You Don’t Always Have to do Something

Articles July 3, 2013

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to walk around in circles, going nowhere, or to pace the floor back and forth inside a room, instead of just standing still? You know you aren’t going anywhere. But it’s easier to walk up and down going nowhere than it is just to stand.

Have you ever heard the command: “Don’t just stand there! Do something!” Do what? Nobody can necessarily tell, but it’s better than just standing there. Just standing is problematic. Something, it seems, is wrong with standing, even when you don’t know what else you can do besides stand.

The urge to act

We want to know the origins of, and basis for, that desperate human urge—the urge to do something even when we have no idea what. Old Testament history points us to one momentous occasion when desperate humans responded to that urge. It is a point in Israel’s story during which God is rescuing the Israelites from trouble. He wants to take them to a place where they can live well and free. They have to cross the sea, and they don’t have any boats.

They don’t know what to do. But they know they can’t just stand there. They have to do something.

So they start up a chant about going back to Egypt. “The sons of Israel looked, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they became very frightened. They said to Moses, “… It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Ex. 14:10-12). Doing anything was better than just standing there, they thought. 

Three times wrong

But they had simply lost focus on who and whose they were, and how they had got to where they were. How did any of us get here? Genesis tells us. “In the beginning God …” (Gen. 1:1). We need to remember our beginnings. But this is not the only area in which we blunder by insisting that we must do something. We’re also yielding to a major and very attractive and popular self-deception: We see ourselves as in charge of things that will collapse if we do not act. Listening to Israel when we think those thoughts, we may hear the folly of our own words. For Israel’s request is to return to slavery.

A historic answer to such thinking comes from the Negro spirituals of America. Some are quite famous, such as “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home” and “River Jordan is chilly and cold, chills the body but not the soul; river Jordan is deep and wide, milk and honey on the other side.” Though they sound like heaven, those songs were very earthly signals, too. People who toiled in slavery sang them to give hope to themselves and their brothers and sisters. Neither physical nor spiritual slavery is anything to want to go back to. One of those songs says, ‘Before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave!’ Wanting to go back to slavery makes no sense. But it’s the kind of folly that is expressed when I think I have to do something.

The most tragic implication of this flawed thinking is that we’re mostly denying God the chance to be God. “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent'” (Ex. 14:13, 14).

What to do, then

So what are we supposed to do when we don’t know what to do? According to Moses, the answer is to stand up. But you are frightened. You’ve seen the Egyptians. What does God want you to do? He wants us to keep standing. 

The Septuagint [Greek] translation of “stand” in Exodus 14:13 uses the same term that appears in Ephesians 6:11. The word is “histemi”—“stand” in its intransitive sense. “Stand” can mean, “set up,” which means that I am in charge, as in “I stood the chairs up in a row.” And we would love to have that authority. But humans are not in charge of the universe. We are in trouble. And we will not get out of trouble by pretending to be in charge, or by turning and running.

When Paul talks to his Ephesian saints, he offers the same answer of standing that Moses recommends in Exodus. When he says to stand, he’s talking specifically about feeling the force of evil bearing down on you, and standing up. Having the powers of darkness threaten and launch their fiercest charge, but standing up anyway. Standing is the message of Ephesians 6:11, for able-bodied souls, and for quadriplegics. That’s because standing up depends on more than legs.

I thank God for an answer that does not discriminate against the physically disabled. For life is not first a physical matter. It is first and last a spiritual matter. And God who gives us life, regardless of whether we have legs or not, has made it possible for every one of us to stand up. He provides the armor in which we may “stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but … against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places!’ As we “take up the full armor of God, [we shall] be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:11-13).

This article originally appeared in Adventist World magazine, November 2012.