Linear in Reverse

Now it came about after this that the sons of Moab and the sons of Ammon, together with some of the]Meunites, came to make war against Jehoshaphat. 2 Chronicles 20:1 NASB

Now it came about – Once again we encounter our neon sign. Vayhi—and it came about. It signals that the apparently accidental occurrence has a sub-plot. We don’t see God in this human event but He is there, hidden from view but actively involved. We could examine the context, re-read the history, speculate on the divine action interwoven in these human stories, but today I want to look at something much more contemporary. I want to ask if we don’t employ a mistaken, and perhaps pagan, interpretation of our own events instead of beginning our thinking with vayhi.

Something happens to you. Perhaps it’s something that seems bad, disappointing, upsetting or unfair. In our paradigm, we quite naturally assume that whatever this current event is, it is the result of prior events and those are also the result of prior events, etc. And each of those events in the past represents an opportunity of choice. The choice might not always be ours directly, but how we respond to whatever that prior event was is certainly our choice. So, in a sense, what is happening to us now is really the accumulation of a series of our past choices. And since what is happening to us now is not nice, that means that somewhere along the line we made a bad choice that has now resulted in this upsetting experience. Ipso facto, if we had made a different choice in the past, this bad thing wouldn’t be happening to us now. Therefore, it is really our fault, no matter how the actual events occurred. You see, it didn’t “just happen.” Now we read vayhi as a declaration of guilt. We made a mistake somewhere in the past and now we have to pay for it.

Richard Nisbett calls this the “hindsight fallacy.” It is the fallacy of thinking that the result obtained is directly connected to the initial cause. If what happens is bad, then the initial choice must also have been bad (mistaken). The result is embedded in the cause, there is no separation or alteration of cause and effect. According to Nisbett, there are two significant errors with the Western model of causality:

(1) believing that, at least in retrospect, it can be seen that events could not have turned out other than they did; and (2) even thinking that one easily could have predicted in advance that events would have turned out as they did.[1]

“Westerners (particularly Americans) follow ‘backward reasoning’ because they view events in a cause-and-effect model. This is ‘goal-oriented reasoning: define the goal to be achieved and develop a model that will allow you to attain it.’[2]

The explanation of our reality as a result of causality seems so obvious. Cognitively, we get it. It is an essential part of the Western paradigm. But does that make it true? Can we really think backwards through the causal chain and determine all the elements that led to this result? Is it really the case that things could not have come out differently? Can we really predict the future outcome if we know the present conditions? A moment’s serious reflection tells us otherwise. There is a certain randomness in human life, perhaps in the creation itself, that defies conclusive prediction. Causal chains aren’t deterministic. Things happen, things that could not be anticipated and, in an important sense, are not part of the causal chain until they happen.

Eastern thought knows this. Vayhi—and it came to pass—the presence of a force under the surface that cannot be controlled by rational prediction. The Bible is full of this stuff. So are our lives, if we just step back from the assumption of predictive control. We experience vayhi every day. What this means is that you could not have predicted the outcome if you knew the prior events. It could still have occurred differently. The future would still be open to change. And this means that where you are right now is not the result of your own past mistakes. Of course, your past contributes to the present, but it doesn’t determine it. You may have made exactly the right decision in the past, and the result today is still a mess. Why? Because vayhi—things happen. And where you are right now is precisely where you are supposed to be so that vayhi—other things might happen.

Topical Index: vayhi, it came about, causality, future, choice, 2 Chronicles 20:1

[1] Richard Nisbett, The Geography of Thought, p. 130.

[2] Ibid., p. 128.