Is God Fair?
A couple of conversations this week have me thinking about fairness. The first was a kind of prolonged lament about the unfairness of life. This person had the (mostly justified) impression that life had treated them profoundly unkindly and this unhappy fact coloured how they interpreted virtually everything else they encountered in daily life. The second conversation occurred with a friend over supper last night. His daughter had been learning about the importance of fairness in school, about how everyone needed to be treated exactly equally. “Why tell them this?” he asked as we were getting supper on the table. “Life isn’t fair—the sooner they learn this the better!” Indeed.
We all know this, don’t we? We could look at the question on a global scale—we could see the grinding poverty and war and injustice that is experienced by so many through no fault of their own while many of us enjoy wealth and privilege that we quite clearly did not earn and which we quite regularly abuse and take for granted. The quality of our experience of life seems to depend as much on the accidents of geography and chronology as anything else. It’s not fair!
We could look closer to home, too. We see people around us with more fulfilling and rewarding jobs, happier marriages, better adjusted kids, more resources and opportunities for leisure and recreation… and the list could (and does!) go on and on… And on. We are experts at surveying the lives of others, performing a quick (often mostly inaccurate) calculus, and coming to the conclusion that life has handed us a rather raw deal, actually, and someone should answer for this! We expected so much better. It’s not fair!
Of course the typical Christian move at this point is to say something like, “Well, we know that life isn’t fair—why would we expect it to be fair with all of this human sin thrown into the equation? But God is fair.” This sounds like a plausible response and, on one level it probably has merit. There is surely a sense in which we would want to say that life as it is currently experienced by human beings does not represent the intent or the final goal of God’s creation. Surely, on one level, our hope as Christians is located in the conviction that whatever misery and injustice life throws our way, the God of the universe embodies perfect justice and fairness and will one day implement these things on a cosmic scale. “Shall not the judge of the earth do what is just (Genesis 18:25)?
But is God really fair? It’s worth thinking about. God certainly isn’t fair according to many of our preferred definitions of “fairness” (rigid equality, determined impartiality, everyone getting the same thing, etc.). Even a cursory glance at Scripture would seem to yield the conclusion that whatever else God might be, “fair” wouldn’t be at the top of the list. God chooses one people through which to effect his purposes and not others. And even though we would want to say that God’s choosing of one people was meant to be a blessing for all, I wonder what the Canaanites, Jebusites, Perizzites, and the assorted other –ites of the OT might think about the “fairness” of Israel’s God? We might also look to the book of Job? A shining example of God’s fairness? Not exactly. Even the question from Genesis approvingly quoted above comes in the broader context of Abraham trying to talk God out of acting unfairly to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah! “Far be it for you to destroy the innocent along with the wicked!” Abraham says. “Surely you wouldn’t do that?”…. “Would you?”
What about the NT? Well, the obvious text that leaps to mind is the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. The story is well-known. A group of workers agree to work for a certain landowner for an agreed upon wage and, throughout the day, others are hired for the same wage to work only for the portion of the day that remains. The worker who begins near the end of the day gets paid the same as the one who began first thing in the morning. Understandably, this leads to some grumbling from those who worked the whole day. “It’s not fair!” And, the landowner’s response? Well, he doesn’t re-calibrate the wages and assure all the workers that everything should be equal and fair and exactly proportionate to time invested. He chastises them for being envious. “Don’t I have the right to be generous?” he says. “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” I suspect Jesus’ parable wouldn’t get much traction in an elementary school classroom.
So, we know that life isn’t fair. And a quick glance at the Bible would seem to indicate that whatever God’s sense of “fairness” is, it doesn’t always exactly map on to our own. What’s left? Is our only recourse to either hope that we stay on this unpredictable God’s good side or spend the rest of our days raging against God and the world for not conforming to our preferences? These are obviously two very well-travelled paths, even if neither one seems like a terribly healthy response in the face of our existential woes.
I don’t have a wonderful, airtight answer, truth be told. Indeed, I often find myself wandering down the two trails above (complaining or ingratiating). But in my better moments I try to ask myself why I am lamenting the unfairness of life/God. Is it because I am genuinely grieving for/hurting with those who so often find themselves at the bottom of the pile? Or is it because I am envious at the generosity of God? Sometimes it is the former. More often, I fear, it is the latter. My queries of the cosmos are rarely as virtuous as I would like to think.
And there are other parts of the Bible we need to read, too. A strong theme throughout Scripture is that of the lowly being raised, the powerful being brought down, the hungry being given good things, the mountains brought low, and a road to the city of our God made straight. This is a theme that winds its way throughout the prophets, and throughout Jesus’ proclamation and embodiment of the kingdom of God. It is a theme of leveling the field, in the deepest, truest, and most life-giving sense. It is a theme of hope that the judge of the earth is more generous than we are, and that he will, indeed, ultimately do what is just.