[ABOVE: Photo of a fractal riverbed. Fractals are naturally occurring, self-similar patterns that are very complex and incalculably detailed. While they may appear to be random and chaotic at their initial formation, they exhibit an array of beautiful complexity when fully developed.]
In the fourteenth chapter of the Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul makes a profound and universal statement concerning the causal nature of human life:
For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself.1
Our day-to-day lives are not confined to our own private little bubbles, but are open, relational, and socially kinetic. Every life is interwoven within the great web of humanity where each small vibration is felt as it pulsates through the social weave. Words and actions do not stop six inches from the agent causing them, but are forever released into the open world—to guide, influence, build up, or damn.
Analogously, there is a certain type of behavior which Newtonian physics describes very successfully: rolling balls, pendulums, springs, rocket trajectories, the orbits of planets, and the like. Such behavior is described by linear equations, which mathematicians can readily solve. But there is another type of behavior, in which the complexity is so great that Newtonian physics is at a loss to fully or meaningfully describe. These are things like: turbulence, the stock market, water flow, weather—these breech the boundaries of predictability. The non-linear behavior of such apparent randomness has historically perplexed mathematicians. That is, up until recently, with the advent of what is called Chaos Theory.
One of the greatest mysteries in the mathematical world has been the predictability of weather. Perfect meteorological prediction is, despite the consolations of your phone’s weather-widget’s prognostications, impossible. The reason being, that weather systems are sensitively dependent on initial conditions.
If one were to conduct an experiment where a rubber band is released with a certain tension, rubber thickness, and angle, and then a second time with almost the same variables, the results would be almost identical. However, if one were to alter one of the initial conditions of a weather system by the slightest degree, the results might shift from sunshine to thunderstorms. The initial conditions are amplified until they yield radically different outcomes.
We’re often tempted to place less significance on the smaller means of evangelism and greater significance on the more showy means and methods.
The most popular example of Chaos Theory is known, innocuously enough, as the Butterfly Effect, where, in theory, a little butterfly flaps its wings in Africa and, in turn, the weather in Oregon is different than it would have otherwise been. Seemingly insignificant initial conditions can end in radically disparate results. Tiny variables, through a succession of subsequent interactions, become amplified.
Ok! If you’ve made it this far, then follow me a little further. You won’t regret it.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells this short parable:
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.2
Among Palestinian farmers, the mustard seed was the smallest of the seeds which were planted and cultivated. To the first-century Jews who were listening, such an illustration would have been totally contrary to their expectation of what the kingdom of heaven should be like. They anticipated and longed for an unstoppable political force to rise upon the stage of history, releasing Israel from the bondage and oppression of Imperial Rome. “But no,” says Christ, “it begins small, like a mustard seed.” Yet, it does not remain this way: “When it is grown, it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”
Thus, Jesus taught, the glory and greatness of God’s kingdom would develop out of seemingly unimpressive initial conditions, into a power that would eventually fill the whole earth.
Small beginnings, gigantic ends!
Commenting on this verse, Ellen White observed,
To sow the seed of truth by a few well-chosen words, may appear to be but a small beginning; but that word, spoken from the heart, may take root, spring up, and bear an abundant harvest of truth.3
We’re often tempted to place less significance on the smaller means of evangelism and greater significance on the more showy means and methods, but this fails to understand the reality that the smaller means, through cause and effect amplification, can lead to comparatively large-scale results. Every kind word spoken, every “little” prayer uttered, every opportunity taken to help one in need, or to invite someone to church, can lead to some unforeseen and unforeseeable(!) good. It may, perhaps, eventuate a hundred years down the road, and on a different continent. Like the little butterfly that unknowingly causes a hurricane (or a sunny day!) in Florida, a small word spoken to a stranger on a bus, may ultimately lead to the salvation of thousands of people.
