The Law of Unintended Consequences

Oops. I hate it when that happens.

The Law of unintended consequences holds that almost all human actions have at least one unintended consequence. Unintended consequences are a common phenomenon, due to the complexity of the world and human over-confidence.” – Author Unknown

The Law of Unintended Consequences, as defined above, is not a divine mandate, but more in line with proverbial wisdom, and is typically applied in sociology or economics. Inflation is an unintended consequence of economic prosperity, for instance. We will save discussions about the economy for another day. I actually want to talk about theology. Specifically, I want to talk about anthropology – the doctrine of man, and a very common unintended consequence of our moral behavior.

The Bible is clear in Lev 19, 20, and 21 (several verses), which Peter quotes in 1 Peter 1:15 – 16, that we are to be holy because our God is holy. As Christians, we all know this, and we all desire it. It’s what God desires of us and for us. Unfortunately, regardless of our high opinion of ourselves, none of us is very good at it. That’s not an excuse. It’s simply the truth. If we look at God’s standard for holiness, sinless perfection, we all fall miserably short; not occasionally, but constantly. So what is a Christian to do?

What most devout Christians do, is set out on a spiritual self-improvement project. We think, “I gotta get holy. I had better pray more, read more, get into an accountability group, get internet filters on my computer, and commit myself to greater self-control.” To quote the great theologian, Dr. Phil (obvious sarcasm), “How’s that working for you?” Sure, all of those Christian disciplines should be part of a healthy growing disciple’s life, and some of those practical safeguards can be very helpful. But, in and of themselves, they will not make us holy. This is where the unintended consequences come in.

If we look to external sources to modify our behavior, even spiritual ones, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. As we “try our best” to perform, as we strive to do all the right things, and yet we still fall flat on our faces in our attempts be holy; at some point we lose heart. We give up. And finally, we rebel. The very thing that we thought would save us will eventually crush us (Rom 7:10). This is an inevitable and life-altering unintended consequence of trying to be holy through religious effort.

Now there are some that are so deeply steeped in legalism and moralism that are not crushed by their effects; actually, quite the opposite. They are puffed up by them. These are those that don’t realize they are falling flat on their faces. They have come to believe that either God grades on a curve and because they are better than most (in their mind), they are accepted by Him; or they believe that they are actually meeting God’s holy standard of perfection most of the time – and they need a little grace to close the gap when they slip up (misinterpretation of 1Jn 1:9). That means they they need to ask forgiveness for those minor shortcomings and get back to their holy high performance. That’s not Christian doctrine, that’s Mormonism.

When we have an honest appraisal of our performance, and realize how miserably short we fall of holy perfection, we are prone to despair. We think, “We are called to be holy, and we aren’t very holy at all. Self-help and intense religious effort has only left us disappointed and even, at times, in rebellion.” We know that it is not only impossible to be that holy, but even claiming to be is an insult to the Cross. “OK. So now what?”

I’m glad you asked. What we need is a righteousness that comes from outside of us. Our holiness is a gift from God not a result of even our most valiant spiritual efforts. The love and acceptance we enjoy, from our holy God, is based purely and eternally on the finished work of Christ alone – once and for all – yesterday, today, and forever (Titus 3:5).

When we learn to embrace this gracious truth, it leads to an unintended consequence of its own (a good one); we actually begin to live in a holy manner (not perfect, but God honoring). Our love for the One who loved us first actually motivates us to live the life He called us to: not because we have to, not because we need to, not because God won’t accept us if we fail, but because we can; because we want to! Our hearts swoon for the One who loves us unconditionally. The Holy Spirit, the Helper, then goes about His ministry to glorify Jesus; in the world and in us. As we then, set out to love God and live for His glory because we know that we are the objects of His perfect gracious love, an unintended consequence occurs – we actually start living holy lives.

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3 thoughts on “The Law of Unintended Consequences

  1. I thought I was beginning to trust in God’s grace, but I am finding that I really am not. I don’t believe that I am really ok because of what Jesus did. I still feel that it’s too good to be true and that there has to be SOMETHING I can bring… Something I can do. God says that the hard work of the Christian life is to believe in the one God sent. I believe, but help my unbelief!

    1. This is not an untraveled path for us recovering Pharisees or approval addicts. We can feel lost when we realize that our work doesn’t earn God’s favor. We are so used to living for that “pat on the head,” and the “atta boy.” So when they are exposed as idols, we realize that our master passion hasn’t been Jesus, but Hid approval, or the approval from anyone else who will give it. Need for approval and acceptance is absolutely an addition. When we don’t get, it causes withdrawals and even physical sickness.

      This is bondage and Jesus is the bondage breaker. Recognizing that we are living for Jesus’ approval is not the same as living for His glory, and resting in Jesus is not the same as being idle. We must return to the merciful act of our justification, and recognize what our Lord is really like. It is truly finished, when it comes to being justified by His grace, but it is just the beginning when it comes to the Christian life. We were created to bring Him glory, and life not lived toward that end, should feel less than complete.

  2. My family and work life, my life in total is miserable because I feel agonizingly distant from God. I try to rest in grace and believe that I am loved, forgiven and accepted because of what Jesus did on that cross. Eventually I give up and then start down the road to legalism again, looking for something I can do to feel saved, to feel that God is near, that he loves me. This repeats itself over Andover and over and over again. I really don’t know how to be a Christian. I can’t force myself to believe and I can’t force myself to rest. Is there any hope?

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