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Inertia: Confronting Our Tendency to Continue Unchanged

By the end of my second graduate degree in 2005, I needed a break. I was exhausted, confused, and less confident that I really wanted to pursue a doctoral degree. But, after earning an MDiv and a second MA in Biblical Exegesis, a PhD seemed like the logical, if not inevitable, next step. That sense of inevitability drove me forward. I didn’t want to explain why I was changing course despite feeling unsure that I wanted to spend what I thought would be another four years (it ended up being seven) finishing my PhD. Ultimately, it felt like the train was moving too quickly to stop, so I let the inertia carry me into doctoral studies.

I don’t regret going on for my PhD. It ended up being a rewarding experience. Looking back, I do have some misgivings about how often I allowed inertia to carry me forward. I’d get into a situation and, without much thought, take one promotion after the next. It didn’t matter whether I was happy doing what I was doing (sometimes I was…sometimes I wasn’t). It didn’t matter what I was giving up along the way. I gave myself over to inertia. To be sure, there were a couple of moments throughout my career when I made decisions more carefully. For the most part though, I wasn’t being intentional or reflective. I was an object in motion moving in one direction that continued without a change in direction until some outside forces prompted me to take a hard look at where I was headed.

Inertia is powerful, but not necessarily bad. I honestly believe it would have been a mistake not to pursue my PhD. Inertia carried me into a good decision that, in the moment, I would not have had the will to make. At the same time, inertia’s effects can carry us forward when we should really be changing direction. I realized that I needed to learn how to resist “the urge to sustain institutions or programs that God has used despite the fact that God is no longer using them” (Thinking Christian).

So, how can we determine when inertia is helping us move ahead toward something we should pursue, but wouldn’t wouldn’t versus when it is pushing us to continue something when it is really time to change direction? How do we know when inertia is helping us press on when we might not otherwise have the strength to do so rather than making us feel there is no other option than moving in the direction we’ve been headed?

In my estimation, the first step involves recognizing who matters. Humans can make a lot of things happen. We’ve been uniquely gifted by God with the capacity to build. I think of those who came to the plain of Shinar to “make a name” for themselves by building a city and a tower. Whereas God intended for humankind to multiply and fill the earth, these humans, who appeared to be ignorant of the destiny God had set for humankind, decide to establish a place where they could make their names great. Perhaps the most interesting part of the narrative in Genesis 11 is God’s assessment of human capacity: “And the LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them’” (Gen 11:6). If God does not intervene, the people would continue moving in the wrong direction. They would continue to survive, perhaps even thrive, without recognizing God and achieving their full potential.

Once we understand that we are capable of accomplishing feats that may appear “good” and beneficial without God, we can begin to understand the real challenge of inertia. Inertia can allow us to leave God behind. But God matters. Having God with us in our endeavors matters. Giving God the glory in all things matters. Ensuring that we are swept up into God’s agenda rather than trying to tie God to our agenda matters.

Second, when we recognize that God matters, we free ourselves up to move at a different pace. My wife and I have been taking walks outside together after work during the stay-at-home order. Often our kids come with us on their roller blades or bikes. They always end up having to wait for us because the loop we walk requires us to cross a rather busy, four lane highway. No matter how far ahead the kids get, they have a built-in stopping point where they have to pause before moving ahead. Could they cross on their own? Probably. But we’ve asked them not to do so. We’ve asked them to wait for us and, as obedient children, they do.

God dictates our pace. There are a lot of things wrong in the world. There are needs everywhere. Yet, we are not called to fix the world, but to be faithful in a world only God can fix. Possibly the most difficult lesson Christians must learn is to be patient and wait on God’s timing. Moses’s instinct to protect the Israelite from being dominated by the Egyptian in Exodus was wrongheaded in so much as he fashioned himself as the deliverer. He saw a problem and applied a human solution to a problem that only God could solve. Becoming the new Egypt was not the solution to Israel’s problems. The Israelites needed to become the people of God recognizing Him as their King and obeying His commands to order their lives.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we should not act in any circumstance. What I am saying is that we must learn not to put words in God’s mouth so that He is championing our cause and justifying our actions. We exist to be the body of Christ, which will often entail efforts related to social justice, care of the poor, and offering hospitality to those different from us. Yet, for such actions to be distinctively Christian, we must continually circle back to question our own identity as the body of Christ. It is possible to move toward justice or morality in ways that do not involve God. Our job as Christians is to do our best to testify to the God who sent His Son to defeat sin and death so that we can live differently in the world than those who have not dedicated themselves to Him. Part of offering such testimony will certainly involve us taking the time necessary to pray, study, and discuss even as we seek to serve the Lord by loving, welcoming, and embracing others.

Finally, if we are to avoid inertia, we need to learn our history. In a previous post, I discussed the dangers associated with the phrase “We’ve always done it this way” and suggested that“by diminishing the past, we run the risk of making changes without understanding the implications of doing so.” Our histories are full of resources that can inform the present. In many cases, misrepresenting or otherwise ignoring our histories results in myths to which we become bound. We cannot or do not want to see the world in different ways. As such, without the challenge of history, we cannot ask new questions, recognize the benefits and drawbacks of a particular movement or institution, or embrace new narratives that offer counter claims to “authorized” stories. Our histories matter at least to the extent that they contain within them evidence that those who came before us were no more perfect or infallible than we are. Looking back forces us to be cognizant of our need to correct the course set in the past even if such a correction results in a necessary ending in the present.

Inertia is not inherently good or bad. To the extent that the body of Christ is unwilling or unable to discern the Spirit, inertia has the potential to be a new power that stands in opposition to God and what He seeks to accomplish in the world. It is, perhaps, a power that is not readily apparent, yet, in my own life, I believe it has been less apparent because I’ve been less-than diligent in pursuing God through study, prayer, service, and membership in a local congregation. Inertia was less apparent because I framed my own personal ambitions as God’s ambitions for me. It was less apparent because I did not seek to question what I knew would make me more comfortable. While I would not suggest that my experience with inertia is common to everyone, I do believe we all struggle with inertia in some way. We are all being carried forward toward something not because we have discerned that this is the way God desires us to go, but because once we started moving in one direction, we became blind (or turned a blind eye) to the fact that we could make a change. But we can. We can always slow down, find time to learn to follow God, seek wise counsel, investigate new ways of doing things, or ask new questions. We are not subject to inertia, but to the Lord. Acknowledge Him, let Him set the pace, and don’t make heroes or monuments of infallible people and institutions. Instead, love God, love others, and cultivate a readiness to change course as you follow the Spirit.

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