When you drop your toast on the floor, does it always fall jammy side down? When you go to the check-out, are you always in the line that takes far longer than the others? Well fret no longer, dear reader: there may be an answer to the problem!
Previously I’ve written about Biblical explanations for suffering. Related to that series is a subject which will immediately make some of you scoff and switch off, but will hit a nerve with others, as it does with me. It’s called “Murphy’s Law” in the U.S., “Sod’s Law” in the U.K., some call it (indirectly) “karma” and doubtless there are many other synonyms around the world. Perhaps one is “Bad Luck”.
Murphy’s Law is in play when the worst and most unlikely thing that could happen in any situation does actually happen. It’s an attack of spite from some unseen source. It’s a kind of living irony which seems to have a personal vendetta against you. I’ll give a few examples:
-It seems that all the traffic lights turn red as you approach them, but only when you’re short of time. When you have time to spare, they will be green;
-No matter which line you get into at the bank or the store, it always seems to be the wrong one, because the person at the front has an apparently unsolvable issue. If you change lines, the same thing happens in that one;
-The week on which your lottery numbers win the day is the same week that you forgot to buy a ticket;
-You drop your toast onto the floor, and it falls butter or jam side down onto the rug.
One possible personal illustration of the principle is that within a year of this article being published, some Christian celebrity will be interviewed on radio or TV to promote his or her “new and remarkably insightful” book on Murphy’s Law and the Bible. But perhaps that’s not Sod’s Law, perhaps its just plagiarism. The gloves are off in all sections of society these days.
THE PARADOX OF TOAST AND JAM
I first observed the falling toast phenomenon with amazement many years ago, and then one day on the ‘net I stumbled upon “Jennings Corollary”. This obviously brilliant man, and a man after my own heart, observed:
“The chances of the toast falling buttered side down are in direct proportion to the cost of the carpet”.
The scientifically minded among you will be quick to argue that the toast and jam problem is simply a case of gravity acting upon the jammy side of the toast which is heavier. There’s no doubt in my mind, after extensive and elaborate scientific experiments under lab conditions, that gravity does affect the outcome of the event by operating on the jammy side more often than the dry side. The value of the rug is not a variant here because I used a hard surface which was easy to clean. If I had used the carpet I would have had some serious explaining to do to my wife.
Out of 100 falls from a ceramic plate at the height of four feet (apologies to all you metrics fans) onto a level surface, I found that the toast landed jam side down sixty-three times and dry side down thirty-seven times. But here lies one of the problems with Murphy’s Law: it is mysteriously negated by laboratory conditions! Under normal every-day circumstances the toast will fall jam side down every time for some of us! However, the flow of events which occur in normal life will be totally absent when observed with an eye to gaining solid, recorded evidence of our Law’s existence. Get that camera working, and the toast will fall jam side up every time!
Paradoxically, herein lies hope for all of us who regularly feel the heavy hand of Murphy’s Law: we only need to make the effort to observe and record those seemingly impossible coincidences…and they will vanish! They will not occur any more often than they would if the strictest atheist or skeptic conducted experiments on Murphy’s Law for National Geographic. Abracadabra – we’re free of Murphy’s Law!
Now please don’t think I’m being frivolous here, because in my view our inability to study the Law in any scientific way actually serves to point us in the direction of an explanation for it! We have Murphy’s Law cornered!
There are a few possible causes for the Law to seem to be in operation. One is that we’ve made a bad choice and are reaping the consequences. If we go the wrong way down a one-way street there’s a chance of being caught by a police officer. Plenty of people drive the wrong way and get away with it, but for the few that get spotted by a police officer, there may be the temptation to believe that they’ve been singled out by some malevolent unseen power. In a case like this, what we believe to be bad luck is really the result of our own mistakes or failure. The law of averages ensures that some people get caught sooner or later.
One common cause could be simple carelessness: we dropped the toast because we were sloppy and in a hurry, and gravity did its work.
Another explanation is faulty perception. If we leave home late to get to work, the traffic lights will seem to be against us simply because we want them all to be green and they aren’t.
A possibility that some of us are at least occasionally tempted to consider is that little furry gremlins are always one step ahead of us, waiting to change those lights when they see us approaching, confusing the person at the front of the line and making the register or computer freeze, and conveying the jammy side of the toast to its least desirable resting place.
Still another is coincidence. There has to be true coincidence in a physical world, and when that coincidence occurs we’re sometimes amazed and start to imagine all kinds of paranormal explanations or “omens”. There are those who believe there is no such thing as coincidence. Even in the Christian world some teach this. It is true that Solomon said “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). However, it seems like an illegitimate extrapolation to then assume that every event in the physical universe is caused by God. If this is the case, we really don’t have free will or minds of our own, and two cars will collide with terrible results because God just thought they should. This doesn’t make sense, Biblically, to me. I think we have real decisions to make, I think that there are real consequences, and I think that there are genuine coincidences.
