The Price of Inaction
As a teacher of many years, I have seen many extraordinary things, some good, some bad. One year, I saw a beautiful girl go with a disabled student to the senior prom just because he asked her. I’ve witnessed groups of students help another in a medical emergency, doing what I asked without question. I have also seen fights amongst students so savage they haunted me at night. All these things and many more will remain filed in my mind. There is one memory, however, that still has a tight grip on my soul and I wish I could remove it from mental storage. It was the time I walked out into the school’s hallway and I saw a male student standing with another teacher. I’m not sure what the circumstances were leading up to this moment but there he stood while the teacher chewed him out. The teacher told him how lazy he was and how she knew he would not amount to anything. I remember standing there thinking, “What do I do? I can’t undermine the teacher’s authority in front of the young man but I need to stand up for him.” In my indecision, I wound up doing nothing. I have always regretted it. Inaction can be an uncomfortable place to be but it can also carry heavy consequences.
It is alarming for me to discover the incident I described lasted less than two minutes, yet it had the power to hold both that young man and me captive in years to come. Sometimes I wonder how words can wield such a potent blow, but experience shows they own this capability, even if we are not consciously aware of it.
There are many things motivating inaction and, in my case, there were several. The first thing was the fear of consequences.
Consequences come in all shapes and sizes. They are multi-colored and some are more intimidating than others. For me, the consequences I faced that day were basic to human nature. I was afraid if I acted on this young man’s behalf, I could tip the scales against an adult’s authority in the eyes of kids. I know this sounds lame because this teacher was not wielding her authority properly but my biggest reason for inaction was, I didn’t want this teacher to deal with the difficult consequences she would have had if I undermined her authority. I know, what about the young man? What about the consequences he faced? I agree, that’s why this incident weighs heavy on me.
I am not the only person who did not act because of the fear of consequences. Jesus told a well-known story whose characters may have also been motivated by this fear. (I use the word, “may” because, do we ever know the true motivations of others? Plus, this is a story Jesus told, rather than a record of a real situation Jesus witnessed.) The story is, The Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:25–37 (NIV).
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answered this man, who was considered an expert in Old Testament law, by telling him the story of the Good Samaritan in verses 30–35. This story would have held his listeners’ full attention. Jesus told of a Jewish man traveling, whom robbers attacked, beat and left for dead. A priest and later a Levite came upon the scene and both walked by without offering help. Whether they made this decision because of the fear of consequences, I don’t know but it’s a good possibility. Maybe they were afraid if they helped him, they would be late to some important religious gathering, attracting the scorn or irritation of those involved. Maybe they were afraid the robbers were close by, watching and if they saw these men helping, they would attack. We do not know their motivation for inaction but it could have been because they feared the consequences.
This fear is not the only reason I chose inaction concerning the young man I saw in the hallway. I also lacked the self-confidence to act, regardless of the consequences.
Looking back on the student situation, my lack of self-confidence as a teacher also played a role in my inaction. I had only been a teacher a few years when this incident happened, but, even in my inexperience, I still had a sense of right and wrong. James 4:17 (ESV) speaks about this. “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” I should have acted in this situation and I made the wrong choice. Period.
Yes, I did not act because I was afraid of the consequences and I did not act because of my lack of self-confidence but I also chose inaction because of selfishness.
Thinking back to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest’s and the Levite’s inaction could have also been motivated by selfishness. Maybe they didn’t want to have their schedules changed, a result of stopping to help the man. Maybe they did not want to get dirty? We do not know the specific reasons they do not stop because Jesus does not reveal this information. Jesus does reveal in Matthew 25:31–46 the results of selfish inaction.
In these verses, Jesus is speaking of His separating the sheep from the goats when “He comes in his glory,” vs. 31 (NIV). “Then they (goats) will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous (sheep) to eternal life,” verse 48 (NIV).
In the verses preceding this one, Jesus give specific reasons for this.
For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
Matthew 25:42–43 (NIV)
Jesus strongly states in the summation of this conversation in verse 45 (NIV), when questioned, “He will reply, ‘Truly, I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan man, a member of a race of people most Jews in Jesus’ day despised, helped the injured man.
“He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.” Luke 10: 34–35 (NIV)
This Samaritan in Jesus’ story acted out of love and concern. He did not consider that the injured man might not appreciate his help though he and most others in the area would be critical of his actions. The Samaritan acted out of selflessness.
When we chose inaction, we are often motivated by selfishness and we are responsible for our lack of action.
Does action on behalf of others, however, always mean we should insert ourselves into any situation? The answer is no because acting on another’s behalf can also involve other options.
In the world we now live, it’s not always prudent to insert yourself into others’ situations. It is wrong, however, to assume I could no nothing else. In my situation with the teacher and student, I had some tangible options and because I did not consider this, my inaction weighs on me.
I could have gone to see this teacher later in the day and ask her how the situation with the student wound up the way it did in the hallway. I could suggest to her that perhaps there are other ways to deal with similar situations and maybe even share some I have used with my students. Would the teacher respond well to this discussion? I would think the answer depends on how I presented myself to this teacher. I still could have spoken to her but I chose inaction.
I did not know the young man involved in the hallway incident but he probably knew who I was. I could have looked him up later in the day and told him I’m sorry this incident happened. I could have let him know I would be glad to help if he finds himself in need of working out a problem with this teacher. Instead, I chose inaction and I went home that night feeling very low.
I also had a third option I wouldn’t want to use but, sometimes, it’s necessary. I could have reported this teacher’s behavior to our supervisor. It would not be my job to be involved any further but, at least our supervisor would know what happened, especially if this young man’s parents called later that night, wanting an explanation for the situation. Our supervisor never knew of this incident because I chose inaction.
Inaction is preventable. All we have to do is chose action in situations we encounter. What exactly that action should involve, I cannot answer. I do know what the answer is to Cain’s question in Genesis 4:9 where he spews the words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” vs. 9 (NIV).
The answer is, yes, we are our brother’s keeper.