You may have heard about the untimely death of a European house sparrow in Amsterdam recently. An exterminator shot Domino 99 it dead with an air rifle as it cowered in the corner of an exposition center. The bird had knocked over a domino after flying in through an open window. Unfortunately for the bird, the domino fell onto another domino, and it hit another, and so on until more than 23,000 dominoes went down.
Actually, the disaster could have been much worse. Employees of the Endemol NV television company had spent weeks with the goal of setting up more than 4 million dominoes in order to beat the world record on 2005 Domino Day, November 18. They only had 200,000 dominoes to go when the bird knocked one (er, 23,000-plus) over.
Fortunately, the team of employees had built into their chains 750 gaps to prevent just such a catastrophes from causing them all to “lose their marbles.” After the bird expired, they reset the downed dominoes and added the remaining ones, so that they actually did beat the world record by toppling 4,002,136 dominoes on schedule, beating their own record from Domino Day last year.
When I heard of this incident, I asked myself, Are there any spiritual lessons in the “Winged Toppler” event? Serious mulling-over time has brought me to conclude that there are.
A chain of moral cause and effect
Like a row of dominoes on end, God has established a cause-and-effect relationship between our moral choices and their consequences. The Bible explains this in a number of passages. The Apostle Paul says: “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please the flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-8).
Later he wrote, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey–where you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Romans 6:16). A few verses later he establishes the two alternate chains: offering your body to sin, which leads to slavery to impurity, then to ever-increasing wickedness; or offering your body to righteousness, which leads to holiness.
We never see it coming
Often when we find our lives disintegrating around us, we are puzzled. To us it seems like just one little thing goes wrong–like the bird landing on the domino–and everything around them starts to topple.
We don’t perceive that it is all connected. Drinking too much leads to insulting a stranger in a bar. That leads to a fight in the back alley, which leads to pulling out the K-bar. That leads to a stabbing, which leads to running from a whole gang of the guy’s friends. All from having one or two too many. If this is what is going on in your life, don’t blame the sparrow (the trigger event). It was all set up beforehand by the choices you made.
People often assume that they lost their job or their marriage ended because of one little thing that happened. That’s almost never true. The sparrow didn’t knock down all of the dominoes, only one. We are the ones who set them up.
James, the half-brother of Jesus, explains a related set:
“Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15).
Notice in this text that God has built in some safety gaps. Christians are encouraged to learn that: “God is faithful: he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). When we recognize evil desire in our heart, we have a chance to stop the reaction before it responds to enticement. We can stop enticement before it develops into sin, and sin before it grows out of control. God put those gaps in the process for our benefit.
Positive chain reactions
In a similar way, we can participate in erecting chains that will have a positive impact on our lives and the lives of others. What you invest in your life will bring returns. This includes how you spend your time, what you purchase with your income, what you choose to think about and talk about. Every one of these things is a domino in the exposition hall of your life. Added all together, they constitute a world-record long chain reaction for good.
And in this case, Jesus Christ himself is the sparrow, or rather He is the master-designer of the toppling dominoes. “While we were still sinners” He loved us and gave Himself up for us, setting off a chain reaction that will continue into eternity, unless we ourselves create the gaps.
The shooting of that house sparrow set off its own chain reaction. Now the company faces a hefty fine; the bird was on the endangered species list.
Want to go deeper?
Contemplation about why God has established such moral cause-and-effect chain reactions ultimately leads to meditation about the cross of Jesus Christ. Just as my sin can have tremendously devastating effects in my own life, in the lives of my family and friends, even in the lives of total strangers or of generations yet unborn, so God has arranged that the willing sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the only perfect human being and God Incarnate, can bring tremendous blessing into the world (study Romans 5:12-19). If you want to explore more about the wacky world of domino toppling, do a search for the annual event, “Domino Day.”