But One Thing Is Needful
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God’s Word speaks of this “secret place,” the inner chamber of prayer within the secret of His presence, where Mary found rest. We read the story in Luke 10:38, where she sat at Jesus’ feet to learn of Him, while others rushed about, bothered with much serving. That’s why Mary’s name has gone down in history as a wise woman, because Jesus said in this verse “she hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away” (Luke 10:42b). Martha was distracted with the things that can be taken away, and Jesus said to Martha, “But one thing is needful”—one thing.
I believe with all my heart that all things are possible with God—and I mean all things. “All things are possible to him that believeth” (Mark 9:23). It makes no difference what it is. God says, “all things,” and God’s Word is true. That includes your present need. Don’t say “except that or except this.” God says “all things.”
What vistas of hope, what possibilities this word “all” opens to every one of us! And what power and privileges lie at our command. But as we meditate about this, we see that Jesus says there’s something which is in contrast to this, but it is the only thing that’s really needful. All things are possible, but only one thing is needful. This verse is a real tranquilizer. It’s so restful in its sweet simplicity, its humble requirement: “But one thing is needful.”
Many things are worthy of our effort, some things are worth sacrificing and striving for, but only one thing is needful. Jesus said to meet Him alone like this, in the secret place of prayer, and learn of Him. This one thing is needful, as we sit at His feet, and this transcends all else.
Mary’s sister, Martha, was fussing over the big dinner, and Jesus said she was troubled, distracted, and anxious about many things. She wanted to please the Lord with the work of her hands, but He wanted the worship of her heart. She didn’t realize that before the “all things possible” is the “one thing needful,” that she could not possibly expect the all things until she had practiced the one thing.
There are professing Christians today who are neglecting the secret place of prayer, the one thing needful, and they think they will, by their works, their much serving, please the Lord and gain a high place in His work and in the kingdom. They don’t seem to understand that the surest way of being lifted up into the “all things” and the place of responsibility and power is to first take the lowly place in the “one thing,” for God’s way up is down.
Just recently a worker once came for counseling to our home. He had been a missionary, but was crowded out of his field and replaced by a more successful, sincere worker. He had been himself an untiring worker, and often written his home board that there was too much work, to send others to help him. Like Martha, his cry was, “Lord, bid someone come and help me!” But with all his work, which was constantly rushing here and there in a feverish flurry, he bore no fruit. And now, defeated and plans frustrated, he was back in the homeland, laid aside.
If only he had stopped in his mad rush each day and sat at Jesus’ feet and learned of Him who is meek and quiet in spirit. He would have gone out in due time there on the field to speak with gumption, and labor with power, and to work with the Lord. Not just for Him, but with Him. If he had gone to the secret place and sat at Jesus’ feet, he would not have been crowded out, for there is always room and loving welcome at Jesus’ feet. It isn’t a crowded place. But there he sat, an unfruitful, disappointed servant, because he didn’t realize that “but one thing is needful” in order to make “all things possible.”
He was distracted with so much serving, serving, that he neglected the better part, his prayer life, the sitting quietly there and learning of Christ. He had tried to climb up some other way. (See John 10:1.)
Have you done so? Or have you chosen the better part, which can never be taken away? Have you found, as God’s Word says, you humble yourself in the mighty hand of God, and in due time He will highly exalt you? (See 1 Peter 5:6.) Or do you fret yourself and become troubled over “what shall we eat, what shall we drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?” (Matthew 6:31).
Like Martha who was busy and hurried
Serving the friend divine,
Cleansing the cups and the platters,
Bringing the bread and the wine.
But Martha was careful and anxious,
Fretting in thought and in word.
She had not time to be sitting
While she was serving the Lord.
For Martha was cumbered with serving,
Martha was troubled with things,
Those that would pass with the using—
She was forgetting her wings.
But Mary was quiet and peaceful,
Learning to love and to live,
Mary was learning His precepts,
Mary was letting Him give—
Give of the riches eternal,
Treasures of mind and of heart,
Learning the mind of the Master,
Choosing the better part.
Do we ever labor at serving,
Till voices grow fretful and shrill,
Forgetting how to be loving,
Forgetting how to be still?
Do we strive for things in possession
And toil for the perishing meat?
Neglecting the one thing needful—
Sitting at Jesus’ feet?
Oh, service is good when He asks it,
Labor is right in its place,
But there is one thing far better—
Looking up into His face.
There’s so much that He would tell us,
There are so many truths precious and deep!
This is the place where He wants us,
And these are the things we can keep.
Adapted from “Martha and Mary,” by Annie Johnson Flint (1866–1932)
Before my back was broken, God brought me to Himself the hard way, and I was ill so long. I was like this fretful missionary, and this poem describes what happened to me:
I was longing to serve the Master,
But alas, I was laid aside
From the busy field of workers
In the harvest field so wide.
There were few, yes, few in number,
And I couldn’t understand
Why I should be left inactive,
It was not as I had planned.
To lie quite still and be silent
While the song was borne to my ear
From the busy field of workers
In the harvest field so dear.
I was longing to serve the Master,
But He led to a desert place,
And there as we stopped and rested,
His eyes looked down in my face,
So full of tender reproaching,
They filled me with sad surprise!
Did He think I had grudged my service,
Or counted it sacrifice?
“Oh Master, I long to serve Thee!
There are so few at the best.
Let me off to the field!” I pleaded,
“I care not to stay and rest.”
I knelt at His feet, imploring,
I gazed in His face above,
“My child,” He said, “don’t you know
Your service is nothing without your love?”
Let’s remember that, and that God is still on the throne and prayer does truly change things. May God bless and keep you and cause His face to shine upon you. Amen.