Good men doing nothing

I’m wanting to spend some time this week with a much-repeated phrase: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I mentioned yesterday that the quote has been used ad nauseum to promote this action or that one (often conflicting actions, with both sides claiming to be the “good” side). I say that not in condemnation of the quote, but as justification for spending several days looking at it.

While I’m still unconvinced of the worth of the saying itself, I will admit what others have said: much of my angst in this situation comes from the misuse of this quote, particularly by Christians. Vern commented yesterday: “It’s probably better to limit the quote to the political/social arena and not apply it at all to the living of Christians.” Much of my distress comes from the fact that the “all that is necessary” saying is frequently used to move Christians into the political/social arena! The quote is used to say, “If you aren’t active in this arena, you aren’t doing anything.”

And, in the midst of our prolonged back and forth, Nick made a couple of key statements:

However, (and I’m certain Tim will talk about this later in the week), the quote is rarely used to criticize people who are, in fact, doing *nothing*. Literally, truly, nothing.

It is used to criticize people who aren’t following the quoter’s recommended course of action. Ask any pacifist how often they’ve been rhetorically bludgeoned with this quote. Anyone who thinks that pacifism (or even QUIETISM, for crying out loud) is doing nothing has a painfully shallow view of spiritual warfare.

Sometimes, doing nothing is precisely what is necessary for one person. But that’s completely different from the idea that all men and women made good by the blood of the cross and the power of the Spirit should choose to do nothing against the forces of evil.


What I look forward to in the coming days is the shredding of the assumptions typically driving its use. Not a call to ACTION, but a call to a specific – typically nationalist – course of action. Actually, I find that is isn’t typically used as a call to action at all, but as a pejorative against indirect action, compassionate responses, and non-violence.

Nick could see where I was headed with some of this. Tying in with yesterday’s post, I want to talk about the idea that “merely” praying is “doing nothing.” (Just typing the phrase “merely praying” makes me gag a bit) That’s definitely our culture talking. Dan Bouchelle posted something the other day, quoting an African Christian who said, “You Americans sure can sing, but you don’t know much about how to pray.”

In general, we don’t believe in the power of prayer. I saw an extreme of this a few years ago. I was participating in a Church of Christ Internet group, and one member wrote something like: “We pray because God commanded us to. We know that it’s not going to change anything.” Wow! How sad.

Those who don’t believe in the power of prayer will often use phrases like “sit around singing Kum Ba Yah.” Don’t know why that poor song carries the brunt of their wrath, but it’s come to characterize someone who believes that God can and will intervene in this world… even if it’s not in the way we would want.

Maybe that’s why I’m troubled by the lack of God in this quote. It feeds that worldly mindset that says, “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done. God certainly isn’t going to do anything.”

Prayer is doing something. It is action. The problem is, relying on prayer takes more courage than most of us have. It requires a loss of control. It requires patience… some prayers in the Bible weren’t answered for decades. Decades! It requires us to accept God’s plans, rather than stepping forward and shaping our own story.

Prayer is not the only action Christians should take against evil. But it is by far the most significant. When someone says, “All we can do is pray,” it doesn’t mean all hope is gone. It means that we still have our greatest weapon.

All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to stop relying on God’s power.

7 thoughts on “Good men doing nothing

  1. By limiting it to the political/social realm, I meant to exclude Christians. It is a shame for Christians to live in that realm. We have a higher calling. Even Daniel was recognized as being a servant of the Most High not merely an advisor to the king. We can live Christ in all areas of human endeavor. But that living puts us in another category of doing. No longer I but Christ, not I but the grace of God that is with me. I share your concerns about prayer. That is by far the weakest area of my life. The brother from Africa was being generous in saying we know how to sing. Singing the songs of this world, sure we lead the world in entertainment. But in singing the songs of Zion, I have my doubts. There’s another spurious quote, he who sings prays twice.

  2. Tim,

    i definitely never got the impression growing up that prayer is a *weapon.* i mean, sure, yeah, in the super-churchy resisting temptation sense: “God, please help me not commit this sin right now,” but a significantly deflated notion at best. Why isn’t the CoC known for vigils or keeping the hours?

    Also, what counts as doing “nothing” can be deceptively perspectival. i get the impression that all Jesus’ disciples took Him to be frequently guilty of doing “nothing” at key points in a power struggle with the authorities (especially while being executed by them).

    –guy

  3. “Prayers are not always — in the crude, factual sense of the word — ‘granted’. This is not because prayer is a weaker kind of causality, but because it is a stronger kind. When it ‘works’ at all it works unlimited by space and time. That is why God has retained a discretionary power of granting or refusing it; except on that condition prayer would destroy us. It is not unreasonable for a headmaster to say, ‘Such and such things you may do according to the fixed rules of this school. But such and such other things are too dangerous to be left to general rules. If you want to do them you must come and make a request and talk over the whole matter with me in my study. And then — we’ll see.’” — CS Lewis, God In The Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics Chapter 11 – Work and Prayer Paragraph 11, Pg. 107

  4. i personally feel a lot of political activism is (unintentionally) part of Satan’s spiritual war against prayer. so yeah, amen

  5. Since when did God say to Christians that he will answer the prayers of Christians?
    Don’t you think that Christians killed since the beginning of the movement prayed for being saved out of the clutches of those who killed them? The Jews in WWII, The Christians during the Plagues of Europe in the 1600′s? Its not that God doesn’t care, its just that it doesn’t matter. Christ’s death is the covering, the act that answers all prayer. Paul as you know is my favorite apostle, said pray with out ceasing. Expecting Christ’s emminent return….which didn’t happen. Things that happen to us, happen as a result of being human. Circumstances, choices good or bad effect us all. Prayer is only good when its heard by a Priest…..Intercessary antics created by the early church fathers established a tradition that God works in mysterious ways……..
    oh really? I rest in the fact that God has given me the intelligence to figure things out for myself…….Thankyou God……….I am sure he heard me.

  6. H.B.,

    There’s no question that God answers the prayer of Christians. But we have to understand that God’s timing isn’t our timing. Israel was in Egypt for over 400 years. Did God ignore their prayers all that time? Of course not. But he waited until the time was right.

    And no, I don’t share the view that Paul and other Christians were wrong when they thought that God does answer prayer.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim

  7. And, of course we can always fall back on the old adage “sure God always answers prayer, it’s just that sometimes the answer is “NO”!

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