Imagine yourself strolling down a sunny avenue to your favorite coffee shop when you notice a crowd gathered in the park across the street. You pause a moment to listen to the speaker coming over the microphone to an energetic audience. The speaker is talking about a lack of equality for all people, a need for change, and then she says, “We can be the voice of change!” Her words are met with applause and shouts of agreement, and you are impressed by her powerful delivery and attractive charisma.
Your coffee shop is just a few doors down, so you duck in and a few minutes later you are walking out with your favorite latte and biscotti. But something has changed. The peaceful gathering has turned into an angry mob.
Police officers in riot gear are marching up the street to take control. Bottles and trash fly through the air, and chaos ensues. What happened in those few minutes? It might have been one person bumping into another and starting a chain reaction of physical violence in a charged situation. The rhetoric of the speaker might have changed from a positive tone to one inciting violence or “shocking” action to get the attention of “the others.”
Groupthink and the Mob Mentality
In a situation like this, the individuals begin to form a cohesive unit or system. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “mob mentality” applied to a group of people acting in a way the individuals in the group would not normally act? Psychologists sometimes call this groupthink.
According to Rebecca Lee, “Groupthink occurs when a crowd of people (usually with good intentions) conform in such a way that leads to dysfunctional or irrational behavior. Their viewpoints may be so strong that critical thinking becomes impaired and ration takes a back seat to the intensity of emotion rising from the group.”1
We see this happen over and over in Scripture. Lot stood between the mob and the angels (Gen. 9). Moses faced a mob that doubted his leadership, and their deaths at the hands of God almost led to the destruction of the people of Israel (Num. 16). Jesus stood against the group of men who would stone the adulteress (John 8). He also stood before the mob that made the decision to crucify Him (Matt. 27). Paul faced multiple mobs during his ministry (Acts 19 and 21). In each of these cases, the person facing the mob tries to bring reason back to the situation. When that fails, they call for God’s intervention and mercy.
The negative reactions and actions that come from mob mentality, groupthink, happen because the leader(s) of the group know how to use chaos. Chaos is always present, and it can erupt at any moment in every part of our universe. It is a part of everyday life. In fact, it’s always been a part of creation.
God uses chaos to manage our Earth’s climate. Hurricanes can bring nutrient-rich sands to wetlands. Those chaotic destructive storms also bring rainfall to areas in drought. The tropical cyclones move across the ocean, causing massive waves which then break up bacteria red tide. Winds clean and oxygenate the surface waters. One of the main purposes for the hurricane is to keep global temperatures in balance between the two poles and the equator.
Another example of chaos in creation is volcanos. Although we usually think of their destructive impact of explosive eruptions and fiery lava, they have also done wonderful things for the Earth. First, volcanos help cool the earth off by removing heat from its interior. Volcanos release pressure from beneath the earth’s surface and erupt ash that provides important nutrients to the surrounding soil. Scientists report volcanic emissions actually produced the atmosphere and the water of the oceans. Volcanoes have made islands and added to the continents.
Forest fires, floods, rain, wind storms, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and volcanos are all examples destructive forces of chaos in nature. Although they take an enormous toll, we discover when we dig deeper that without the violence of chaos our earth could not sustain itself. In nature, the forces of chaos are an important part of earth’s healthy environment.
Chaos is an essential part of the functioning design.
Chaos itself is not a good or bad thing. It is simply the catalyst that brings change.
Merriam-Webster defines chaos as “a state of utter confusion” and “the inherent unpredictability in the behavior of a complex natural system.” Groupthink often results in confusion. After the mob disperses, the individuals involved often can’t remember what happened to cause the riot. They seldom remember making a conscious decision to follow along with the group. They just remember the emotions (of the group) and how they suddenly became a part of it. Daniel Little explains, “Much social behavior is chaotic, in that it simply emerges from the independent choices of numerous agents during a period of time.”2
While mob mentality and groupthink may seem random to us, it really isn’t. According to Ashley Crossman, “Chaotic systems are not random systems. Chaotic systems have some kind of order, with an equation that determines overall behavior.”3 The equation that determines the overall behavior in the case of a mob is usually two-fold.
The first part of the equation is the group itself and the effectiveness of its leadership. The leaders, in some way, set the stage for groupthink to take over. Effective leaders use rhetoric or emotions to stir up the crowd. Some leaders manipulate facts to suit their needs. Some outright lie.
The other half of the equation is the response to the event. Speaking of riots in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, “The crowds, at some point, mutate, blinded by anger and a sense of outrage, fueled by the heroism of a few willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause (although they don’t quite see it as a sacrifice) and hungry for the privilege to become martyrs. It is that political movements and rebellions can become highly antifragile, and the sucker game is to try to repress them using brute force rather than manipulate them, give in, or find more astute ruses.”4
Here is the key. Chaos, even is social unrest situations, serves only as a change agent. By disrupting the social status quo, the instigators of the process have unleashed chaos.
