There are principles in reality seen in a range of different places. The concept of hard work for rewards is evident in the gym, or in a gold mine. It's also observable with non-physical rewards like in an exam or a relationship. But even wider, it's naturally occurring in the beehive, and the white stork's annual migration.
We all know what it's like to waste our time, and the disappointment of putting in effort for nothing. We also know the experience of getting something free and easily, without even trying. But these experiences don't detract from the objective principle: in our world to get the result you want you'll need to work hard.
Silently, invisibly, amongst a world divided on what is right and what is wrong (or if there is right and if there is wrong) our reality coheres around some deferral of enjoyment, some expenditure of effort for a goal of 'greater value'. From the professor to the athlete, from the elephant to the ant.
This is at the heart of Aesop's Fables, and many of Jesus' parables; illuminating a deep truth in the human soul by pointing to a macro occurrence in the life of a fox, or the sprawl of a vine.
A narrative of consequences
In the story of the prodigal son there is this principle of consequences frozen for us in a narrative.
The younger son makes what he thinks is a good decision, he asks his father for his inheritance early. His dad says yes, things are going very well so far.
Then he makes another decision that he thinks is good, he travels to a distant country. It's his gap year, some ancient Contiki tour. So far, so great.
Then he decides to spend all the money on 'wild living'. He gets everything he desires, everything pleasing to the eye.
But after so many great decisions, something finally goes wrong. Famine. He runs out of money, he runs out of friends, and he runs out of food.
And down there in the consequential-pigsty of his choices he decides he needs to go back home. Somehow all these 'good' decisions hadn't produced a good result. And perhaps they were never good, maybe they were only good at distracting him from it all.
Now there's an alternative story here, one where the supplies don't run dry. No famine sweeps through, no friends disappear. Instead the money keeps buying him everything he wants. The harsh sobriety of reality never dawns on him, the choices are never regretted, the son never goes home.
But in the void of feeling the consequences of it all, are his choices any better? The proverbial famine is more a symptom that forces him to evaluate those choices, a mirror that forces introspection.
We can draw this principle sideways to the world of medicine. A life-threatening disease can be undetectable, but likewise the symptoms can be suppressed. When your diabetes starts discolouring your feet, you can either treat the disease or buy a new pair of shoes. When a brain tumour makes itself known through a migraine, you can see a doctor or take more Panadol.
And while you might not be so careless with your health, or so precipitous with your inheritance, this principle is at work in your soul. As you leave the proverbial father's house, and set your heart on the delights of your eyes, you can feel very happy while still being a long way from home. And the real danger you face, the greatest threat to your soul, is that you'll never run out of money.
Instead of facing up to your spiritual homelessness, the danger is that you have enough time or energy to distract yourself with a new pursuit. A notification to check, something nice to wear, a drink that dulls the senses, a relationship that consumes your gaze. Something that keeps hitting the snooze button on the alarm of your choices as you sleep through the symptoms of your disease.
And for as long as you can keep yourself distracted, you could be convinced that your decision to leave home was a good one. But you can't fight a disease by removing the symptoms, you can't avoid the day by silencing your alarm, you aren't closer to home by forgetting you left; and you will never find respite for your soul without famine cutting through your distractions and showing you your need for the Lord who formed you.
Sam Manchester is currently a theology student with an inescapable sociology degree behind him. In an attempt to reconcile the two, he reflects and writes about their coalescence in everyday life.
Sam's archive of articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-manchester.html