Posted by: dacalu | 16 April 2011


People like to talk about sin these days.  Those who favor righteousness like to talk about how sinful the world has become.  Those who favor forgiveness and inclusion like to talk about what sin means and whether it’s still a useful concept.  In both cases a terribly useful concept has become obscured by a change in worldview.  We’re not exactly sure what sin means as a society because a number of ideas have gotten mixed together.  Some of you will be tempted to think this post is about sin.  It’s not.  Don’t go there.  This blog is about consequences.  No will, intention, or choice need be involved.  The state of the world, for good and ill, means that actions have consequences and we ignore them at our peril.

Whatever we do has consequences.  Some come simply – when I hit the ‘H’ on my keyboard, an ‘h’ appears on the screen.  Some result from long chains of events, like a Rube Goldberg machine, or a chain of dominoes.  This world operates by cause and effect.  Every time you act or speak you’ve expended energy in the world and that energy does things.

Just to be clear, let’s make some distinctions.  Some consequences are intended (throwing a ball) and some are unintended (missing the basket).  Some can be anticipated (speeding ticket) and some cannot (being the 1000th shopper at the store).  Some are good, some are bad.  Some blameworthy, others not.  They are all consequences.  The universe has a law of consequences – things happen as a result of other things.

It sounds rather obvious, but I never cease to be amazed how often people fail to consider the law of consequences.  What you do effects people and events.  More significantly, it effects people and events in more and different ways than you could have predicted.  It becomes essential to communication and compassion that we assess not only what we wanted to express, but how it was received.  Thus Economics has a rule called the Law of Unintended Consequences.  No matter how much you plan, intervention in a complex system will lead not only to desired outcomes, but to secondary outcomes that you may or may not like.

All human communication involves applying force (expending energy) to a complex system.

We learn this lesson early when it comes to motor skills – hitting someone makes them cry or hit back.  A little later in life we learn the lesson as it applies to social skills – hitting someone does not make them like you, giving them gifts does.  Sadly, many of us never learn the lesson when it comes to community building.

Connections between people need to be cultivated.  As in physics, the two body problem is easy.  We can imagine how we would feel if someone did something to us, thus we try to do unto others as we would have them do unto us – a simple rule, but present in just about every major religion.  It gets more complicated when you move to three or more people and individuals frequently fall down when dealing with people who are very different or over whom they have authority.  We forget that the primary interaction leads to other interactions in an expanding wave.  If I’m mean to a subordinate, they may be mean to someone else.

Trying to be kind is not enough.  We must try to be kind while constantly being on the lookout for what attempts at kindness effectively help.  Giving away candy is generally kind; giving it to diabetic children may not be.

Similarly, trying to be clear is not enough.  We must try to be clear and pay attention to what people are hearing and how it affects there attitude and behavior.  Communications difficulties provide one of the greatest arguments against dogma (doctrine which cannot be questioned), infallibility (people who’s words cannot be questioned), and inerrancy (scripture that cannot be questioned).  Humans clarify through questions, not just meaning, but intent.

As a biologist I know that physics (specifically entropy [see previous post] and the second law of thermodynamics) works against organisms.  We need to constantly insert energy into a system to stop it from running down.  This is equally true of communities and relationships.  Only by the constant exchange of love and ideas and the lines of communication be kept open.  Disorder is easier and more common than order, meaning that (all else being equal) the majority of unintended consequences will be bad.  Maintaining communities will be an uphill battle.

You can see this in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Both sides claim that their own antagonism is a consequence of the other side’s provocation.  All the old animosity gets recycled and new anger outweighs new love.

The good news is that God miraculously – and it really is miraculous – short circuits the downward spiral.  When Christians say “whenever two or more are gathered together, Christ is in the midst of them,” we don’t just mean that there’s some ethereal ghost hanging out at the party.  We mean that we are bound together in a Christ in a way that transforms relationships and stabilizes communities.  It’s a very real forgiveness of debt (not sin, just debt), an overcoming of deficiency.

And no, I don’t think this only works for “Christians,” but I do think it only works through love of one another and only Christians recognize that this love has a name and a personality and a power such that it can create, bear, and overcome all things.

This is not – ever – an excuse for Christians to ignore the consequences.  Even more than others, we must keep our eyes open so that we might love well, with foresight and humility.  It is an opportunity for Christians to overcome consequences, by forgiving and transforming them – just as God has shown us.

I suspect a word of caution may be needed.  God gives us the power to forgive, but that doesn’t make it easy.  It takes training and practice to receive negativity without being drawn into it.  It takes discipline to be calm in the face of anxiety, gentle in the face of violence, clear-sighted amidst confusion, prophetic amidst lies, loving amidst apathy and faith.  God gives us the power, but we must will to use it – often before the opportunity arises…

So I ask you to think about consequences.

It would be wrong to think they don’t exist, just because we don’t want them to.  It would be wrong to think that only willful evil causes suffering.

It would also be wrong to think we are forever trapped in the consequences of the past.  Free will and God’s grace allow us to become more than the end result of past decisions.  We are our own people with the strength and will to transform the past.


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