The Passive Life: God’s gifts in a frantic world

“It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (Ex. 31:17).

The long days of summer continue to fly by. School is out. Offices are sparsely populated as workers take long-awaited trips. Sports and clubs are on hiatus. Countless fairs, festivals and summer activities vie for our attention.

Our culture tells us that we should relax. We have earned it. We need to cultivate a work-life balance. As Christians, it is worth evaluating our culture’s narrative of both work and leisure.

Despite centuries of technological advancements that make their lives easier, many people still seem frantically busy. G.K. Chesterton grounds this busyness in laziness:

It is customary to complain of the bustle and strenuousness of our epoch. But in truth the chief mark of our epoch is a profound laziness and fatigue; and the fact is that the real laziness is the cause of the apparent bustle. Take one quite external case; the streets are noisy with taxicabs and motorcars; but this is not due to human activity but to human repose. There would be less bustle if there were more activity, if people were simply walking about.[1]

Over the generations, American society has defined success by work and industriousness. But the younger generations have a dawning anxiety that they are being kept from something deeper. Despite time-saving devices, they obsess over the passing of time and with “using it” efficiently. They seek activities and practices that rejuvenate them, heal them, make them “truly themselves.” Watching a movie or two after work. Rock climbing. Video games. Quilting club. Cooking. Therapy. Time with friends.

Older generations see the younger generations as lazy, devoid of work ethic and interested only in rest; younger folks see the older generations as lifeless workaholics, incapable of rest.

So which side is right? Are both? The Creation account shows us that man was given the pattern of work and rest by God even before the fall. God “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work” (Gen. 2:15). Yet God also made the Garden of Eden full of things to delight him and give him rest.

The reality, which should not surprise us, is that the way we see work and the way we see rest are two sides to one bent coin: Both are distorted by sin. The fall has perverted not only work but also rest.


A recent issue of The Lutheran Witness explored the vice of acedia, or sloth. Often, we consider acedia to be the opposite of work. But in fact, this vice was traditionally considered an offense against the Third Commandment, which commands us to rest in God. Acedia, that human tendency warned against by the church over centuries, was traditionally considered a failure of the human soul to find its true rest.

Idleness can be a result of acedia. But so can filling our lives with work and activity.

Written against the “total work” mentality of post-World War II Germany, German philosopher Josef Pieper explained the source of man’s difficulty with genuine rest: “that man mistrusts everything that is without effort; that in good conscience he can own only what he himself has reached through painful effort; that he refuses to let himself be given anything.”[2]

Contrary to this, he points out, stands the testimony of Scripture and Christianity “that life is based on the reality of ‘Grace’; that the Holy Spirit Himself is called ‘Gift’; that … the Justice of God is based on Love; that something given, something free of all debt, something undeserved, something not-achieved — is presumed in everything achieved or laid claim to; that what is first is always something received.”[3] Genuine rest, then,is a “condition of the soul” that we need to recover: “the disposition of receptive understanding.”[4]

Vita contemplativa

While Pieper’s book, popular among Christians seeking to break out of the work- and consumption-centric rhythms of culture, strongly critiques modern society, his solution requires further evaluation.

For anyone who can spare the time, Pieper recommends a revival of the vita contemplativa, the “contemplative life,” an intellectual discipline adopted by the Roman Catholic tradition from Greek thought. The heart of the contemplative life in the Christian tradition is pure contemplation of God. The steps to get there include reading, which moves one to internal meditation, then prayer, then finally this state of contemplation — an illumination by God Himself. Through this contemplative life, man leaves the merely human sphere and receives divine wisdom. Spiritual practices drawn from this understanding center on contemplation as withdrawal, seen, for example, in the monastic life or the contemporary prevalence of Roman Catholic “silent retreats.”

There’s just one problem. Even if the ultimate goal of the contemplative life is to receive from God, the process of getting there is just another thing to do, and an immensely difficult one. If this is really the way that man breaks out of the human realm and receives wisdom from God, then such wisdom depends on the very rare commodity of time. It is impossible to work and eat and vacation and pursue one’s hobbies, while also creating space and time for this meditation through which we ostensibly approach the divine. In short, the contemplative life looks radically different from the life that almost every one of us is living or could ever live. Such a contemplative life is only ever available to some.

Vita passiva

Fortunately for us, Luther critiqued the tradition of the vita contemplativa, in which he was raised as a monk. Substituting it with the term vita passiva (“the passive/receptive life”), he described the Christian life in radically receptive terms.[5] Rather than a program of self-development, which uses God’s Word as one step in elevating one’s intellect until it ascends to communion with God, the passive life is receptive at every stage: It begins with a prayer to receive the Holy Spirit, then receives God through meditation on His external Word. In the vita passiva,“we do not make something of ourselves, God fashions and forms us.”[6]

Unlike the austere, solitary and methodical practice of the contemplative life, the vita passiva can be lived out in situations that look a little rougher around the edges — in fact, in any situation. For the Word who made the universe comes to us in the humblest and most common way: in words, words that can be muttered under our breath from memory in line at the grocery store, listened to on our phones on the drive to work, spoken to a suffering friend when we have no words of our own to say, read to a group of wiggling kids during some quiet two minutes of a chaotic day of vacation. These words work in us even when we do not understand them. Rather than asking us to reach Him through a contemplative ascent, God the great Giver goes even further and descends to us in a Word that remains with us no matter our circumstances.

We can trust that the Word is doing what it says. We need not seek internal marks that we are with God or at rest. In this way, compared to our culture, compared even to the advice of many Christian voices, we can radically receive; we are fully made and formed by the Word, even if we don’t see it. Even if we feel as frantic as ever.

Pieper is right that the solution to modern franticness is receptivity. But Luther’s vita passiva shows us how generous is the Giver from whom we receive.

Eternal rest

We give thanks that we can say with David:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.

(Psalm 131:1–3)

This rest reflects the rest that will be ours forever in Christ. In receiving now, we both begin and anticipate what is our eternal reality and has been from the moment of creation: All we are and all we have is a gift from God. And in spite of our efforts, He will continue to give to us entirely.

This summer, whether you are blessed with a full slate of leisure or none at all, your rest can be complete, a rest which you cannot spoil with any amount of labor. Hear the Word, and live in that rest today.

Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Park Ridge: Word on Fire Classics, 2017), 125.

[2] Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture (South Bend: St. Augustine Press, 1998), 19.

[3] Pieper, 20.

[4] Pieper, 30.

[5] Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 42–43.

[6] John Kleinig, “Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio: What Makes a Theologian?” Concordia Theological Quarterly 66, no. 3 (July 2002), 265.

1 thought on “The Passive Life: God’s gifts in a frantic world”

  1. The author says, “These words work in us even when we do not understand them.” But according to Jesus’ own explanation of his parable of the sower (Matt. 13:18-23), bearing fruit does depend on understanding.

    And here are a few Bible verses that encourage behavior that is not a passive response to the Word, but deliberate:

    “Blessed is the man [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.” Psalm 1:1-2 ESV

    “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Matt. 7:24 ESV

    “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For … the one who [is] no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” James 1:22-24 ESV

    “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness…. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:3-8 ESV

    “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” 1 Cor. 15:58 ESV

    So we have peace with God because of his grace in Christ
    (Romans 5:1, Col. 1:13)
    we aspire to bear fruit in this life because of his grace in Christ
    (John 15:8, Eph. 2:10, Col. 1:10, 1 Peter 2:9, Titus 2:14).

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