The law of unintended consequences

Book II Chapter IV Section 1-8

The law of unintended consequences states that any purposeful action will produce some unintended consequences.  It means that however much we try and control the effects of our actions some things will happen that we did not intend. The truth of this law seems pretty self-evident and thinking about this law can provide some insights into Calvin’s arguments in this short chapter. In it he returns to the question of God’s control over both evil and indifferent events and how He manages to overule everything to His own ends. If He is overuling such events then how much responsibility can be attributed to man and how much to the devil?

Calvin begins to answer this question by using Augustine’s analogy of comparing the human will to a horse where God and the Devil are the riders. When once the control of the will is given to the Devil “like an ignorant and rash rider, he hurries it over broken ground, drives it into ditches, dashes it over precipices, spurs it into obstinacy or fury”. By contrast when the reigns of life are given to God “like a temperate and skilful rider, guides it calmly, urges it when too slow, reins it in when too fast…and keeps it on the proper course”.

Calvin next attempts to explain how we can attribute the same work to God, to Satan and to man without either excusing Satan or making God the author of evil. This issue was also addressed in Chapter 18 of Book I. Calvin argues that we can understand how these various factors interconnect if we look “first to the end (or purpose), and then the mode of acting” (italics mine). Using the example of the Chaldeans attack on Job’s camels in Job 1.17, we can see the three different purposes in the same act:

  1. God’s purpose is to exercise the patience of His servant through adversity
  2. Satan’s purpose is to drive Job to despair
  3. The Chaldeans purpose is to make unlawful gain by plunder

Calvin argues that “such diversity of purpose makes a wide distinction in the act”. We can also note the diversity of the mode of action:

  1. God allows Satan to afflict his servant, he hands over the Chaldeans to the impulses of Satan
  2. Satan willingly incites the Chaldeans to commit the crime
  3. The Chaldeans willingly rush to fulfil their desires

Thus, we can see how the same act can be attributed to God, Satan and man “while, from the difference in the end and mode of action, the spotless righteousness of God shines forth at the same time that the iniquity of Satan and of man is manifested in all its deformity”.

Response

This one illustration powerfully demonstrates the boundaries of the law of unintended consequences. All created creatures, whether spiritual or human beings are bounded by this law. Neither angels, or devils or people can control all the outcomes of one simple act. However, God is not bound by this law, He sustains and controls all things for His own purposes. He works within His own law of intended consequences.

Often we cannot understand what He is doing and why, and sometimes it is impossible for us to see any good to come out of an act. But we can rest in this truth that our God is able to overule the most impossible situations to bring His purposes to fulfilment. One day we will more fully understand how God has caused all things to work for the good of those that love Him. But for now we walk by faith, trusting our loving Father.

“It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God”. Genesis 45.5+8

Father, we pray you would enable us to fully trust that you are in control of all things, overuling them for our benefit. Even in the darkest night we hold onto Your hand and look to You to lead us. We believe and know You are working for our good, help us to find our peace in acceptance of this truth, for Your sake, Amen.

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