jesus weeps with you.
Yet, this was the point of the Incarnation. Like Martha, we are not alone in our suffering or worry. We are invited to bring them all to Christ, and to know the solace of being loved by him in the midst of our suffering. Receiving his loving gaze (as Mary did while sitting at his feet, and later Martha did after the death of Lazarus) gives us the strength we need to carry our crosses with him.