God began our race (that is, the human race) by telling Adam and Eve, “Fill the earth and subdue it.” In other words, “Discover all that the universe holds – live an adventure!” Learning about consequences would be part of that discovery and adventure.
Entering a Game Already in Progress
You and I didn’t come into the world like Adam and Eve. They started life full-grown; we came in so small no one saw us at first. They had God Himself clearly spell out the rules of the game; we came in barely conscious, totally dependent on earthly parents to teach us whatever we needed to know. Adam and Eve began life in a pristine world; we came into a world filled with repercussions from previous human actions.
We can, however, identify with the general experience of Adam and Eve: authority figure, temptation to disobey, onset of trouble once disobedience occurs. The difference is that we’ve encountered this situation ten million times by the time we’re 21. And every year after that we encounter it ten million more. The first couple’s temptation and subsequent fall from grace is an experience we repeat more often than we care to remember.
Life begins simply enough. There’s mom and dad, all the authority we need. They mark the horizons of our existence. We don’t yet know that there will be consequences to all our behavior. All we know is that we’re hungry, or uncomfortable, or satisfied, or happy. The ideas of good and evil develop within us slowly. We learn that we’re doing good when our parents smile at us, and that their frown means we’ve done wrong. In the beginning, these are all the consequences of our behavior we care about.
Learning as We Go
As we grow up, we learn more about authority and why it exists. Anarchy is chaos; authority brings order and peace. This lesson holds not just for home, but for everywhere else, too. Therefore, when we go to school, it’s “obey the teacher.” If we honor the teacher, we do well in school. We ourselves receive honor as a result. When we join sports teams, it’s “listen to the coach.” Once again, if we honor the coach, we have a good experience and become better athletes. When we learn how to drive, it’s “follow the instructions.” Disobey the instructions and you pay fines and, if you disobey often enough, you end up losing your license. Perceiving and heeding the authority that’s in every sphere of life brings us consequences that are good. To ignore and defy that authority brings us consequences that are troublesome.
What complicates these lessons is that the figures in authority often have as much problem obeying rules as the rest of us. Mom and dad aren’t perfect. The teacher has other concerns besides the class. The coach cares more about winning than about shaping young minds. Flawed authority figures complicate our learning about behavior and consequences. Some authority figures are so abusive that they tempt everyone under them to give up hope in a just universe. Many of us, however, are able to resist such temptation and attribute such abuse of authority, not to God, but to the nature of human freedom – a freedom that can prove a curse as well as a blessing.
Throughout our childhood, we are constantly learning about the consequences of our actions. We gradually make more of our own choices, realizing in the process that choices and decisions have consequences, too. We come to know that not all consequences are incurred immediately. As seeds take time to sprout, so actions produce fruit over time. “However you want to be treated, so treat others,” is an instruction that transcends cultures and religions. Intuitively, we all know – and consequences so often reinforce it – that what goes around, comes around. So we’d better be sending out all the good we can. Basically, that means acting like we wish everyone else would.
The graduation from childhood to adulthood is not a release from authority. Rather it’s a gradual transition from simple authority to complex authority. For a child, parents are an umbrella of protection. As long as you obey mom and dad, you don’t usually have to worry about anyone else. But come adulthood, it’s a different matter.
The government wants to make sure you’re paying all your taxes. And there’s a national government, the local government, and governments in between who have this concern. Your employer has a sphere of authority which includes you. Any clubs you belong to have authorities who run things. If you go to the grocery store, the manager is in charge; you can’t go to aisle number three unless it’s open. The police officer wants you to remember the traffic laws on the way home. These are but a few of the many faces of authority for the adult.
Childhood therefore is by no means the end of our learning about the consequences of our actions. Adulthood is the continuation of lifelong learning about good and evil. Considered by itself, any issue is black and white. The problem is that you can hardly consider any issue by itself. Everything affects something else – it’s all that rippling of consequences through the fabric of creation.
We don’t always draw the right conclusions from the consequences we encounter. Sometimes we become embittered by experiences and learn the wrong moral lesson. A friend once insisted that I borrow his expensive camera for a special trip I was taking. I didn’t want the responsibility , but he kept insisting that nothing would go wrong. While on the trip, I dropped the camera. Of course, I paid a big repair bill before returning it to him. I drew the conclusion that borrowing anything always leads to disaster and should be avoided. The negative consequences of borrowing the camera led me to a wrong and unrealistic conclusion. Over the years, I had to modify my extreme position.
Drawing the right conclusions from our experiences in life takes quality thought. We often revise our conclusions over time. This is the nature of our existence. We can continue learning right up until the time we go to heaven. And we don’t have to rely solely on our own experiences either.
Learning from Others
In a world where consequences are flying at you fast and furious, it’s good to know that there are other sources of teaching besides your own upbringing and your own adult experiences. For one thing, you may have missed out on proper parental input. You must have had two parents to start with or else you couldn’t have gotten here in the first place. But maybe you lost one or even both of them somewhere along the way. Or maybe you had a parent who was worse than no parent at all. It is possible to mature without loving parents, but such cases are a tribute to the grace of God and the resilience of the human spirit. The Bible speaks often of God’s concern for “orphans.” If you have been “orphaned” by parental rejection – to any degree – know that one consequence of this rejection is God’s greater compassion for you. And you honor Him greatly by rising above the rejection.
One of the many sources of information about behavior and consequences is the Bible. This revered text of antiquity holds timeless truths that each generation can discover anew. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, it was written by the prophets and apostles of ancient Israel and is the word of God. While not the word of God, other books also contain wisdom, describing for us principles – causes and effects – that are constantly at work in life.
Statistics are yet another source of information that can help us in linking cause and effect. If we don’t intuitively know that using cocaine is unhealthy, statistics will enlighten us. Statistics simply reflect reality. Therefore, when statistics and the Bible, for example, point the same direction, we have more reason than ever to listen. The Bible says we should be responsible, but that we shouldn’t worry or be anxious. Statistics support the idea. People who maintain a less stressful thought life tend to live longer, bounce back from illness quicker, and generally enjoy healthier lives.
Since our Creator has established both the physical laws of creation as well as the moral laws, it only makes sense that these laws can be correlated. However, the difficulty in correlating them discourages some people from even trying. They let the exceptions they find disallow the possibility that there’s any rule at all. For example, Jesus wasn’t a worrier and He died at only 33. Someone might draw the conclusion that righteous living doesn’t lead to a long life after all. The Bible, however, takes the more reasonable stance that other principles were at work in the life of Jesus that led to its relatively short duration. The Bible explains enough of the life of Jesus that we know why He died young. Even when we don’t have sufficient explanation, however, we can accept the morality built into God’s universe even when its workings seem deficient in our eyes.