In the 19th century, the British government ruling Colonial India had a problem. A public health crisis had emerged in the capitol city, Delhi; an infestation of cobras. The venomous snakes were so numerous and ordinary Indian citizens were having such regular encounters with the deadly reptiles that the government decided they needed to act quickly to solve the problem. So, they instituted a bounty. For every dead cobra a citizen turned in, they would receive a monetary reward. And the bounty worked. After the first few years, the population of cobras and the number of deadly incidents in the city plummeted dramatically.
But then, a few years later, something strange happened. The bounty remained in place and people continued bringing dead cobras to receive the bounty, but the population of cobras began to rise dramatically and the number of deadly incidents skyrocketed to rates that exceeded the number before the bounty was even instituted!
What happened? People began breeding cobras to cash in on the bounty. The bounty that was intended to reduce the number of deadly snakes ended up creating an environment conducive to see the population increase artificially.
This story is a perfect illustration of a phenomenon Harvard sociologist Robert Merton calls, “the law of unintended consequences”. Merton posits essentially that the outcome of our actions have unintended consequences that are beyond our ability to control or predict. And these outcomes fall into three categories: unexpected benefits, unexpected drawbacks, and perverse results. The cobra effect would fall into the category of perverse results. But Merton’s larger point is instructive; there is a limit to our ability to control outcomes in our lives.
True hope is not found in our ability to control outcomes tomorrow, true hope is found in the recognition of and surrender in love to the one who is in control.
Nothing has done more to illustrate the truth of Merton’s idea than the year 2020 itself. COVID-19 and our collective response to it has shaken nearly every part of our life and daily routine. The economy, our healthcare system, our education systems, our mental health, our physical health, our practice of religious faith, our work life and even the manner in which we relate to our friends and family have felt the effects of the unintended consequences of our response to the virus.
This is why Merton’s ideas can actually produce a little despair if you really consider them closely. Because the implication is that human beings are not smart enough to predict the future. We cannot fully grasp the consequences of our own individual actions, let alone our collective actions. It is truly impossible to predict what tomorrow will hold.
But the good news for those of us that follow Jesus is that while predicting what tomorrow will hold might be impossible, we don’t have to be filled with fear, stress, or anxiety because we know who holds tomorrow. The writer of Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever”. That means that his nature never changes. It’s not dependent on the quality of my circumstances. On good days and bad days, he remains the same. In unexpected benefits, unexpected drawbacks, and perverse results, Jesus remains the same. He has the same love, the same power, the same grace, the same sovereignty, and the same mercies that are new every single morning.
Jesus is the same. And because Jesus is the same, we can trust him to be the God of the unintended consequences. Because if Jesus is the same, then it is impossible to surprise him. He’s prepared for all the outcomes and he has something good in every single one.
That is why the Apostle Paul could write in the book of Romans, “All things work together for good, to those who love God and are called according to his purposes”. All things, every unintended consequence is working together for good under the sovereign power of the God of unintended consequences. True hope is not found in our ability to control outcomes tomorrow, true hope is found in the recognition of and surrender in love to the one who is in control. Whose nature never changes. Who has never been surprised. And who is working for the good. In all things.