The Butterfly Effect

My reflection here on ‘The Butterfly Effect’ was inspired in part by praying for rain (always a necessity in South Australia) and particularly by praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit. The prophet Joel (Joel 2: 23–24, 28–29) has some encouraging things to say on this front!

The smallest, tiniest events in life can have significant flow-on effects. The most miniscule change in initial conditions in one place can have a far greater effect somewhere else. This is sometimes called ‘The Butterfly Effect’ in science. It’s the theory that the smallest change in the initial conditions can set off a chain of events that makes a significant difference somewhere else.

It is called ‘The Butterfly Effect’ because the most commonly used illustration is that the tiny movement of a butterfly flapping its wings in, say, South America, contributes to a chain of events that eventually results in a storm in Japan.

Of course, that particular example might be something of an exaggeration, and there’s certainly no current method of measuring whether a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world could possibly contribute to a storm in another part of the world, but the principal is correct. If you change one small thing, the tiniest of things, there will quite possibly be a bigger change somewhere else. We know this from the simplest scientific experiments; if you change the smallest of things in the initial conditions, the results will be affected.

It’s one of the reasons I believe in prayer. If my saying of a prayer can change the tiniest of things, the smallest of things, the slightest of conditions in someone else’s life, then it’s worth it. For me, this is what helps makes sense of Christianity. If we pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us, or for the Holy Spirit to watch over loved ones, then it only takes the smallest change, the tiniest difference in events, for that prayer to work. It’s actually why I believe in praying for rain at the right time. If we all pray for the rain we need, maybe that tiny difference (the butterfly’s wings) then has a much larger effect.

In traditional theological terms, this is the notion of “special providence”. Within this context, God’s special acts “are constrained by the nature of the world which God is creating.” [1]  Thus no action of God could so disturb the laws of nature, which he created, that they might break.  Yet, within those self-imposed bounds, God does act.  Thus God “is the special providence bringing certain particular outcomes through natural processes where the way of things allows it.”[2] 

On a really personal level, I might pray for the Spirit to give me the wisdom not to say something hurtful, which I might otherwise want to say, or I might pray for the Spirit to say something encouraging, which I might otherwise forget to say. I might pray for the Spirit to watch over my friend, and the very fact that I think that prayer, maybe say it out loud, causes the smallest of changes which helps my friend.

The world we live in is incredibly open to the smallest of changes. Using a negative example, we know this from the changes in our climate. On a macro scale, we know that if we keep pumping a whole lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from burning brown coal, it’s going to have an impact. On a micro scale (but with macro effects!) we know that a tiny virus with probably origins in a market in China can impact the health of the entire world.

Yet we know it from much smaller things too. We know that the smallest change in our attitude to other people, the decision to be a kind person instead of a bit of a jerk, just that smallest of changes in our mental attitude, can have an enormous impact in the way people treat us. These tiny changes have an impact and I would suggest that’s the Holy Spirit at work.

I challenge you to pray for someone else. Think of someone who really needs a bit of a boost at the moment. Maybe he or she is really struggling at school. Perhaps he or she is going through a bad time at home. ‘The Butterfly Effect’ suggests that the smallest of things you do for him or her, the simplest of prayers, the friendly word, the kind smile, will have an impact – probably far greater than you may realise at the time. For me this is the Holy Spirit at work: our internal spirit, our soul, all that’s good inside us, responds to the Holy Spirit, inviting us make the smallest of gestures, like a butterfly flapping its wings. The impact will be far more significant than we realise..

[1] S. Cowdell, A God for this World (London and New York: Mowbray, 2000), 113.

[2] Ibid.

Theo McCall Written by:

Fr Theo is the Chaplain of St Peter's College, Adelaide, a position he has held since July 2010, following 15 years of parish ministry. He is also the Senior Chaplain for Anglican Schools in South Australia and an honorary lecturer at St Barnabas’ College. He enjoys cycling, singing and music, bushwalking, good food and red wine, and making connections between movies and theology.


  1. Andrew Mintern
    August 28, 2020

    Thanks Theo. Great insights. keep ’em coming. One point – The butterflies in South America are pretty huge!! (some of them). Also prayer verbalises our need. That’s a great thing to get children and adults alike putting their concerns into words is very helpful in itself. One of the great effects of prayer is how it changes us, not the only effect as you have pointed out but it changes us and our view of the world and our actions. BTW did I mention how big South American butterflies are?

    • Theo McCall
      August 28, 2020

      Thanks Andrew, agree completely with your thoughts on how prayer changes us. I did not know about the size of South American butterflies!

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