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The Default Position is Inertia

by Stephen Hebert on Thursday - 23 July 2009

in Ministry

During the recent health care debates on Capitol Hill and at the White House, President Obama made an interesting statement. When asked why he was so keen to set deadlines for when he would like Congress to pass their health care bills, Obama said this:

If you don’t set deadlines in this town, things don’t happen. The default position is inertia.1

This article is not about the state of health care in the U.S.A., but rather it’s about the truth that I find in Mr. Obama’s final words (which I will gladly pluck out of this context): The default position is inertia.

A friend of mine grew up in Africa, and he tells this story about what seems like a rather mundane event from his childhood. (I may not get all of the details of the story exactly correct, but the sentiment is there.)

The weather was fine; the water was perfect. While swimming in the Indian Ocean, I saw in the distance a buoy floating on the water. As the swells came at me, I would rise and catch a glimpse of it. Then the water would carry me down into the valley between swells where I could no longer see it. The next swell would come and I would again see the buoy floating out there. I decided to swim over and check it out. I leaned into the swell and began paddling. Back in those days I was an athletic young guy, and I didn’t think there would be any problem reaching the buoy. After a nice long burst of energy and after gaining some good ground, I took a breather. I bobbed up and down with the swells, taking in as much oxygen as possible, gearing up for the next burst. When I felt like I’d regained my breath, I looked to the buoy before starting after it again. To my amazement, it had receded from me! I began to swim more vigorously, gaining ground on the buoy, getting closer and closer. But the buoy was far away, and I had to stop again to catch my breath. This time, however, I kept an eye on it, and as I bobbed up and down with the waves, I noticed that the buoy moved farther and farther away. Again I struck out for it but came up short. Finally, I realized that the buoy, which was firmly tethered to the ocean floor, hadn’t moved at all. It sat in a rock steady position. Instead, each swell took me away, farther and farther. If I wasn’t moving forward, I was moving backward — there was no staying put, no staying still, no holding ground; it was either one or the other.

In order to reach the goal, my friend needed to keep moving, it was impossible to stop. The default position is inertia.

This is a great metaphor for the spiritual life. As a Christian I am always attempting to orient myself toward God. In all of the things that I do, I want to keep in mind that he is out there. Even when I sit down in the valley, I hope that a swell will come along and sweep me up so that I can set my eyes on God again. For a Christian, this is probably the natural ebb and flow of life in the Spirit. At times you are on top of the swell, and it’s easy to see the goal, to see the buoy. At other times, you are down in the valley, and it can be very difficult to orient yourself or to even believe that the buoy is sitting out there.

If this is the case with the vast majority of Christians, then we must all ask ourselves one crucial question:

What are we doing when we’re in the valleys?

Treading water is always a possibility. It’s difficult to muster up the strength to swim forward when we can’t see where we’re going. We feel that it might be useless, or we think we’ll just take a break and reset our focus when the next valley comes along.2 That valley will come along, I don’t doubt3 that. However, I think we’ll find that rather than being in the same position, we will have receded, making our quest for that elusive goal all the more difficult to attain as we have further and further to swim each time.

The default position must be inertia. If we’re not moving forward, seeking God, seeking Christ, asking him to abide in us, and actively considering what it means to abide in him,4 then we are moving backward, expanding the gulf between us, coming to know him less, perhaps even misunderstanding him.


  1. Stolberg, Sheryl Gay and Jeff Zeleny, “Obama Moves to Reclaim Debate on Health Care,” NYT July 22, 2009.
  2. I am always struck by the end of 1 John: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Indeed, this is the most important concern of the epistle. Idolatry can be as heinous as the “high places” and the golden calf of the Old Testament, or it can be as simple as losing focus and following other things (money, sex, stamp collecting, etc.). This is a path of frustration and disappointment. If we are to continue moving forward, we must maintain our faith/focus even in those valleys when it can seem so hard.
  3. I am reminded of James 1:6: “…[T]he one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (ESV) — ὁ γὰρ διακρινόμενος ἔοικεν κλύδωνι θαλάσσης ἀνεμιζομένῳ καὶ ῥιπιζομένῳ. More appropriately, we might look to Ephesians 4:14. The author (some say Paul, others disagree) — explaining why God has given apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers — writes: “…so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes…” (ESV) — ἵνα μηκέτι ὦμεν νήπιοι, κλυδωνιζόμενοι καὶ περιφερόμενοι παντὶ ἀνέμῳ τῆς διδασκαλίας ἐν τῇ κυβείᾳ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἐν πανουργίᾳ πρὸς τὴν μεθοδείαν τῆς πλάνης
  4. John 15:4: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (ESV) — μείνατε ἐν ἐμοί, κἀγὼ ἐν ὑμῖν. καθὼς τὸ κλῆμα οὐ δύναται καρπὸν φέρειν ἀφ᾿ ἑαυτοῦ ἐὰν μὴ μένῃ ἐν τῇ ἀμπέλῳ, οὕτως οὐδὲ ὑμεῖς ἐὰν μὴ ἐν ἐμοὶ μένητε. What a beautiful image spoken from Jesus’ own lips. I have made several attempts to work out what the notion of “abiding” means — it’s a prevalent idea in the Gospel of John as well as the Epistles of John. For my thoughts on the idea of God abiding in us, see my post on 1 John 4:13–14. For other thoughts on the notion of us abiding in him and he abiding in us, see my post on 1 John 3:23–24.

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