From time to time I ponder the long and indirect way that influence spreads from one person to another. This is especially worthwhile to trace in the world of thought, since people to read books are often influenced by those books and may act or write in such a way that they influence others in later generations, and so on and so forth . I would like to begin with a discussion of one of the more unusual examples of this as a model for how this process works. About 2500 years ago or so there lived a man named Mencius whose writings discussed the legitimacy of Chinese rulers using a construct known as the Mandate of Heaven. The idea was that the virtue of rulers depended on the circumstances that took place during their rule, and that if a ruler or a ruling dynasty was beset by endless disasters, then someone else was justified to rule in their place. When Chinese philosophy became important in Enlightenment Europe, this construct was modified and eventually came to justify the revolt of first the American colonists in 1776 and then French and Haitians and many others since then.
To be sure, Mencius had no conception of how his idea could be applied to other countries, and the American revolutionaries (to say nothing of those inspired by them) may not have been precisely aware of the Chinese context of their justification for revolt. During the 18th century, the regimes of the European world (and in many other places) justified their behavior and their position based on a view of having divine right to rule. Their reading of Romans 13, for example, was a bit defective in that they did not take God’s judgment seriously or their role as servants of God who had been appointed as his viceroys to act against criminal behavior, but the fact that they appealed to religious (and other) justifications for their rule is not particularly surprising. Those who desire to rebel against government face some difficulty in that religious texts tend to be pro-authority, and other nations tend by nature to be pro-authority as well because supporting rebellion, even against an enemy or rival nation, can backfire (as it did with the French after the American Revolution) in encouraging one’s own oppressed people to rise up in revolt. There is no shortage of people who either because of oppressive conditions or their own ungovernable natures seek to rise up against those who have been placed over them. These people also tend to see themselves as having a claim to rule over others, even as they have cast off rule over themselves, and gaining legitimacy is such a vital task that few texts, regardless of their provenance, will be rejected if they can provide some help in providing legitimacy.
Influence does not need to proceed in such a fashion, though, where there is a conscious adaptation of the justifications of others to one’s own situation, and where that justification then is passed to others who can read it and adapt it to their own conditions. At times, influence can even take place where someone is directly hostile to the source that is unbeknownst to them influencing them. I have found this in my research as well and consider it a fascinating phenomenon and one that is worth exploring a bit. Let us consider another example, one involving various laws of success. Human beings from time immemorial have longed to uncover various “laws” that would guarantee them what they want. They have wanted to know a code, or master a superstition or rhythm or pattern of life that would guarantee them success and happiness in their lives, and this magical thinking has carried on long after the original pagan religious justifications of this have been submerged deep into the sands of time. Even to this day one has to play whack-a-mole with much myths as a supposed “secret” law of attraction or people peddling one version or another of some sort of laws of success that will guarantee well-being regardless of circumstances.
Of course, no such laws exist. We may concede that there are ways that one can behave, individually as well as collectively, that tend to lead to greater success in life and greater happiness for a wide variety of people, but it is not entirely certain and there are plenty of second-order effects. One can be honorable and conscientious in one’s duties and find that one lives in a corrupt regime and one’s honor becomes a negative rather than a positive. Or one can find that, as was the case with Job, that one’s righteous and godly life made one the subject of a dare between God and Satan by which you were tested despite not being at fault. We know, of course, that Job was blessed afterwards, but that was not understood until after the trial was done. And, as Hebrews 11 reminds us, there are all kinds of people who have suffered of whom the world is not worthy. We may be included among that number–this life is not just. Indeed, it is only the presence of the world to come with both judgment and blessings that makes this life possible for many people to endure because of its injustices, both injustices that we suffer and those we inflict upon others.
And yet the influence of God on mankind is far more subtle even than the influence of mankind on others. Divine providence is an immensely tricky matter, all the more so because if mankind is free to make decisions and responsible for the decisions made, then God’s workings must be done in a way that respects human choice. Rain falls upon the just and the unjust, and their crops are watered side by side. Towers do not fall only on wicked inhabitants of cities, but on relatively blameless ones as well. It is not only the unrighteous Gallileans who are skewered by soldiers but ordinary ones who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. God promises that all things will work together for the good for those who love God but does not promise that all things that happen to the blessed will be good things. How are we influenced to rise above the circumstances we face, even when those circumstances encourage some to rebel against all authority and others use physical circumstances as a way of trying to divine one’s spiritual health, both of which are wicked but widespread human tendencies? To resist such tendencies we must have an influence working within us that can overcome the pull of our fallen and corrupt human nature, a godly leavening spreading through the lump unlike the leavening of wickedness that is all too widespread in our world wherever we turn our heads.
 See, for example: