Passivity is a characteristic of someone who holds back and lets others act. To be passive is to abstain from resistance and yield to external influences. Passivity can stem from good or bad foundations and can bring positive or negative results. The Bible gives examples of those who exhibited both good and bad passivity.
Passivity is appropriate when we are being submissive to the will of God. Jesus demonstrated this kind of passivity on the night He was arrested. Rather than allow His disciples to fight for Him, He willingly submitted to the abuse of His captors. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Jesus Christ, the Lord of all, stood in a courtroom, bound with ropes, and allowed Himself to be mocked, beaten, and insulted by men—and He did nothing to stop them. He had earlier told His disciples, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 6:23). Jesus’ passive behavior had a deeper significance, and His inaction was actually quite active: the Lord was actively giving Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (Galatians 1:4; 1 John 2:2). To fight back or defend Himself would have been to thwart the plan of God (Matthew 6:24). Jesus’ passivity was within the will of God and therefore right.
There are times when we must follow the example Jesus set and remain silent when ridiculed or attacked (Matthew 5:39). Even then, in being passive we are making an active choice for the good of the other person rather than burying our heads in the sand and pretending we don’t see the wrong. Some actions may appear passive when, in fact, they are calculated choices. For example, Billy Graham refused to take sides politically. Although a conservative Christian, he remained passive about politics so that he would be welcomed into any White House. He certainly had political views but refused to be drawn into public battles so that he could achieve a higher aim—maintaining influence on Presidents on either side.
However, there is no place for passivity when God has called us to action. Joshua had to take action to root out the evil in Israel (Joshua 7); there came a day when Barak had to mobilize the army to combat the Canaanites (Judges 4). The apostle Paul was one of the most active proponents of the gospel, yet, while in prison, he asked the Ephesian church to pray that he would have boldness when he spoke about Jesus (Ephesians 6:19). Boldness is the opposite of passivity. Boldness moves forward while passivity holds back. Boldness takes action while passivity refuses to engage.
The instructions throughout Scripture rarely require passivity. They call us to take action. We are commanded to put away passivity and do these things:
• pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
• preach the word (2 Timothy 4:2)
• encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13)
• love one another (1 Peter 1:22)
• flee from sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18)
• honor parents (Ephesians 6:2)
• “put to death . . . the components of your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5)
Obedience of God’s commands often requires us to leave our comfort zones and speak out, make a choice, or move toward the goal God has set. Jesus’ last instruction to His followers was to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). If the disciples had chosen passivity, Christianity would have died quickly and none of us would have heard about Jesus.
God is not passive. He sent His only Son to redeem us (John 3:16–18). He is a defender of widows and orphans (Psalm 68:5). He fights the battles for His children (Exodus 14:14; Deuteronomy 1:30; Nehemiah 4:20). When we could do nothing to save ourselves, Jesus came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). We are called to know Him, love Him, and be like Him (Mark 12:29–30; Romans 8:29).