Friday, February 8, 2013

The Problem with Passivity

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the spiritual difficulties I've struggled with over the years and still battle against is passivity. The problem with passivity is that it can look so good on the surface but it can keep you from taking direct action to solve a problem. This excessive passivity sometimes excuses itself under the guise of "surrendering things to God". It talks about problems but struggles when it's time to take action because it is apathetic and doesn't really want to disturb itself or because it is overwhelmed and doesn't know where to start.

So, what exactly is passivity? And why is it such a negative thing at times? 

The Free Dictionary defines passivity as:
The condition or quality of being passive; inactivity, quiescence, or submissiveness. Some of its synonyms are: spiritlessness, numbness, apathy, indifference.

 Submissiveness doesn't sound too bad, right?

Well, it all depends on who or what you are submitting yourself to. We can sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that we are "turning the other cheek" when the truth may be that we don't want to get ourselves involved in a difficult situation. Satan happens to love inertia. He can create a little hell for families or a nation just by convincing people that passivity is a good thing through things like:

"It's best not to disturb the waters because it may start a fight."
"If I just leave the situation alone it will resolve itself."
"One person can't make a difference anyway. What's the point in trying?"

And sometimes the "situation" resolves itself right into chaos simply because no one is willing to do something about it.

Apathy and sloth often clothe themselves as passivity. After all, passivity sounds better, right? It excuses its own behavior. "I'm just a passive person by nature" sounds so much holier than "I'm just an apathetic person by nature".  We all need periods of prayer, rest, and quiet but this is to prepare us for activity not for more passivity. A trap I've fallen into many times is excusing my lack of action by saying, "Well I prayed about it, didn't I?" The problem being is that the prayer needed to be followed by an action. At times I have taken "let go and let God" a bit too far and sinned by omission instead of commission.

God is active, not passive. Grace is active. It's important that we have an active, living faith not a dead faith that slaps everything into God's hands and goes its own way. Passivity is rarely surrender
to God, passivity is usually a surrender to self. When you look at the lives of the great saints you will see surrender to the will of God but very rarely an excessive passivity. Saints accomplished a lot. And some of them didn't even have to go very far to do this!

Here is an example of the difference between surrender to God and apathy/passivity:

I (Mother Teresa) had the most extraordinary experience once in Bombay. There was a big conference about hunger. I was supposed to go to that meeting and I lost the way. Suddenly I came to that place, and right in front of the door to where hundreds of people were talking about food and hunger, I found a dying man.

I took him out and took him home.

He died there.

He died of hunger.

And the people inside were talking about how in 15 years we will have so much food, so much this, so much that, and that man died.

See the difference?

                                 (Words to Love By - Mother Teresa)

The people at the conference thought they were helping to solve world hunger by their speaking (or praying) about it when action was what was needed in this man's case.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who believe they can do it all, take on too much, and fizzle out within a few days. I've done this too and I believe that God allows us to fail in our endeavors sometimes because we are working from a place of pride.

If we do see these traits in ourselves what can we do about it?

We can pray AND act, but with prudence and love. It's all about balance. Mother Teresa in Words to Love By explains it like this:

I never look at the masses as my responsibility. I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time. I can feed only one person at a time.

Just one, one, one...

She goes on to say that this is what we are to do also. Begin with one. We can apply her words to other areas, it doesn't have to be feeding the hungry.

I like Mother's way because she understands that each person is special. They are not nameless faces but individuals who deserve her undivided attention. By looking at others and seeing who they are she brought healing to both their bodies AND souls. She treated both the hunger for love and the physical hunger.

May God kindle within us an active, living faith this Lent. A faith with a fire so bright that it
 kindles the same flame in the hearts of others around us. One by one by one...

You go to pray: to become a bonfire, a living flame, giving heart and light. 
                                                     St Josemaria Escriva


  1. God is active and not passive. His Son was active to the point of death wasn't He Mary?

    This story of Mother Teresa is so timely, especially as Pope B16 has dedicated this year to The Year of Faith.

    We are called to actively witness our faith to a world that has so little of it.

    Remember that song our kids all sung at church when they were little "This little light of mine, I'm gona let it shine"? Only a vibrant active wick or light can shine.

    Ilove your post Mary!!!Thank you!

  2. Thanks, DG. Yes, I do remember that song and this is a good year to let those lights shine :)

    Don't you just love how simply Mother Teresa explains things? What a great saint she is! St. Therese is another who explains things simply and I love this about the two of them.

  3. As ever you make some very good points.

    The devil enjoys our passivity and apathy. He makes it his job to make us believe he does not exist.

    God bless.

  4. Hi Victor,
    It's working. A lot of people don't believe he exists these days.

    God bless you too :)

  5. Have you ever read the "Screwtape Letters" by C.S. Lewis? Hilarious, deep, wise- a senior devil teaches a young demon how to sway people from faith and God.

  6. Hi Melanie,
    Yes, I have - a great book!

  7. Love one person at a time - I love that.