Choices and Consequences

In his iconic bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey wrote: “While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of those actions.”

Humans have free agency­—the power to choose what we do. I am free to choose, for example, whether to jump from the roof of my house. But­ here’s the thing: if I jump, I am not free to choose what happens next. I can’t choose not to fall. I can’t choose not to hit the ground hard. I can’t choose whether or not I will break my leg—or my neck. Once I go airborne, those things are out of my hands. The only way to avoid any of the unpleasant results of jumping is … not to jump.

Our choices have consequences. Covey’s maxim emphasizes that (1) we may not know everything that might result from an action, and (2) we don’t get to select only those results that are desirable. That is motivation to choose our actions carefully.

God has also given each of us free moral agency—the power to choose whether we will do right or wrong. But here’s the thing: if we decide to sin, we are not free to decide all that will result from it.

Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit that God had forbidden (Genesis 3). What were the consequences? Firsthand knowledge of sin and shame. A future filled with pain and toil. Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The loss of perfect fellowship with God. The certainty of physical death. Do you think that Eve, as she first reached for that enticing fruit, would have willingly chosen any of those things? Of course not. (Set aside for now the fact that God had warned them of death if they ate.) But once she and her husband made the decision to eat, those consequences followed, and they were powerless to stop them.

Scripture is filled with similar examples of people whose sinful decisions led to troubles that they did not foresee and could not avoid. They chose sin, but they were not free to choose the consequences.

The good news of the Bible is that, in Christ, we are delivered from slavery to sin and from eternal condemnation (Romans 5:9-11; 6:15-20). Christians are promised that if we confess our sins, God will forgive us (1 John 1:9). But the Lord’s promise of forgiveness is not a promise to inoculate us against all the ugliness that may result from our sinful actions.

  • God will forgive the sin of drug or alcohol addiction. But He does not promise to heal a body damaged by toxins or restore money wasted on a habit.
  • God will forgive the sins of murder or theft. But He does not promise to commute a prison sentence.
  • God will forgive the sin of gossip. But He does not promise to suddenly erase the bitterness and mistrust it has sown in the hearts of others.
  • God will forgive the sin of dishonesty. But He does not promise to shield us from the damage it may have done to a career or a reputation.
  • God will forgive the sins of adultery or abuse. But He does not promise that a victimized spouse or child will forgive.

God is loving and merciful. He promises to forgive our sin in Christ. He does not promise that everything in life will continue as if the sin never happened. He may spare us from the hurtful and humiliating fruits of our rebellion (and no doubt a moment’s honest reflection will bring to mind countless times He has done exactly that). But He may let us experience that bitter fruit and learn that “the way of the transgressor is hard” (Proverbs 13:15). That simply is not for us to decide. As one preacher put it, even when we are done with the sin, it may not be done with us.

The only way to avoid any of the unpleasant consequences of this sin or that one is … to avoid the sin. Choose your actions carefully.

And when we have sinned and consequences follow, how will we respond? In bitterness and anger? Or in humility and faith?

King David committed adultery (and piled on more sin trying to cover it up). God forgave his sin, but also made it clear that there still would be repercussions (2 Samuel 12:9-14). One promised result was that evil would rise against David from his own family. And so it was: his own son led a revolt against him. As the king fled Jerusalem, he said, “If I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, He will bring me back … But if He says, ‘I have no pleasure in you,’ behold, here I am, let Him do to me what seems good to Him” (2 Samuel 15:25-26). David recognized that, even though he had been forgiven, he still must face consequences to what he had done. And he was willing to accept them. While he hoped that the Lord would mercifully restore him to Jerusalem, David knew he was in no position to demand that God do so, nor to accuse Him of unfairness if He did not.

Proverbs 19:3 warns of the man whose “heart rages against the Lord” when his “own folly brings him to ruin.” David might have done that. He might have blamed God for letting him face the consequences of his own sin. He might have turned sour, resentful, hardened against the Lord. But he chose differently. His experience of God’s grace in forgiveness made him confident in God’s grace to see him through whatever the future might bring, whether it was the future David would have chosen or not.

Whenever our own folly brings the sting of unpleasant consequences, we can do the same. Choose repentance. Choose humility. Choose faith. Choose grace.