The Needful Thing
April 1998

“The Needful Thing,” Ensign, Apr. 1998, 7

The Needful Thing

I had overlooked the real needs of our new converts: true friendship and continued nurturing.

I’ve always been preoccupied with details. Even in my service to others, the “little things” dominated my thoughts and actions and held great importance. I concentrated on the details of maintaining a clean and organized home in the service of family and guests and on the details of pulling together a well-designed baptismal program in the service of Church members.

Was the water the right temperature and at the right level? Were there enough copies of the program? Were the chairs adequately spaced? Were hymnals distributed? Who would help the candidates dress, and who would serve as witnesses? What about the rubber mats so no one would slip? How about cleanup? And on and on.

Several years ago as a young ward mission leader, I came to an abrupt realization that my concern for details was interfering with my ability to render true service. My concern for outward things was causing me to overlook more pressing needs: to befriend new converts and to help them come unto Christ.

The missionaries were preparing a mother and her three children for baptism while the father, although supportive of his family, remained merely an interested observer. True to form, I made meticulous arrangements for the baptismal service. The blessed event came and went without a hitch. It was a good experience for all attending. Or so it seemed to me.

The next Sunday I taught the Gospel Principles class. In attendance were the new members, the father, as well as the missionaries and others. During the class I commented on the recent baptismal service and the rewarding experience it had been. I noted what special people the new converts were. I added that the ward members should sense some responsibility in getting to know them and helping them to feel comfortable and needed. After class I received some strong words from the father.

“I appreciate what you said,” he began, “but you really have no idea if we are special people. You haven’t been to our home. You talked as if we are old friends, but we barely met before the baptismal service. You conducted the service and mentioned us in your lesson today. But that doesn’t mean you know me or my wife and children.”

Taken aback, I hardly knew what to say except to agree with him. I was struck by the irony: as well-intentioned as I had been, I had ignored the very people involved. In my frantic pace to conduct the program and attend to a myriad of details, I had not focused on the family as I might have.

This nurturing of new members is a major emphasis of President Gordon B. Hinckley. “I plead with you,” he said. “I ask of you, each of you, to become a part of this great effort. Every convert is precious. Every convert is a son or daughter of God. Every convert is a great and serious responsibility” (“Converts and Young Men,” Ensign, May 1997, 48). “Unfortunately,” he later taught, “we are neglecting some of these new members. … Brethren, this loss must stop. It is unnecessary. I am satisfied the Lord is not pleased with us. … I invite every member to reach out in friendship and love for those who come into the Church as converts” (“Some Thoughts on Temples, Retention of Converts, and Missionary Service,” Ensign, Nov. 1997, 50–51).

As I reflected on my experience with that family of new members, I struggled with many questions. Certainly I shouldn’t ignore all the finer points of my service, I reasoned, for I had accomplished much good by taking care of such details. During that period of introspection, I met a faithful Saint who helped me put things in perspective. I felt an affinity for her from our first encounter. We were so much alike! For, like me, she worried about the little things. Her name was Martha, and I was introduced to her in the 10th chapter of Luke.

Luke tells us that when Jesus visited Mary and Martha in Bethany, Martha “was cumbered about much serving,” while Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet and heard his word” (Luke 10:39–40). Martha, caught up in the many concerns of her service, petitioned Jesus to ask Mary to lend her a hand. At first the Lord’s response might surprise us, for it is not Mary whom he calls to action but Martha: “Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful [worried] and troubled about many things:

“But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42).

Surely the Lord understood the circumstances, I mused. If Martha did not fulfill her duties, the comfort of the guest would be compromised. Then it became clear to me: Jesus’ comfort was not an issue for him. Surely he was perfectly aware of Martha’s situation and good intentions but also perfectly sensitive to her greater need and opportunity at that time—the needful thing.

I wondered what the Lord thought of my service. Despite my attention to detail, was I, too, overlooking the needful thing? And what was this needful thing, “that good part” that Mary had chosen?

While Martha apparently had focused on the preparations of physical comfort and food, Mary had concentrated on a spiritual feeding: listening to the Lord. The one thing needful, then, is seizing the opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet—to come unto him (see Moro. 10:32) and learn of him and know him. In other words, the needful thing is, as Elder James E. Talmage of the Quorum of the Twelve said, to cultivate one’s “true, spiritual development” (Jesus the Christ [1979], 434).

The Mary-Martha story beautifully illustrates the Lord’s selflessness and concern for the individual. Jesus was willing to sacrifice his own comfort because he came not to be fed but to feed the spirits of others. Accordingly, he places a premium on our individual spiritual conversion.

Had I been forgetting to nourish the individual spirit—including my own? Latter-day living presents numerous invitations to let incidental details distract us from the essence of Christlike living. Our pace may rob us of opportunities to reflect and ponder and pray—all elements of the continual process of conversion, of becoming more perfected in Christ each day. Such neglect impedes our spiritual development. How much better it is to add balance by inviting the Lord into our lives, to sit at his feet and learn of him who beckons, “If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).

What the father in the Gospel Principles class said to me was similar to the message conveyed by the Lord’s conversation with Mary and Martha: “You have prepared a meal for me, but that doesn’t mean that you know me. And knowing me is the needful thing.”

All my preparations for a baptismal service were fine as long as I kept them in proper balance, not letting them get in the way of the higher purpose of receiving the new family in genuine fellowship and love. Then, once I developed a friendship with them, I could more fully nurture them with the good word of God so they would come unto Christ, the “author and the finisher of their faith” (Moro. 6:4).

Martha’s encounter with the Savior illustrated powerfully what I so needed to learn. But I wondered if she, too, had taken his message to heart by learning to do the one thing needful. Insight on this point was provided by the Apostle John, who knew well the importance of coming to know the Savior (see John 17:3).

In Jesus’ later visit to Bethany recorded in John 11, we learn that Lazarus had died and that his sisters, Mary and Martha, were anxiously awaiting the Master’s visit. Hearing of his arrival, Martha hastened to meet him. Their conversation suggests that Martha had, in fact, developed spiritually. She evidently learned to balance her search for the needful thing with her “much serving,” for the conversation ended only after she had borne testimony of the Savior’s mission and divinity (see John 11:20–28).

Had Martha gained such knowledge and testimony at the expense of her service-mindedness? John provides the answer in three simple words referring to Jesus’ return to Bethany once again: “There they made him a supper; and Martha served” (John 12:2; emphasis added).

Today, whenever I feel cumbered by the details of serving others, I think of Martha. She reminds me that the little things must not hinder me from accomplishing the needful thing of helping others, as well as myself, “come unto Christ.” Now I hear the Lord’s challenge more clearly. And I seek the needful thing.

  • Ben H. Dorsey III serves as bishop of the Elkhart Second Ward, South Bend Indiana Stake.

Illustrated by Keith Larson

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, by David Lindsley