NOTHING thrives in chaos.
EVERYTHING will be changed by chaos.
Sometimes even the group itself is damaged. The group that learns to roll with the change it set in motion is the one most likely to survive. Taleb’s concept of Antifragility is that those natural and complex systems that survive have become antifragile. They are strong enough to withstand the manipulations and outside forces they face.
As Taleb states, “Crucially, if antifragility is the property of those natural (and complex) systems that have survived, depriving these systems of volatility, randomness, and stressors will harm them. They will weaken, die, or blow up. We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything … by suppressing randomness and volatility.”5 A system that begins in and thrives on change with fall apart if it is deprived of that chaos!
When people create chaos, they are rolling the dice in hope of a new/better social order. Their gamble is to take the risk. And it is a gamble. History is full of “good intentions” and “lofty high expectations” that led to violence, oppression, and worse leadership than had existed before. And in many cases, history shows that the regimes and changes formed in chaos fell when structure once again became the norm.
Chaos has become an accepted and even encouraged part of our society. The ability to respond to chaos and change, and even to instigate it, is a common part of the business world. If you look up chaos in the business world you will find article after article about how future business leaders will be those individuals who thrive on chaos. In the art world, you often hear about creative chaos. Chaos is seen as necessary if we want to “shake it up” so everything is new.
The “Haves” and the “Have Nots”
One problem in society today is a growing us vs. them mentality. Think about the us/them situations you see around you. It doesn’t matter what the setting is, they exist. Sports has long had an us/them mentality amongst the fans. It’s good business for them as it promotes the wearing of team gear and team pride. Business often has an us/them mentality. If one airline is unable to respond to the changes chaos brings the airlines that did respond gain those customers. Us/them is all about competition, conflict, and entertainment. It is also about the distribution of wealth and resources.
Every social system also has us/them areas. Chaos steps in and becomes the catalyst change when one group grows tired of their “lack” and decides it wants what the other group has. F. T. Haner, in his book The Technology of Chaos: Structural Change in Global Job Markets & Managing Sociopolitical Instability, talks about how society is comprised of two groups of people, the “haves” and the “have nots.” The “haves” are those people who chose a successful career path, stay employed, and often become wealthy. The “have nots” lost pace with rapidly changing technology, compete for jobs, often have limited capabilities, and many are unemployed.
These “have nots” are, according to Haner, “vulnerable and desperate and can be mobilized into cells, gangs, jihadis, movements, etc., which give them a reason for their existence. The explosion of technology facilitates merging these groups into mobs and creating chaos. Power is the motivation for some of these mob leaders. A few seek greater distribution of wealth. Most just want what the ‘haves’ have. The result is going to be increasingly intense conflict.”6
While chaos is a catalyst leading simply to change, the conflict caused by chaos can lead to destruction. Free will is God’s gift to us, but too often we use it to put up barriers between ourselves and God. Instead of seeing the blessings we have, we feel like we are one of the have nots. That opens us up to negative influences and emotions and makes us vulnerable.
If we want to allow God to work freely in our lives, we must ask if we looking at our lives and the chaos affecting us through society’s lens, or are we looking at through the lens Jesus provides to us in the presence of the Holy Spirit?
Look at the chaos we see in Scripture. The human-caused chaos was often a case of us/them or a conflict between the “haves” and the “have nots.” In each case, God’s intervention was necessary to redeem the situation.
I want to tell you about an image that always sticks with me. Jesus is approaching Jerusalem, being hailed a king by His followers, and as He approaches the mighty city, the heart of the Israeli people, Jesus looked at Jerusalem and wept.
His followers saw this as His triumphant entrance into the capital. He, however, knew it was the beginning of the end. He knew chaos was about to sweep through the city, and that it would never be the same. In Luke 19:41-44 we read:
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Social chaos is human-made. In this case, the chaos created by the decisions made in Jerusalem in the days following Jesus’ arrival led to the downfall of a nation. When we create chaos with our actions, when the “have nots” decide they want what the “have” possess, they institute change but often conflict and negative forces are invited in as well.
Natural chaos is God’s cleansing agent. Look at hurricane, wildfires, volcanos. Each is devastating and terminal to the current status of the surrounding environment. But the change that occurs because of that devastation PREPARES the environment for new growth.
Chaos = Growth
Chaos in our lives can act as a cleaning agent too. I’m not talking about us getting involved in the human-created “haves” “have nots” chaos. I’m talking about the chaos that exists in the world around us that impacts us in some way.
