Unintended Consequences
Tony Cooke

The following teaching is part of a lesson I did at leadership roundtables with Gerald Brooks this year. He and I have done these meetings for several years. In 2018 we conducted these one-day events in Texas, Washington, Florida, New Mexico, Georgia, northern and southern California, Canada (Toronto) and Massachusetts. We’ll do another circuit in 2019 also.

People love predictability. I like knowing that when I do certain things, I will get certain results. Isaac Newton communicated this regarding the laws of motion when he stated, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In other words, if I take a rubber ball and throw it down hard, it will rebound or bounce back at a similar velocity. Spiritually speaking, the Bible refers to the laws of sowing and reaping: “Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.”

Unfortunately, especially in the short term, the laws of human interaction are not as predictable as the laws of physics. Variables, such as the will of other people and circumstances, come into play, and we don’t always find our dealings with people as predictable as we would like. Consider these passages written by David and Paul, indicating that results are not always consistent with what is sown:

Psalm 109:4-5 (NLT)
I love them, but they try to destroy me with accusations even as I am praying for them! They repay evil for good, and hatred for my love.

2 Corinthians 12:15 (NLT)
I will gladly spend myself and all I have for you, even though it seems that the more I love you, the less you love me.

In both cases, David and Paul had sown good things toward people, but in the immediate aftermath, they received hostility or indifference in response to their kindness. This is not to say that they did not ultimately reap wonderful benefits from their good actions, but initially, they received the opposite.

God is predictable—He is consistent. James said of God, “He never changes or casts a shifting shadow” (Jas 1:17, NLT). God’s faithfulness and consistency bring great hope to the believer, and they are the basis for strong faith. One of the most loved and quoted Scriptures in the Bible is “with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26, NKJV). While it is great to have positive, faith-filled attitude, it is important to understand that Jesus did not merely say, “all things are possible.” He said, “with God all things are possible.” That’s an important qualification.

In contrast to the predictability of Matthew 19:26, some have noticed the seeming unpredictability conveyed in Romans 12:18. In this passage, Paul writes, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” Some might read these two passages and claim that there is a contradiction in the Bible. They might declare, “Jesus said that all things are possible, but Paul contradicts him. Paul says, ‘If it is possible…’” No, there is no contradiction between Jesus and Paul. They were talking about two different things. Jesus was talking about our relationship with God, and Paul was talking about our relationship with people.

Because of this unpredictability factor with people, we can sometimes get caught by surprise when something involving a relationship or communication doesn’t go as expected. To borrow a baseball phrase, sometimes we have to deal with a bad bounce, or be prepared to hit a curve ball. For example, when I was first in ministry in the early 1980s, a gentleman posed the following: “A friend and I were having a discussion about what happens when a Christian commits suicide—do you think a person can go to heaven in such cases?”

Assuming this was a straightforward question, I shared a few thoughts, stressing the compassion of God. I referred to the fact that a person who commits suicide may be dealing with a mental illness or be under so much pressure that they are not in their right mind; they might do things they would not ordinarily do. I shared my opinion that I felt God would be merciful in such cases.

It was too late when I realized that what had been posed to me was not a benign question. Rather, this gentleman had been seriously contemplating suicide, and he took his life shortly after our conversation. This was a painful lesson in realizing the reality and significance of unintended consequences. Here are some things we need to understand about unintended consequences.

1. Unintended Consequences are Inevitable

People will misunderstand you (innocently) and sometimes will misrepresent you (maliciously). We live in an imperfect world, and people sometimes have blind spots, filters, or assumptions both in the giving and in the receiving of communication. Moses experienced this when he came to the defense of a fellow Israelite, a slave who was being mistreated.

You may remember that Moses defended the Israelite and killed the Egyptian who was abusing him. The Bible says, “Moses assumed his fellow Israelites would realize that God had sent him to rescue them, but they didn’t (Acts 7:25, NLT). How often have we gotten into trouble because we said or did something, assuming that others would understand and even appreciate our efforts, but they did not?

Paul was also misunderstood, but not always innocently. He writes in Romans 3:8 (NLT), “And some people even slander us by claiming that we say, ‘The more we sin, the better it is!’ Those who say such things deserve to be condemned.” Certain individuals were twisting Paul’s teaching on grace, and were grossly misrepresenting what Paul was genuinely communicating. This distortion by others was an unintended consequence of Paul’s teaching about God’s grace.

An unintended consequence even resulted from something Jesus said. In a post-resurrection conversation, Peter asked Jesus a question about John’s future. It really was none of Peter’s business, and Jesus’ response elicited a decades-long misunderstanding.

 John 21:22-23 (NLT)
Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” So the rumor spread among the community of believers that this disciple wouldn’t die. But that isn’t what Jesus said at all. He only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

No matter how much an individual wants to communicate truth, it is important to understand that if there were misunderstandings and unintended consequences from things Moses, Paul, and Jesus said, it is unlikely that you will go through life without being misunderstood also.

2. Good Intentions are Not Enough

Stephen Covey wisely said, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.” A pastor friend of mine addressed a staff member about performance that had been lagging, about quality that had been deficient in that individual’s work. Instead of acknowledging that work had been below par and making the necessary adjustments, the staff member deflected the point by saying, “But pastor, you know my heart.”

Good intentions cannot be used as a cop-out for poor work. Can you imagine taking your car to be fixed, and when the mechanic is done, the problem is not only still there, but has gotten worse. If you speak to the mechanic about it, you would not want him to say, “But I had good intentions,” you would want him to fix the car! Warren Bennis speaks of the need to “translate intention into reality and sustain it.” Good intentions are not enough.

3. Learn From the Experiences of Others

Experientially, there are two ways to learn from mistakes. You can (a) learn from your own mistakes, or (b) learn from the mistakes of others. While we have all made mistakes in life, I have found it less painful to learn as much as I can from the mistakes of others. I don’t delight in their misfortunes, but there is no need for both of us to make the same mistakes. I have made a point to listen to others’ stories and to learn from what went right and what went wrong.

In many cases, an individual has good intentions, but that “bad bounce” occurs. For example, a pastor wanted to help a young, struggling couple, so he loaned them some money. When they could not (or would not) pay him back, they quit coming to church. The pastor realized that his good intention and kind action resulted in their ultimate alienation from him and from church.

In another situation, a pastor engaged in some intensive marriage counseling with a church couple. In the heat of their conversations, some very sensitive information was communicated. Even though the couple ultimately got their marriage restored, they were very embarrassed that the pastor knew some of their deep, dark secrets. They felt very awkward and self-conscious whenever they saw him, and they quit coming to church as a result. The pastor later realized it might have been better, when he began to realize the intensity of the situation, if he had referred them to a professional Christian counselor.

4.  Create a Process to Minimize Unintended Consequences

This means you carefully consider not just the initial benefits, but also the long-term fallout—what could be “layers” or “generations” of consequences that result from certain decisions or actions. One pastor shared with me that they have a process they go through when they are making a change. Part of that process, he said, is to ask ourselves, “What might the unintended consequences be if we make this change?”

We are not expected to be omniscient, but we can think through and pray through decisions before making them. We can get wise counsel, and we can consider not just the short-term benefits, but also the longer-term ramifications of our decisions. Let’s at least aspire to not miss what should have been the easily predictable, unintended consequences of our decisions and actions.

Finally, let me encourage you not be paralyzed by the fear of unintended consequences so that you never act. Ecclesiastes 11:4 (NLT) states, “Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest.” Few decisions in life are 100% risk free. If you try to avoid every unintended consequence in life, you will never do anything. God bless you as you walk in wisdom and boldness in life.