Ethics & Christian living

We rarely know the impact of what we do (for good and bad)

In the late 1990s, I was the manager of a hostel for young people in central London. One of the residents, I’ll call him Will, had serious mental health problems. These manifested in paranoia and bizarre delusions about religious conspiracies and plots.

Sadly, his health declined and the extremity of his behaviour increased. The worst episode led to him trying to throw himself off the stairwell from the 5th floor of the building, all the time shouting about God and Jesus. A colleague and I had to restrain him while we awaited the emergency services.

As we were desperately holding onto Will, trying to calm him down, I remember silently praying. I wanted God to intervene then and there and bring Will some peace from his torment.

Traumatic

But my prayers seemed to make no difference. Will continued to shout and struggle. It was awful and traumatic: for him, for the other residents and for us as staff.

After what felt like ages, medics and police arrived and took over. Will was taken to the local psychiatric hospital and was sectioned under the mental health act for his own safety. 

I visited Will a few times in the hospital. But as is the reality in such work, other residents moved in and we had plenty of other situations to deal with. Often it was very hard to keep up with what had happened to those who moved out.

‘Do you remember me?’

But the reason I remember Will is because of something which happened 3 years later.

At that time I was a member of a church which met in a former pub building which had large glass windows.  At the end of a service, I was having a coffee when someone tapped me on the back and said ‘Hi Jon – do you remember me?’ To be honest I did not recognise who it was. Until he said. ‘It’s me, Will.’

I was amazed to see him. He looked so different from the last time I had seen him. We sat down and he told me about everything that had happened, about how hard the time in hospital had been and about his steps of recovery. He told me he was now living close-by in a supported housing scheme and he that he was also a member of a local church.

We did not speak long as friends were waiting for him. But after Will left, I sat there and reflected. I realised that God had answered my prayer that day.

Little idea

The reason I share this is because so often, we have only a very little idea of the impact of what we do and what we are involved in.

This is the theme of the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life. The main character, George Bailey, is depressed with how his life has gone and desperate about the challenges he faces. He is considering suicide. But an angel is sent to show him the impact that his life has had. He does this by showing George how different his home town would be if he had never lived.

Cuts both ways

But of course, this reality cuts both ways. If we don’t know the impact of the good things we have done, we also don’t always know the impact of the bad things either.

In this article, I have chosen to share a story where I did my best to help someone. Like most of what we share publicly, we prefer to show ourselves in a good light. But my life is a very mixed bag.

There are plenty of other times where I made bad decisions, or acted rashly. There are also times when I have hurt people through my selfishness and stupidity. We should not beat ourselves up, but we should be honest about our weaknesses and failings.

Avoidance

It is easy to avoid thinking about the bad things we have been involved in. We can stay in denial. We can cling to self-justifications. Or we can throw counter-accusations and claim other people’s behaviour was far worse.

And this is not just true for individuals.

This dynamic is played out even more in a corporate settings. Companies and institutions (including churches) are even worse at admitting their wrong-doing. The tragic failures in safeguarding and cover-ups that happen are just one example of this tendency. 

Cycles of injustice

Institutions and individuals can fear truth. They often believe it will be too much to bear and that the cost of admitting wrong will be too high.

Whether its an individual or a company, the problem is that failures to admit wrong-doing maintain cycles of suffering, bitterness and injustice. Positive change and transformation never come without facing reality and embracing truth.

Encountering truth

As a Christian, I believe that somehow, at the end of our lives, we will all be made aware of the impact of everything we have done.

Somehow, we will all be confronted with the truth of all we have said and done, all that we have been involved in or contributed to. We will be aware of the words and actions which have healed and renewed others, and those which have scarred and damaged them.

God’s judgement could be described as the ultimate encounter with truth

Accepting grace

CS Lewis’ short book, The Great Divorce, is set in hell. The deeper into hell you go, the further apart from everyone else you become. But every day, a bus leaves for heaven and anyone is welcome to get onboard. But few do.

Instead they chose to stay in denial about their failings, entrenched in self-justifications about how they have behaved or blaming others. Entering heaven means accepting a truth that most are unable to accept. It means giving up on the pretence of purity or our own righteousness. It means accepting God’s grace.

Grace means that whatever we have done, forgiveness is available. But we have to accept truth. 

Truth is the path to grace. And grace is the ultimate truth.

As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 13:12:

“Now we see through a glass darkly; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then shall I know fully, even as I am fully known”

2 thoughts on “We rarely know the impact of what we do (for good and bad)”

  1. Thanks for this, Jon. I also believe that when God reveals all, the impacts of our wrong words and actions, as well as our good words and actions, will be shown. I am often discouraged when it comes to praying to our God, purely from my unbelief in His will to help, but this article is an encouragement that no matter what, we should not give up on praying for people, even if things seem hopeless.

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