Think about the most chaotic times in your life. Maybe a series of small interruptions, one after another, slipped into your life and scattered your well-meaning plans to the wind. Maybe tragedy struck, and events seemed to snowball beyond your control faster than you could think. Or maybe you were stuck in societal chaos, placed in danger by the actions of others, losing everything you’d worked for.
It’s in those times more than any other that God is free to step in and work in our lives. Why? Because that is when we are more likely to call out to Him, asking for His help. As Jan Winebrenner states in The Grace of Catastrophe, “Nothing so challenges us to examine what we believe about God like catastrophe.”7
Lorraine Kingsley views chaos as part of God’s plan to redeem and bring blessing to us. According to Kingsley, “Very often God calls us to wait on him, and to trust. Often we have to experience the chaos without any knowledge of whether the blessing will come, or when. And very often we are also part of the redemptive purposes of God. God uses us to help bring restoration to the lives of those around us.”8
Let’s go back to the results of Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem. Look at the chaos that occurred when He died. Darkness fell over the land for three hours in the middle of the day (Matt. 27:45). The curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51). A great earthquake rocked the land and split the rocks (Matt. 27:51). And “The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matt. 27:52).
Just one of these events would have shaken the lives of those involved, but the culmination of the events, the chaos, left the people confused and their lives in disarray. Even the disciples were adrift, and Jesus had taken time to prepare them for what would happen. Humans are not equipped to deal with chaos on our own. We need God in our lives to help us.
Relationship with God is the Answer
Our salvation came in what happened next. The chaos prepared the way for new growth, allowing for the birth and establishment of Jesus’ Church. Jesus returned and reassured His disciples. He also sent the Holy Spirit to act as a guide for each of us, to serve as our anchor in times of chaos.
Jesus showed us that our faith in Him is what cuts through the chaos and roots us strongly in His grace. We may try to understand God’s motivations, in fact I think theological study is a vital part of being a believer, but we must never assume we fully understand everything that is happening in our lives, especially when we are facing hardships.
According to Eugene Peterson, “It can be a means of grace—an instrument used by God by which we can cease floating passively on all manner of external attractions. It is by the grace of catastrophe that people sometimes come to themselves and see what is before them as if for the first time. Catastrophe can, like a mighty wind, blow away the abstracting veils of theory and ideology and enable our own sovereign seeing.”9
Thinking we fully understand God’s motivation is an arrogance we must not allow to creep into our lives. Calvin Miller asks, “What do unwounded servants do? They become arrogant, join country clubs, sell out to middle-class mediocrity … Only the protected have the privilege of making theology a discussion; the endangered cling to it and weep.”10
Theology, even the theology surrounding chaos, is not something we can arrogantly stand up and shout, “Hey! I GOT that! I know what God was doing there.” Science has formed all kinds of theories about chaos and its role in the universe. We don’t need to fully understand chaos to understand that God uses it for His own good. Just as we will never fully understand God. A. W. Tozer says, “God is what He is in Himself. He does not become what we believe. ‘I Am that I AM.’ We are on safe ground only when we know what kind of God He is and adjust our entire being to that holy concept.”11
Our understanding of God is solid only when we look at “what kind of God He is.” How great is that?! We know He is a God of relationship. He freely gives us, His creation, love, grace, and forgiveness. He blesses us and wants us to thrive. When I think about “what kind of God He is” all I can do is thank Him that He loves me! And He loves you too!
Society has embraced chaos as a catalyst for social change. The art and business worlds embrace chaos as vital to their success. But chaos is a different kind of growth opportunity for us as believers. It gives us the opportunity to open our lives to the redemptive, changing love of God.
“For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (1 Cor. 14:33).
- Lee, Rebecca. “The Acceptance of Group Mentality.” PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-acceptance-of-group-mentality/
- Little, Daniel. “Chaos and Coordination in Social Life.” Understanding Society, https://understandingsociety.blogspot.com/2008/03/chaos-and-coordination-in-social-life.html
- Crossman, Ashley. “Chaos Theory.” ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/chaos-theory-3026621 (accessed January 8, 2019).
- Taleb, Nicholas Nassim. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House, 2014, 48.
- Taleb, 5.
- Haner, F. T. The Technology of Chaos: Structural Change in Global Job Markets & Managing Sociopolitical Instability. N.P. CreateSpace, 2013, 3-4.
- Jan Winebrenner, The Grace of Catastrophe: When What You Know About God is All You Have. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2005.
- Kingsley, Lorraine. “Building a Bridge of Faith over Troubled Water.” Anglican Theological Review 100, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 17–2.
- Eugene Peterson, Living The Message(New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 181.
- Calvin Miller, Into The Depths Of God(Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2000), 144.
- A.W. Tozer, The Divine Conquest(Wheaton: Living Books, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1950), 4.