A few years back, a worship chorus was making the rounds and became a “hit” for a time in the church I belonged to. As I recall, it went like this:
One thing is needed oh my Father
One thing is needed oh my God
To sit at your feet and pour out my love
This thing is needed oh my Lord . . .
If you’re over the age of 40, you may recall it yourself. It was a pretty song, based on the account in Luke 10:38-42 of a visit by Jesus to the home of Martha and Mary. We sang it with a lot of conviction. There was a problem with that song, however. Undoubtedly sincere and well-intended, it actually conveyed a rather serious misreading or rewriting of the passage. The reason I bring it up is that it’s easy for Christians to fall into the same type of misunderstanding when it comes to prayer. This can lead to frustration, self-condemnation, weariness and a failure to do God’s will.
Let’s review that well-known account:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
This wonderful episode, involving only Jesus and the two sisters, presents in five verses the fundamental “key” to Christian life and service. It tells us the one thing that is absolutely needed, the one thing that we cannot truly live without.
What had Mary done which so pleased the Lord and brought him to her defence? She had simply sat at his feet, listening to what he said. This simple act of faith and love toward Jesus was exactly what Jesus wanted Mary to do, because it was what she needed to do.
Sitting, Mary placed herself in a position of stillness and rest. Sitting “at the Lord’s feet,” she displayed a heart of affection for Jesus, a holy desire to be close to him, submission to him as Lord, and eager, attentive receptivity to his words. Mary longed to be near the Saviour and to hear what he was saying, and she positioned herself so that she would not miss a thing.
In doing so, Mary risked the censure of others in the room who may have felt that a woman had no business being so close to a man to whom she was not related, or that discipleship and spiritual talk were “guy stuff.” She also risked the ire of her busy sister Martha, who indeed complained to Jesus that Mary was not helping.
Mary was not to be denied. Jesus was there, in her home, full of grace and truth, and she was determined to receive both from him, let others say what they would. She made her choice, and according to Jesus she chose correctly.
How does this apply to us? I believe it’s very simple. Quietly sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his Word is still the one absolutely necessary thing in Christian life. It’s the one thing we simply cannot do without if we are to please the Lord and bear fruit for his glory. Of course, we cannot sit at his physical feet, but we can draw near to him by faith. And most will seldom, if ever, hear the sound of his physical voice, but we can open the Bible, and let his Word sink deep into our hearts.
When we are willing—when we choose—to do this one necessary thing, this is what we will find: As we draw near to Jesus, he draws near to us. As we incline our hearts to hear his Word, it becomes Spirit and life to us. It nourishes the inner man and makes us strong. It reveals God’s thoughts and his will to us. It illuminates the depths of our hearts, and corrects those things which displease the Lord. It sanctifies us and fills us with faith. For, faith comes comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). Receiving the Word enlightens our eyes, enlarges our spiritual understanding, and produces the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
How does this relate to the song I mentioned at the beginning of this post? Well, the song says the one thing needed is to sit at the Lord’s feet and pour out our love. But that’s not actually what the Bible says, and the distinction is very, very important. Of course it is a wonderful thing to pour out our love to Jesus. Just as it is a wonderful thing—to finally connect all this to the subject of prayer—to pray. But the thing that must come first, the one needful thing, is to draw near to the Lord and . . . listen to him!
Why is this? Because if we put anything in our life of worship and service, including prayer, ahead of listening to the Lord, there is every chance we will miss his will. Our religious impulses will drive us in directions and into activities which may not be exactly what God has in mind, or are exactly what God does not want at all! We will also be “running on fumes,” trying to crank out fruit without being filled with the very source of all spiritual life and fruit, the Lord himself and his holy Word. He is the Vine, we are the branches. Without him, we can do nothing. Oh, we can appear to do much without him, but when the fire tests such works, as it surely will, they may turn out to be just hay and stubble, with no enduring substance or value.
If you abide in me, says the Lord in John 15, and my words abide in you . . . then you can ask what you will and it will be done for you. And you will bear much fruit, and you will glorify the Father.
When it comes to knowing and pleasing Jesus, how can we get it right? There’s only one way. That’s to let the Master himself tell us, teach us and fill us. And the only way to do that is to do what Mary did. We must draw near to him and listen to him, letting him speak the Words of Life into the depths of our spirit.
There is no question that Martha also loved Jesus, or that he loved her. The Bible tells us this in John 11:5. But Martha made wrong judgements about herself and her service to God, about her sister, and about Jesus. Why did she make these wrong judgements? Because although she was “serving” Jesus, she wasn’t listening to him. She was doing her own thing.
Please, let’s not misunderstand. Jesus is not saying that the only thing we should do in life is sit around, reading the Bible. He is not telling us that nothing else is important. Many things are important in the Kingdom of God. We have been born again in Christ to do works worthy of repentance and worthy of the Lord. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:10). We are to worship him, tell others about him, serve others in love, pray and many other things besides. But those things are to be the fruit of remaining or abiding in Christ, and of his word remaining or abiding in us. They are not to be a substitute for this necessary thing. We must drink at the Fountain of living water, and we must eat the Bread of Heaven, regularly, in order to be able to live in a way that is pleasing to God.
