The one thing
We’ve all experienced the clash of having too many good things to do. Even without the added pressure of expectations from family and friends, we all see many good things worth doing. Loads of projects come to our attention. They are all good causes. Each one seems worthy of our involvement and support. But it doesn’t take long to discover that despite our good intentions, there is far too little time to do them all, or to even make scattered donations to some a handful of them.
Too many good things
The great challenge is not to cease doing evil things and only do morally right and good things. The real struggle seems to be how to sort out what few good things or projects we should try to do. It would appear to be a problem of priorities. Thus we find the self-help section of any bookstore overflowing with programs and strategies to work out worthy priorities. But even well-configured, thoroughly biblical priority schemes can leave us frustrated with too much to do and a lingering guilty feeling that we really should be doing more.
A clash of priorities
Jesus spoke to this conundrum in a real life setting. Many Christians are familiar with the story of Martha and Mary. Take another look. I think Jesus is offering us something more than a priority program.
Martha was the senior sister, older than Mary and her brother Lazurus. She had invited Jesus, and perhaps some other guests, to her home (Luke 10:38). She was reportedly “distracted with all the preparations” (10:40). The original language underneath our English translation of “preparations” is simply the word for “service.” So Martha was serving and that was a good thing. She had an eye for seeing “all” the good deeds of service that needed doing. Her solution for the pressures of the day was a good one: Get others to help. Take a small and temporary timeout from the important matter of hearing good teaching in order to get a few of the more mundane works of service accomplished. She reinforced her request by using an appeal to compassion: “Lord, do You not care…?” Supposedly, if Jesus really cared—if He really had compassion—then He would agree with Martha and mobilize Mary to get with the service program.
A better way to pursue the one thing necessary
No doubt Jesus’ answer surprised Martha. It should surprise and instruct us as well. He did not deny that the needs of the moment were important. In a tender way Jesus told Martha that she was “worried and bothered about so many things” (10:41). Serving just a little bit rarely seems adequate. Helping solve one problem usually exposes several more. You never know if you’ve done enough. That’s why most people understand what Jesus meant by a life shaped by the expectations and demands of urgent needs. We all know what it is to be “worried and bothered about so many things.”
What Jesus did not say was to make a list of all the demands and prioritize them. Instead Jesus said this: He said that there is one thing that matters above and beyond all others. A life lived in pursuit of that one great thing would be a life of continual choosing that would prove to be better than merely good. It would be significant and lasting.
Consider Jesus’ words: “Only one thing is necessary; for Mary has chosen the better part, which shall not be taken away from her” (10:42). What is the “one thing” that Mary was pursuing? I think the “one thing” is to live one’s life so that God is loved. That means loving Him yourself, but also labouring to see that He is loved by others. Here’s why I think the “one thing” is God being loved: The next two times that we see Mary, she is honouring and loving Jesus.
In John 11, we find Mary at His feet again, weeping in grief for and with Him. Jesus had lost His friend Lazarus, whom He loved (John 11:5). Mary and her sister had written an urgent letter to Him, saying, “Behold, he whom You love is sick” (11:3). As Mary wept in sorrow with Jesus, (11:33-35), even some of the onlooking enemies of Jesus came to the conclusion about Jesus’ love: “So the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!” (11:36). It became obvious that Jesus loved Lazurus. Mary joined Jesus in His grief in a way that hadn’t even occurred to Martha. To sense the broken heart of Christ is to love Him in a significant way.
A few days later as recorded in John 12, we find Mary at another dinner party. She is again at Jesus’ feet (we always find her there). She is once again showing her love for Jesus: “Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus” (12:3). She was anticipating the shame of His death, and seeking some way to give Him lasting honour. Mark’s Gospel records Jesus’ response to some who objected that resources that could have met urgent needs had been squandered: “She has done a beautiful thing to Me” (Mark 14:6). Mary had lavished costly honour on Jesus. She not only gave Him her personal honour, the lasting fragrance called the attention of others. She became the only one to give tangible, fragrant glory to Jesus in the midst of the deep shame of His death.