THE SPIRITUAL DIMENSION
Any one of these possible explanations plus others I haven’t mentioned can be applied depending on the situation, but one more important possibility to consider is that there is sometimes a spiritual dimension to events, and that some (not all) events and outcomes are arranged by forces beyond our control. In the Bible we can find several examples of that spiritual dimension causing apparently unlikely things to happen, as well as examples of events which we may normally ascribe to Murphy’s Law, but which in fact have a natural cause. Let’s look at some of those events and try to identify the cause of each one. This is a lengthy discussion, so you may want to skip to the last sub-title: “Lessons For Us”.
-The story of Jonah being swallowed by a large fish is quite well known, but we don’t often consider the plant, a vine, near the end of the story (Jonah 4:5). Jonah, the “reluctant prophet”, was suffering from the heat of the sun as he overlooked Ninevah, hoping that God was going to fry it (he was disappointed). So God caused a vine to grow suddenly, providing welcome shade. The very next day, a worm chewed on the vine to the point that the vine withered. Jonah was angry, and complained to the Lord. He may well have regarded this as “Murphy’s Law” in operation, had he known that term, because judging by his anger this was to him the worst and most unlikely turn of events. We are given the benefit of knowing that it was God who sent the worm to chew on the vine, in order to provide a life-lesson to Jonah. The Lord pointed out that all Jonah cared about was himself, and not the many thousands of people who lived in Nineveh.
-Ahab was a wicked King of Israel. After many years of his tyrannical reign with Jezebel, a prophet of the Lord warned Ahab that he was going to die in the upcoming battle against the Arameans (1 Kings 22). Although Ahab had rejected the warning of the prophet, on the day he decided to enter the battle in disguise, thinking that this would allow him to escape his fate. However, we are told that “someone drew his bow at random and hit the king of Israel between the sections of his armor” (verse 34). The message for us here is undoubtedly that God’s will, or his knowledge of the future, always gets fulfilled one way or another. But if we look at it from Ahab’s point of view as he lay bleeding to death in his chariot, or from the view of his charioteer, this may have just seemed like a case of terrible “luck” or Murphy’s Law.
-Saul was another King of Israel who failed to obey God. Consequently, the Lord sent an evil spirit to torment him (1 Samuel 16:14). What did this “tormenting” entail? It’s difficult to be clear on what this evil spirit did to him, but there are a few clues. It affected Saul’s mood (v 16 and 23), and it made him angry and violent (18: 10 and 19: 9-10). He became very jealous (18:6-9). I mustn’t assert this too strongly, but my feeling has always been that at this time nothing went “right” for Saul. I would say that his toast fell jam side down every morning, his wife gave him a roasting, and he was grumpy for the rest of the day. The traffic lights were red for him at every junction, his horse lost every race, and the lot was always against him.
-Jephthah was a mighty warrior and a commander of the Israelites against the Ammonites. He made a vow in the heat of the moment to the Lord that if the ensuing battle went his way, he would sacrifice the first thing or person that came out of his house to greet him upon his return home. The battle indeed went his way, but who should be the first to exit the house to greet him but his only daughter. Of course he was “devastated” as we might say now.
I will note three important things here. First, the Lord did not request or require the vow, it was Jephthah’s foolish idea from start to finish. Secondly, it’s wrong to make a vow to the Lord and not keep it, so it’s best to not make the vow at all (Matthew 5:34). Jephthah should have known that. Thirdly, when the stupidity of his vow became clear to him, he should have taken the rap himself instead of inflicting it on his virgin daughter.
That being said, imagine how he felt when, upon his return home his one precious daughter appeared from the house. If he thought it through at all, he had probably expected a servant (which would be bad enough), or a goat or a dog, or perhaps even his wife. Instead the light of his life was the “unlucky” one. Had he known of Murphy’s Law, might he not have put his misfortune down to that?
-A company of prophets with Elisha went to build a new crash pad for themselves. As they chopped at the trees, one man’s axe head fell off the handle and into some water. It seemed to the man that it was lost, and he was pretty upset because the axe head was borrowed. In those days it wasn’t easy to go down to the local Lowe’s hardware superstore and get another one. “Murphy’s Law”, some might say in such circumstances. Fortunately for the young prophet, Elisha was able to exercise God’s miracle working power to retrieve the axe head (2 Kings 6: 1-7). This seems to have been one of many opportunities for the Spirit of God to display his power among the prophets ofIsrael.
-In the New Testament, Jesus cast a legion of demons out of a man. As requested, they were given leave to enter a nearby herd of pigs, since they obviously wanted to be in a body of some kind rather than go to the Abyss. Once there, the pigs ran down a steep slope into some water and drowned (Luke 8:26-39).
