The world is filled with consequences, big and small. Everything we see is a consequence of something else. Every effect has a cause or causes. Every action has results – both short-term and long-term. Today I have an ugly purple bruise about two inches above my left knee. “Why?” I ask myself. Then I remember that a few days ago I was loading a ramp into the back of a truck, using the weight of my thigh to help push the ramp forward. the ramp caught on something and instantly ceased yielding to the pressure of my thigh. It hurt. And in case I hadn’t learned from the pain not to use my thigh to load heavy metal ramps, here was a flashing purple sign giving the same message.
Everything happens for a reason. Good things happen for a reason; bad things happen for a reason. We don’t always know the reasons, but that doesn’t mean the reasons don’t exist. Part of the challenge in living is find out the reasons behind events. If the police find a crime scene, they immediately set about looking for a criminal. They don’t throw up their hands as if they were living in a random universe where such things happen for no reason. All mysteries – whether of crime, of science, of human nature, or of anything else – beg, to one degree or another, to be solved. It’s one more indication that the universe is not random, but ordered.
A Creation of Consequence
This very creation was God’s ordered and thoughtful response to evil instigated by angels in heaven. God did not show evil in return – it’s not in His nature. Instead, He created humanity to re-order the chaos that evil angels had brought to the heavenly realm. The heaven that we go to when we die is not the same heaven that existed in the beginning (for a thorough explanation of this see the online book The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven). As a result of the work of Jesus Christ, evil angels were cast down out of heaven, even as they had been casting down humanity at death prior to that time. The evil that these angels did was brought back on them. This is a principle of God’s justice: He lets the evil of the evildoer come back to the evildoer.
Humans, who had been thrown down to an underworld of the dead for centuries, were lifted up by God to heaven. And since that great lifting, each of us is now lifted directly to heaven when we “fall” at death. This is another principle of God’s governance: God lifts up those who are cast down and oppressed. God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery in the Exodus was guided by these two principles of lifting up the oppressed and giving the oppressor a dose of his own medicine. Pharaoh may have been puzzled by the plagues against his nation and the shifting of the Red Sea, but more thoughtful people saw these things as a consequence of his nation’s behavior in subjugating foreigners.
Thus consequences, both positive and negative, surround us. Divine, angelic, and human behavior all have consequences. Actions taken in heaven ripple to points as far away as earth. Likewise, actions taken on earth ripple to points as far away as heaven. The promise of heaven provides a backdrop to all consequences. In other words, whatever happens is going to happen on earth before we die, or in heaven afterward. You have nowhere to go when you die but heaven. Nothing you do can alter the fabric of creation. Yet that entire fabric reverberates with actions and reactions. All these reverberations are governed by principles such as evil returning to the evildoer and God lifting up the fallen. This gives everything order and meaning, but that order and meaning can be difficult to sort out.
For example, when you throw a pebble into the pond, you can trace the ripples from the point of impact all the way to the farthest edges of the pond. But if your every action is a pebble then you have lots of pebbles going in at different points and producing lots of ripples. Then add in God, the angels, and everyone else who is throwing pebbles and you’ve got a pond that’s swishing, splashing, and swirling in every direction. Principles are still governing, but it becomes harder to distinguish your own ripples from everything else that’s going on.
Sorting Out the Ripples
Real life is seldom as tidy as our discussions of it, but only by analyzing life’s parts can we grow in our understanding of the whole. Therefore, we have to compartmentalize certain situations to find principles. Someone will always be able to come up with an exception to our principle (which usually involves intersection with another principle), but we can’t let that stop us from learning and valuing that principle.
For example, take baseball. When swinging a bat, one should aim to hit the ball squarely. Yet I can remember hitting a ball squarely one time and my line drive landed squarely in a fielder’s glove. I was out. I can recall another instance when I inadvertently hit the ball weakly, and the fielder made an error trying to scoop it up. I was on base safely. I chose to interpret these two events as exceptions to the rule that hitting the ball squarely was a good thing. I could have chosen instead to view baseball as a game of randomness in which one never knows what will happen next, but then I would never have improved as a player.
There is a certain amount of randomness in baseball, but it’s not due to randomness. It’s due to the interaction of many principles and many players. We learn to play it better when we allow for exceptions, but play according to the law of averages. Likewise, the element of unpredictability we find in life can be attributed to the interplay of God’s principles and God’s people. What appears to be happening for no reason at all is simply complexity that is currently beyond our ability to understand or explain. We learn to play the game of life better when we follow the principles God teaches us – expecting good outcomes while always allowing for unexplainable exceptions.
To learn more about consequences, we must isolate certain situations for discussion, but we must also remember that life means ripples that can never be completely isolated from one another.
Looking for Moral Causes in a Scientific Age
Not only are the ripples difficult to sort out, but the nature of the age in which we live blurs our vision so that we have trouble seeing those ripples. Let me give some examples of how we make it hard for ourselves to trace the moral principles that are governing life.
Consider your own spirit and body as a miniature version of the universe. Your moral behavior comes from within, but it has its effects on your body without. You can recognize this cause and effect, which has both moral and physical dimensions. Gluttony, for example, has both moral and physical aspects. Gluttony (which is greed when it comes to eating) takes its toll on the physical body. The obesity it leads to increases chances for heart attack, stroke, and other physical problems. The moral law to be recognized is not that all obesity is the result of gluttony, but that gluttony leads to negative physical consequences.
The causes of obesity can be described in physical terms such as “too much caloric intake combined with too little exercise.” The fact that it can be described this way tends to obscure that the obesity might have a moral cause. Also, many obese people have been made to feel guilty for their condition when it was not their fault. The fact that such false and heartless judgments have been made also tends to obscure those cases where gluttony genuinely was at the root. Our high-tech ability to track physical phenomena coupled with our fear of inducing false guilt conspire to blind us to a moral principle at work, at least in some lives.
Let’s now move from the microcosm of our bodies to the macrocosm of the world itself. Consider the flood in Noah’s day. Had our scientific equipment been available at that time, we could be reading detailed explanation of all the physical phenomena associated with the flood. But we might have missed the larger moral issue: the people of that day were exceedingly corrupt and violent. We can certainly see some corruption and violence today. Maybe there is a connection with some of the climatic catastrophes we are also seeing. The fact that we can explain things scientifically shouldn’t at all exclude the possibility that we might be able to explain them morally as well, but it often does.
Unfortunately, many moral explanations that are offered today insult thinking people. Such explanations are simplistic and invite rejection. We can’t be expected to believe, for example, that a hurricane in Miami means that all the people in the city are evil, or that only the people injured in the hurricane are evil. But a more morally sophisticated approach might allow for the possibility that the behavior of some people in the city had something to do with the hurricane. Or it might allow at least that some hurricanes are provoked by our behavior. Accepting moral understanding gradually and cautiously makes far more sense than demanding all-or-nothing explanations.
Thinking in moral terms provides no quick and easy answers, but neither does thinking entirely in physical terms. If we can exert the same patience in tracking moral cause and effect, we can achieve more moral understanding of how this creation operates. To get a better handle on viewing the creation – both earth and heaven – morally, let’s think through how each of us individually learns about consequences. For if we think through more of our own experiences, we’ll see justice and morality showing up more and more.