Jesus told the mystified dinner guests that “Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.” Wherever Jesus Christ is glorified in the proclaiming of the gospel, it will be recalled that one of His followers managed to glorify Him even in the midst of His suffering.
The one thing: That God will be loved
You may have noticed that I have been describing the “one thing” in a passive voice. There’s something greater than loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself. What could be greater you wonder? Didn’t Jesus say that this was “the great and foremost commandment” (Matthew 22:38)? How much more can you do? What could possibly be greater? It’s really quite simple. What’s greater than your loving God is for God to be loved by many millions, or probably billions of people, all over the world.
The “one thing” that can integrate your life is a worthy purpose that matters to God Himself, not just an ethical principle of trying to be one who loves others. For millennia God has been relentlessly pursuing His desire to be loved, served, glorified and enjoyed by people from every tribe, language and culture. This is why Christ died. It’s why He rose again. It can also become the joy-giving focal point of your life.
We’re not wrong at all to be amazed with God’s love that abounds toward the world. We’re right to aspire to love people as God does. But the greatest thing is not really that people get loved. What is of highest importance is that God’s love is requited—that He Himself will be loved.
The goal of God’s mission: God-lovers become neighbour-lovers
Speaking of God’s love on a global scale seems out of reach to many people. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Everyone who follows Christ can be confident that their life contributes in strategic ways to the ultimate outcome: that the living God will be loved, served, glorified and enjoyed by some in every circle and setting on the planet. Your location or your vocation is secondary. What matters is your purpose.
We have often reduced God’s grand purpose to the activity of a few special envoys that we send to distant lands. We have called this project “missions.” We have often spoken as if the primary value of missions is that people are spared from eternal pain, and/or that human communities come to experience a measure of transformed life in the present day. All this is good, but the one thing that matters more than people’s eternal fate or their well-being in the present day: that God Himself is loved.
When people love God, they can grow to obey Him in lasting ways. Those who do come to act in loving ways toward their neighbours. This is the power of the so-called Great Commandment. God-lovers become neighbour-lovers. Christians love each other and neighbours imperfectly, but at least the power of God’s love is slowly—and sometimes dramatically—working through His people.
Consider this possibility: What if every Christian on earth lived in Christ-like love toward every one of his/her neighbours? Can you imagine that? That would be wonderful, but as best we can tell, there would still be about a third of the people on earth that would have none of their neighbours showing them Christ’s love. The reason is simple: Christ is not yet served in those peoples and places. The Great Commandment cannot happen (neighbour loving neighbour) because the Great Commission is not yet fulfilled (there are no Christian neighbours). The object of Christ’s commission of Matthew 28 is that the living God would be named and celebrated openly by a people who wear His name. That’s what “baptizing them into the name” is all about in Matthew 28:19. Not only does Christ deserve to be glorified by name, He commissions us to see that He is gladly and lovingly obeyed. That’s what “teaching them to obey all that I commanded you” is all about. The goal is that Christ will be famous among all, and lovingly followed by many. That is the one thing. It can become the integrating joy and purpose of your life, wherever you live and whatever your occupation or skill.
What glorifies God matters. What delights God matters. I recently heard my Nigerian friend, Timothy Olonade, say this: “If it matters to God, it should matter to us. If it doesn’t matter to God, it doesn’t matter at all.”
Singularizing my life
I’ve actually given up trying to prioritize my life. Instead, I’m trying to singularize my life. By that I mean that I have set my heart on bringing about the “one thing” of God being worshiped and loved in every people as the integrating purpose of my life. This means that life doesn’t become fragmented or dis-integrated so that there are things I do for God things and the stuff I keep for myself.
From time to time I struggle when I take on more than is possible. There are always more good things to be done than God is giving me to do. But instead of my fourth priority conflicting with my third priority, and instead of number five priority competing with number two, I’m learning to align all the diverse desires, demands and ambitions. I’m learning how to live with the simple, single purpose of loving God, and loving Him so much that I do my part to see that He is loved.
Article by Steve Hawthorne
With permission from IGO Global Outreach, Island Evangelical Community Church, Hong Kong.