I reminded a friend recently that our being is prior to our doing. It’s a pretty obvious statement—a truism—but we still do well to think about it for a moment. In biblical terms our identity should be based on who we are by creation and not by who we wish we could be. In other words any efforts in self-re-creation by our own doing are wasted.
Let’s start with an illustration that may help make the point. When I spoke to my friend I had in mind the contrast of identities we see in Mary and Martha, sisters we meet in the gospels. In an episode reported in Luke 10 Jesus visited their home for a meal. Martha was busy with dinner—hence the ‘doing’—while Mary remained engaged with Jesus. The latter reflected her being in the sense I’m using: she let her being with Christ override her role as a hostess.
In the event Jesus offered an important insight about how a spiritual identity is formed. In his exchange with the sisters—as Martha wanted Jesus to send Mary back to the kitchen to help with the meal—Jesus put his finger on Martha’s issues: she was being “anxious and troubled about many things”. Mary, on the other hand, was affirmed by Jesus: “Mary has chosen the good portion”.
A couple of caveats are in order. First, I don’t think Jesus was trying to promote a more laid back lifestyle—a pathway for the self-indulgent who might want to avoid work under the guise of religion—but was raising a profound issue. Work, by the way, is good, healthy, and necessary as it expresses our proper being.
Second, we should not treat Mary as innately superior in her preference to remain with Jesus; nor should we view Martha as a lesser figure for her diligence over dinner. The real issue is more basic: that Jesus was making himself available for some conversation and communion and Mary enjoyed his sharing. Mary got the point but Martha missed it.
What point? That our being consists in how and why God created us: that he created us to know and to love him. And only within this communion of love will we find what to do in life. Paul said as much in Ephesians 2:10—“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
The phrase, “created in Christ Jesus”, is key, with an emphasis on the “in”. We were made by Jesus to be united to his life by his Spirit dwelling in us. This union with Christ is the saving grace Paul expressed as the context for the Ephesians 2:10 text: “by grace” we were made alive and are now seated “in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”.
So this is our being as Christians and from this being flows our doing. As a fruit grows on a branch we also do what we were made for. And if we find ourselves anxious about life—as Martha was—we are invited to do what Mary did: to sit by Jesus and listen. Not in some sort of formulaic devotion but in an attentive enjoyment.
How do we do this? The answer is, we don’t “do it” but instead we “taste and see” his goodness and allow our hearts to settle into the assurance of his love for us. And only then, assured of his care for us, will we find ourselves free to do what we were made for: whatever we want to do in light of our love for him.