Monday, July 9, 2012

To use or not to use? The Passive Voice

In the English language there is only a rare occasion where writing in the passive voice is acceptable. The majority of the time it is to be avoided at all costs. The passive voice is not strong, and it is best to write in the active voice to where the subject of the sentence is performing an action upon the direct object.

For example:

Passive - Bill was struck by a foul ball.

Active - A foul ball struck Bill.

Having a mom who was an English teacher, such particulars of grammar imprinted in my memory as rules to heed. Sure, I continue to struggle with writing in the passive voice, and its in proofreading and editing that I realize the error. Who is doing the action, and how can a sentence be made stronger by writing from the initiator of the action's reference point?

The active voice leads us to write from a point of action and being in control. The passive voice almost screams out that we are push-overs, or victims, of the forces that are actually in control of society.

Yet recently circumstances have made me realize that there is actually a very important time and place to use the passive voice. In fact, I believe that our aversion to passive voice hints at one of the very real issues of the day, which is the willingness to submit to others, the common good, and even God. For instance, in America across the spectrum of political, theological, or philosophical beliefs there is a tendency to have to win arguments and almost be a bit stubborn in submitting to anyone with a differing view. The ideal that is looked up to is steadfastness, which I agree is definitely an attribute with noble qualities. But at what point does steadfast become stubborn? When does fighting for my rights become about solely my own control and never submitting to authority, the rule of law, or even a righteous rebellion like the suffrage and abolition movements?

Let me phrase it another way, as we think about our will in comparison to the will of others, a collective will (democratic process), and God's will. Do I submit my will, or do I allow my will to become submitted to God's, a spouse's, or society's? (another discussion for another time about which of these wills we should and should not submit or listen to!)

But what I think is an accurate portrayal of the passive voice is transformative language. The questions to ask are:

Do we change ourselves?

or

Are we changed?


Truly, while we do have some control over our attitudes and approach, there is also the fact that we are changed by those around us. In particular, I think that relationships suffer unless we recognize an element of this passive voice. Many years ago, Wade Gardner used a saying for a group of college students (Kairos in Colorado Springs) that I think illustrates this point:

To be known is to be loved.
In a relationship, any relationship, we must learn to allow others in. We must acknowledge them as independent beings capable of choice which produces the dynamics in which we relate. Yet, I cannot only take an active role in the relationship. People who only interact on their own terms are considered "users," "manipulators," or even perhaps "hermits" if they choose to avoid. In particular, in a healthy relationship the partners recognize and self-select to allow the other person space to act within that bond. Marriage, friendship, teams, and communities all operate this way. As does our relationship with God. Love cannot be forced, and in order to truly love we must similar yield to allowing ourselves to be loved. Let me say that again:

In order to truly love, we must allow ourselves to be loved.

In order to know someone, we must let them know us.

This is passive. A gift is given or a prayer spoken which we receive. Forgiveness is asked for, or accepted, which is often out of our control. I can say I forgive you, but really it is a matter of recognized that you have been forgiven. When we truly cherish a relationship, it is not because of what we have created in the other person, but it is because of who that person is in the space that impacts and affects us.

I am loved (passive) is ultimately truly necessary in order to be able to say that I love (active).

Passive - I am loved by God

Active - I love God and love one another.


It happens in a cause and effect order. There is a place for the passive, when it is in our hearts. Yes, we can say God loves me and keep the sentence in active tense, but does it sink into our hearts, and resonate in our souls quite the way that "I am love by God" does? We are at the core of relationship, marriage, covenant, and community. We cannot live together without recognizing that there is a time and place for both the passive and active. Someone who refuses to ever receive a gift, or help, is limited in their giving and helping. People become objects, and missions to convert or help. Not people to be known and walked alongside of.

Our society needs to recognize a passive voice. It is in the passive that authenticity breaks forth within a community and true communion occurs. Only when we allow others to speak into our lives. "No man is an island" is a saying that understands if we rely only upon ourselves, and interact only in our own interests, we cannot truly grow. We must recognize our own limitations and submit to the reality of being acted upon.

Being passive does not mean we do not hold fast the core of who we are and what we believe, however. We grow, act, change, and learn each and every day. Who we are is dynamic, but it is still who we are. I can hold fast to belief, to truth, and still engage and build upon this. Sometimes we find we are wrong or limited in our understanding (hey - I think there is a Proverb about this) and so we must trust and allow for the change. Other times, we can be affirmed and encouraged in our belief and the truth of this life. But this can only truly happen if we let ourselves be acted upon.

Faith is not faith unless it is tested.

Love is not love unless it is received.


So yes, I believe with all my active ability that I need to be transformed, to be justifies, to be saved. I cannot do this myself.

It must be received, yielded, or submitted to.

It must be passive.


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