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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?”

121166576What 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.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. My first thought was wondering how someone from another part of the world would answer this question. My instinct is to equate fairness with success and personal well-being (e.g. $$). I suspect this isn’t a universal instinct.

    Also, thinking of your trip to Columbia, how would your friends there answer the question, “Is God fair?” No doubt they have a different set of categories to define the “blessed” life, ones which don’t assume the levels of comfort and prosperity I know I’m accustomed to.

    February 8, 2013
    • Yes, this is an important question Dave. I think there would certainly be differences in how the question of the fairness of life/God would be asked/answered in different parts of the world.

      How would the people I met in Colombia answer? I guess it depends which ones were asked. The MCC people we met and those working with them would probably have little time for the abstract nature of the question and point, instead, to the idea that the important question isn’t “Is life/God fair?” but “What are you doing to address it? How are you helping to level the playing field?” And they would be entirely correct. But these kinds of people would be an admittedly biased sample :).

      We encountered others in Colombia as well… Some who would have (entirely justifiably) considered life/God to be thoroughly unfair and who (understandably) resented us our privilege… Some who had a remarkable understanding of and connection with the truth that Christ is present among the poor in a way that he is not among the rich. This was not a glorification of poverty, by any means, but it was a profound awareness that our usual categories for defining blessing are often profoundly misguided and unbiblical… And we encountered others who would have fallen between these two views.

      So, I guess the answer would be: It’s complicated… and it depends. As usual :).

      February 8, 2013
  2. Paula #

    I know this is a year later, but I found your blog while searching for common themes about “fairness”.
    Truth is I have wrestled mightily with that question and believe I have come to terms with it but the “terms” I’ve come to raise other questions as well. So I’d love your thoughts on this… and might I add, that anyone who feels that they have never grappled with this issue is a far better man/woman than I!!! LOL

    OK so I was reading Deut 9:4-6 and for the first time God’s meaning really settled into my heart!! Here they are in all their totally unfair ( in our mind) glory.

    “After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. 5 It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 6 Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

    Couple that with the three times God repeats this phrase ” I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy…” ( this is in the old and the new testament) What conclusion do I come to???

    God created us for a purpose, HIS purpose… and yet we set our feet on paths which are totally self centered then pout and stamp our feet as if God promised us a perfect life. He never did. He promised us abundant life (what does that mean?) He promised us trials and tribulations because men will hate us (Yikes..)

    Read in Malachi 3:17 ” On the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him.”
    Soooo, if we are humble enough (remember the meek shall inherit the earth) to DO HIS WILL when HE asks THEN, we will get our amazing wonderful life…everlasting. This is our “chore time” if you pardon the analogy…heaven is our reward.

    Just as when I knit I might add yarn which is kind of yucky colored alone, but when added to the rest of the pattern when it’s all finished it will be beautiful.

    When we shift our focus from US to HIM does fair really even enter into the equation?
    Whether He’s fair or not, he LOVES us but yet he needs to orchestrate everything on heaven and earth and as such HE will do what he needs to do because IT”S ALL ABOUT HIM
    (Let’s all reread the 1st through the 4th commandment) And He would probably like a little more co operation and less whining from thsoe who call themselves Christians.

    OK so the questions that raises is the belief that Jesus came to tell us we were all special unique, loved and cherished by God. In our mind a loving cherishing, God does not allow suffering,,, but as I write this I keep going back to Job and that wonderful first response of God “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words that have no understanding? Brace yourself like a mand I will question you and you shall answer me!” WOWOWOW… Man up, God tells Job and deal with it You are not God.. Do we ever consider WHY God put that in the Bible? Perhaps, just maybe, HE was trying to persuade Lucifer (whom HE loves) to come back to the fold? Perhaps it wasn’t about Job at all. Although Job ended up with much more (yes, I know he lost all his children) and with a stonger, deeper, knowledge of God!

    Shall we not say the same things to ourselves? We KNOW we are going to enter His glory forever so shouldn’t we just suck it up… do His will and set our eyes on Christ who sits at the right hand of God? Shouldn’t we be seeking , always, a greater knowledge of God?

    Oh and don’t forget the parable Jesus tells ( Luke 17:7-10) about the servants who work in the field then come back to make dinner for the master and only after all this do they get to sit and eat themselves… AND Jesus says, even though they (we) do this they (we) do not even desrve a thank you because it should be totally expected!! Again… WOW, them’s radical words… Thank you David Platt

    February 12, 2014
    • Thank you for sharing this, Paula. In general, I agree—the unfairness we experience in the present (real or perceived) will fade away in the light of God’s final restoration of all things.

      I think we need to be careful, though, to allow space for people to express anger, doubt, confusion, etc (as Job did, as the Psalmists do in the many Psalms of lament, as Jeremiah did, as we read in the book of Lamentations, and others). “Suck it up, you’re not God” might have an element of truth to it, but it isn’t often a very helpful way of responding to someone who struggles with the fairness of God.

      February 12, 2014

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