When you drop your toast on the floor, does it always fall jammy side down? When you go to the store or the bank, or when you drive into the city, are you always in the line that takes far longer to get there than the others do? Do you ever ponder how this happens? Fret no longer, dear reader: there may be an answer to the problem.
Such events are sometimes ascribed to what’s called, in the United States “Murphy’s Law” and “Sod’s Law” in the U.K. This principle surely has numerous synonyms around the world, because it’s common to mankind. Among related ideas and philosophies are determinism-secular and “religious”-destiny, fate, predestination, providence, fortune, bad luck, the will of the gods, stoicism, karma and preordination.
MIND OVER MATTER?
On top of these there’s a new philosophy going around inspired by quantum theory. In the world of atomic and sub-atomic particles, things don’t behave as we would naturally expect them to. They almost seem to have a mind of their own, and weirdly, actually behave differently when humans observe them than when they are not observed. The most naturalistic scientists will tell you that this phenomenon is purely scientific, and just needs to be researched before we discover the reasons quantum particles behave as they do. But others who are more mystical are convinced there’s a side to this that suggests we can control and shape our own reality with our minds. It’s a brand new opportunity to imagine that we can play God. Good luck with that!
Murphy’s Law is an experience of living irony. It’s in play when the worst and most unlikely thing that could happen in any given situation does actually happen. It’s a kind of living irony which sometimes seems to have a personal vendetta. Some of us are convinced that there’s a malevolent, impish force at work in the universe. Here are a few more 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;
-You decide to drive past the gas station because you’re sure you can make it to the next one without running out, but when you get to the next one it’s closed for the first time in twenty-two years, and the next one is thirty miles away;
-You get an important phone call which could lead to a huge business opportunity, but when you answer, the other person can’t hear you;
-The week on which your lottery numbers win the day is the same week you forget to buy a ticket.
One possible illustration of the principle which may apply to me is that within a year of this article being published, some Christian celebrity or budding author will be interviewed on radio or TV to promote his or her “new and remarkably insightful” book on Murphy’s Law and the Bible, containing all the ideas discussed herein. But perhaps that’s not Sod’s Law: perhaps its just plagiarism.
THE PARADOX OF THE FALLING TOAST AND JAM
I’ve observed the falling toast phenomenon with amazement for most of my life, until one day on the ‘net I stumbled upon “Jennings Corollary”. Jennings, plainly a 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.
THE SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENT
There’s no doubt in my mind, after extensive and elaborate scientific experiments under lab conditions (joke) 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 used the carpet I would have had some serious explaining to do to my wife.
After dropping a slice of toast and jam from a ceramic plate from 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. Evidence that the laws of nature only are at work, you may say.
I’M A BELIEVER
But here lies one of the problems with Murphy’s Law: it is mysteriously negated by laboratory conditions! Under normal circumstances the toast will fall jam side down every time for some of us! And there is another issue to be considered: the phenomenon doesn’t afffect everyone to an equal extent. But the significant fact here is that the flow of events acted upon by Murphy’s Law in everyday situations for many of us in daily life, will be totally absent when observed with an eye to gaining scientific evidence of our Law’s existence and behavior.
HOPE FOR THE TROUBLED
Paradoxically, herein lies hope for all of us who regularly feel the heavy hand of Murphy’s Law. Since scientific observation neutralizes the possibility of the Law coming into play, we need only to make the effort to observe and record those seemingly impossible coincidences…and they’ll vanish! They won’t occur any more often than they would if the strictest atheist or skeptic conducted God-detection experiments for National Geographic! Abracadabra– we’re liberated from the power 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 different possible causes for the Law 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 or a traffic camera. Plenty of people drive the wrong way and get away with it, but for the few that get spotted, 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 mistake or failure. The law of averages ensures that some people get caught sooner or later.
A second common cause could be simple carelessness. We dropped the toast because we were in too much hurry, and gravity did the rest. The carpet is stained because we were sloppy.
Another is faulty perception. If we leave home late to get to work, the traffic lights will seem to be against us, even though they are not.
A fourth possibility which some of us are at least occasionally tempted to consider is that invisible furry gremlins who hate us 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 check-out line and making the register or computer freeze, and conveying the jammy side of the toast to its least desirable resting place.
COINCIDENCE AND FREE-WILL
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”. Most people who pride themselves on being logical will believe that coincedence is always entirely natural.
Some believe there’s 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) but it seems like an illegitimate extrapolation to then assume that every event in the physical universe is planned and caused by God: I don’t believe it is. God knows what will happen, but doesn’t plan it all. If it were true that God plans all events we really don’t have free will or minds of our own. In this case God should not have put that tree in the garden with Adam and Eve, because He was being deceptive by so doing, since they had no choice at all. Two cars will collide with terrible results because God just decided, millions of years ago, that they should. This doesn’t make sense, Biblically, to me. I think we have real decisions to make, and I think there are real consequences.
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-and not necessarily benevolent ones. 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. I will briefly mention a few of those events.
-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 destroy the city. 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.
-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).
-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).
-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).
LESSONS FOR US
Of these Biblical examples of Murphy’s Law and many others you can find, none speak of natural coincidence. So what’s the lesson for us?
First, we all need to be very careful to avoid reading things into events and circumstances in our lives. We aren’t all Jobs or Jonahs or Sauls or Pauls. Life consists largely of our own free-will decisions, along with those of others, and coincidence. Unfortunate events may most often be due to our own faulty decisions or actions or those of other people, or natural laws such as gravity.
A SPIRITUAL COMPONENT
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 (I stress “rare”) occasions, what we might perceive to be Murphy’s Law is actually something being administered by God or angels . Some of these angels may be the bad ones. However, they’re all under the ultimate control of the Almighty. We are perhaps being tested to find or expose the condition of our hearts (see my article on suffering and testing).
Secondly, consider that the world is under a curse. We all live in a fallen world. My personal conviction is that if there is a spiritual element to an unfortunate event, it’s because God sometimes employs even fallen beings to administer the Curse. See my series titled “Why We Suffer”.
In any situation, the answer to the problem is to praise our Creator and to thank Him:
“…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Murphy’s Law can be very frustrating: are we going to humble ourselves as Paul, with his “thorn in the flesh” did, or are we going rise up in pride and anger as Saul did when he was envious of David? At worst, 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, although God does not ordain every event, He is in ultimate control of it all. Nothing happens without His knowledge or permission.
Thank you for reading!
This article was originally published in 2012. Copyright © March 2012 by Nick Fisher. This edition, March 26th 2023.
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