Does that seem a bit far fetched? Check this out:
A teenager was once invited to church by his uncle who had owned a shoe store. Before long, with the influence of his Sunday School teacher, Edward Kimball, this young man gave his heart to Christ, going on to became a great 19th century American evangelist. His name was Dwight Moody. Through the preaching of Moody, one English pastor, with the name of F.B. Meyer, was greatly affected. Meyer then preached a sermon on the willingness to surrender to Christ where another young man sitting in the back row was powerfully convicted. His name was J. Wilber Chapman. Chapman became an influential churchman and preacher whose ministry reached a professional baseball player, named Billy Sunday. Sunday then went on to preach powerful evangelistic sermons, which in turn, ignited a layman’s group for Christian witnessing. The group later held a crusade and called Mordecai Hamm to preach. Hamm’s preaching stirred the hearts of two young individuals who accepted Christ. They were none other than Grady Wilson and Billy Graham.4
The torch of influence passed from Kimball to Moody, from Moody to Meyer, from Meyer to Chapman, from Chapman to Sunday, from Sunday to Graham and Grady. Minor events, yet with significant major consequences.5
One would certainly not be overstating his case to say that multiplied millions of people were transformed through the ministry of these great evangelists. Yet, when we look at the germination of this vast string of events, we do not find a great and mighty cause, but only a “little” one: an uncle inviting his nephew to church.
Every act of our lives affects others for good or evil. Our influence is tending upward or downward; it is felt, acted upon, and to a greater or less degree reproduced by others. If by our example we aid others in the development of good principles, we give them power to do good. In their turn they exert the same beneficial influence upon others, and thus hundreds and thousands are affected by our unconscious influence.6
To paraphrase the popular writer, Dean Koontz, each small act of kindness reverberates across great distances and spans of time until it becomes something entirely different than what it was when it began. A simple courtesy can become a selfless act of courage years later and far away. But this sword cuts both ways: each small act of selfishness can likewise be amplified until it grows and grows into some horrific evil of devastating proportions.7
Every action has a reaction, and every cause has an effect, that will ultimately glorify God or glorify the enemy.
Indeed, hundreds and thousands of people are being lead into one of two directions by the seemingly insignificant sway of our everyday lives.
We will, however, never see the grand scope of influence which our evangelistic endeavors have actualized. We will never exhaustively understand the extent of our impact upon the world.
Not until heaven, that is.
God can then lay before us that great evangelistic tree graph, where every cause and effect are accounted for. Then will we finally and fully realize the power of the infinitesimal. Will there not be many surprises?
Indeed, there will be.
The entire plan of salvation and the institution of the Kingdom of God finds its origin with seemingly insignificant initial conditions that are amplified until they fill the entire earth. Two thousand years ago, a man by the name of Jesus lived a rather short life of but thirty-three years, until He was crucified by Roman executioners. (Linear equations could never predict what would follow.) Coming down to the modern day, the lingering impact of His message is undeniable in its influence and peerless in the magnitude of its scope.
The Gospel has discharged itself through the gates of nearly every culture, race, and class, leaving its blessed print on all it has touched. And yet it does not stop even there. It extends to the very ends of the Universe itself as a testimony to every onlooking heavenly intelligence. The message is unmistakable: God is love.
And all this from a mustard seed.
Every action has a reaction, and every cause has an effect, that will ultimately glorify God or glorify the enemy. Each social encounter presents to us a choice that will spark an unpredictable string of events, never ceasing to exert its influence upon the world, until the blow of the final trumpet cries out from the heavens.
Paul was right: we do not live to ourselves.
Now, go live!
Make your life make a difference!
- Romans 14:7
- Matthew 13:31-32
- Review and Herald, Sep 21, 1897
- Story taken from an article in a 1967 issue of Christianity Today, titled, Passing the Torch of Evangelism, by James H. Sample
- Mark Finely, Persuasion p. 40
- Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2, p.133
- Dean Koontz, Introductory quote in From the Corner of His Eye