There is no way to avoid this fact of spiritual life. There is simply no substitute for drawing near to the Lord, as often and for as long as he desires of us, and receiving his Word. It’s our natural tendency, unfortunately, to avoid this one essential thing at all costs. There is no shortage of diversions and distractions which would pull us away from the secret place of the Most High. Even church-related busyness and programs can fill our minds and schedules, displacing the Lord in our affections. And, of course, the enemy of our souls seeks to disrupt, if he can, our personal fellowship with Jesus Christ.
For a life of fruitful service, a life pleasing in God’s sight, we must draw near to the Lord and let him teach us. Regardless of our calling, our gifts, our ministry, our position, our likes or dislikes, our length of time on the way, the opinions of others, the latest fad or fashion in the church, our apparent success or apparent failure as Christians, one thing is needed, and will be as long as we draw breath. It is that time of refreshing, instruction, encouragement, inspiration, preparation, knowing; that place where all truly fruitful work begins—at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teaching. Just you and the Creator of the universe, one on one. What a marvelous privilege!
Our tendency to launch ourselves into busyness without taking the time to draw near to the Lord and to listen to him can easily rear up in our prayer lives. We hear a sermon (or read a blog) on prayer and we think, “That’s it! I gotta pray! I gotta pray more! The church needs to pray more! Prayer, prayer, prayer!” We may set ourselves to assaulting heaven with a barrage of requests and much noise and find we still don’t pray “enough” and end up feeling burdened, exhausted and condemned.
Effectual, fervent prayer is good and avails much. That’s what this blog is all about. But like anything and everything else of value in the Kingdom of God, it has its root in the Vine. It is only through connectedness with Jesus through the Holy Spirit, by faith, and through the reception of his Word, that we receive the power to pray and the wisdom to pray aright.
Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matt 11:28-30). Here we see the “one necessary thing” repeated, in a slightly different way: Whatever your need, come to Jesus and learn from him (i.e. listen to him). As you do, you will be able to lay down any yoke of wearying religiosity and any burden of self-condemnation. Jesus will teach you to take up the yoke that he has fashioned just for you and the burden he would have you bear for his glory. He will not crush you, nor drag nor drive you, for he is gentle and humble in heart. In him, in his ways and in his Word, we find rest for our souls.
I would like to suggest that, if you feel condemned or heavily-burdened in the matter of prayer, you don’t try to force yourself to pray. Instead, draw near to Jesus, “come boldly to the throne of grace,” with your heart and your Bible open. Don’t let your prayer life be driven by anxiety, guilt or fear. Rather, let it be the fruit of your relationship with Jesus and of the insight and guidance you receive from the Word. Let the Good Shepherd lead you, gently, into fruitful prayer inspired by his love. Between the two of you, you will arrive at a life of prayer that is pleasing to him and a great blessing to many others—and to you!
I remember years ago a pastor came under a strong compulsion to “get the congregation praying.” He preached a weighty sermon on prayer, then asked everyone to stand up who was willing to vow to pray for at least one hour a day—for the rest of their lives. There was tremendous pressure that day to stand up and make the vow. The pastor meant well, but I believe he unwittingly laid a snare for all those who stood up. For those who took the vow, the sudden new obligation to pray, religiously, on schedule, without fail (but failure, I am quite sure, was 100 percent guaranteed) only added to the heaviness pervading the meeting.
This is not the way to produce spiritual fruit. Abiding in Jesus, and his word abiding in us, is the way to produce fruit. May the Lord help each of us to choose (yes, it is a choice) the good, necessary thing. And may the Lord help us to help our brothers and sisters choose this good, necessary thing. Because, according to the Word, we can help!
Consider this prayer of Paul for the Ephesians, Eph. 3:16-17: I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith . . .
With this prayer, Paul is asking God to strengthen the believers by the Holy Spirit. To what end? That Christ would dwell in their hearts. Paul does not mean by this that they need to receive Christ. They are already believers. He means that they need the strength of the Holy Spirit to abide in Christ and to let him abide in them. Because the flesh wars against the Spirit, it is only by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit that this is even possible. And Paul knows that his prayer can help. Paul sees a profound need—for the Ephesian believers to be established in a close relationship with Christ—and he appeals to the Lord for their strengthening. It is the will of God to provide this strength, and God inspires Paul to pray for it! Paul does not condemn the Ephesians or load them with burdens too heavy for them to bear. No, he prays for them, according to the will of God, and helps to lift the burden and to supply their need.
This is a great mystery, but God has ordained that our prayers can strengthen our brothers and sisters to abide in Christ, to do the one necessary thing. There can scarcely be a greater blessing that we could pray for.