This was a notable miracle which was the talk of the whole region in a very short space of time, but the thing I want to focus on is the view of the whole event from the perspective of the owners of the herd.. Since this region of the land was predominantly Gentile, we can’t make the assertion that Jesus was targeting Jews for owning swine, which would have been unlawful. But even if they were not Jews, we can imagine that they felt victimized. Why had their animals, of all that were in the area, been the ones who were killed by some unpredictable and undeserved event? Would not they have seen this as something akin to Murphy’s Law in action?
-Also in Luke’s gospel, Jesus speaks of a recent event in which a tower had collapsed, killing eighteen people. He wanted his audience to understand that the eighteen had not been singled out from the population to suffer a fatal accident because they were more guilty of sin than anyone else (Luke 13: 4-5). It seems that perhaps that’s what they were thinking. To many people, particularly those who were at all superstitious, the event would have seemed like a bad case of Murphy’s Law. “Why me?” we often hear people say when something bad happens to them. Perhaps we’ve all had that thought at some time in our lives.
-Paul, the great evangelist and apologist of the first century, was inflicted with an ongoing illness (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). The most common view is that he had an eye disorder. He called the infliction a “thorn in the flesh”, in other words, a constant irritant and handicap. He said that God had sent “a messenger of Satan” to torment him with the illness. He recognized that it was sent to keep him humble (verse 7). The disorder likely affected how people thought of him. Some people thought that he was “unimpressive, and his speaking amounts to nothing” (10:10). As an evangelist and a public speaker, people generally want to be as impressive as possible. How would you feel if, as a public speaker, you developed a visually unattractive and debilitating condition? Might you not see it as “Murphy’s Law” at work?
-Joseph, having escaped the desire of some of his brothers to murder him, landed a great job as the manager of a wealthy man’s house (Genesis 39). How must he have felt, when the lady of the house falsly accused him of attempted rape, causing him to be thrown into prison for at least two years? For many of us, this would be Murphy’s Law: the worst and most unfair turn of events possible.
-Solomon observed that it was unwise to speak or even think evil of dignitaries, because your words or thoughts czn mysteriously make their way to those very dignitaries (Ecclesiastes 10:20). We may consider it very bad luck if, having whispered or even thought bad things about someone, they discover what you have said. How could such a thing happen? It does: I’ve seen it happen in my own life.
– Job, a righteous man, was tested beyond measure when Satan decided that God had made things too easy for him, which was the only reason, he contended, that Job was a Godly man (see the book of Job, particularly chapters 1 and 2). God allowed Satan to inflict some terrible disasters on Job in order to reveal the real condition of his heart. Incredibly, Job resorted to praising God anyway (1: 20-22 and 2:9-10). However, he did believe that his suffering was arbitrarily imposed on him. He seemed to have no awareness of Satan, or of the contest for his soul and his reputation in heaven as outlined in the first two chapters. It was all a huge case of “Murphy’s Law”. The most unfair sequence of events had fallen on him, apparently without any good reason. At the end of Job’s story, we find God putting Job right on a few things. We don’t have the benefit of being audibly told our faults by the Lord. Perhaps he reveals them to us in other ways, or perhaps we make the mistake of deciding that a case of Murphy’s Law has befallen us, and never come to search for the reason why.LESSONS FOR US
Some of these examples simply demonstrate indiscretion. None of them speak of natural coincidence. Some of them speak of directed spiritual influence designed to fulfill the will of God. All of them could be construed as “bad luck” or “Murphy’s Law” by the apparent victim or an observer. So what is the lesson for us?
First of all, I don’t mean to be flippant when I suggest a direct observation and logging of unlikely events. Sometimes such efforts will either suspend the occurrence of said unlikely events, or enable us to see how stupid we’re being by thinking the physical universe is somehow in conscious, organized opposition to our contentment. But apart from that, there are important spiritual issues to consider
We all need to be very careful to avoid reading things into events and circumstances in our lives. They may most often be due to our own faulty decisions or actions or those of other people, or natural laws such as gravity or coincidence. At the same time, there may be times when God is trying to tell us something or teach us something through circumstances in our lives. On rare occasions what we might perceive to be the Law is being administered by God or angels – good or fallen, although they are under the ultimate control of the Almighty..We are perhaps being tested to find the condition of our hearts (see my article on suffering and testing).
Murphy’s Law can be very frustrating: are we going to humble ourselves as Paul did, or rise up in pride and anger as Saul did? We may find that the Lord is opposing us because of our attitudes and our course in life:
“The Lord works out everything for his own ends – even the wicked for the day of disaster” (Proverbs 16:4).
Whatever happens, we must at all costs avoid blaming “nature” or “luck” for evil or wrong-doing, because this is essentially accusing God of evil or wrong-doing, since God is in ultimate control of nature and luck. Instead, we must praise God in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Copyright © March 2012 by Nick Fisher