This morning I was reading 2 Samuel 22:31, “As for God, His way is blameless; The word of the LORD is tested; He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him.” (NASB) As I pondered the blamelessness of God, it reminded me of something I wrote several years ago, and I’d like to share that with you this week.
God is Not Fair
The concept of fairness permeates Western society. Westerners like conditions to be impartial and equitable. There is something innate to humanity, where fairness is concerned, that drives our moral and ethical compass. Young children are quick to cry out “Unfair!” when playing with one another, and it is possible that the cry has merit. It may be that one of the participants gained an unfair advantage by violating the established rules of the competition. It is equally likely that a child played the Unfair card because he or she lost, and knows that the accusation of unfairness is a powerful tool for getting a do-over, or for eliciting parental intervention.
Fairness and justice, though related, are not synonymous. Where fairness references impartiality, an even playing field, freedom from bias, or perhaps even the use of bias to bring about the aforementioned even playing field, justice is more concerned with giving each person what is their due. As far back as the Greek philosopher Plato’s Republic, the idea of fairness and justice has driven discussions related to ethical behavior. This same discussion continues with such strength and momentum that in 2015-2016, United States presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, an openly Socialist contender, made fairness the central theme of his run for the U. S. presidency, though his definition of fairness seemed to be focused more on equality of outcome than with equality of opportunity. What is truly amazing about the Sanders candidacy is that his message of fairness resonated deeply with the populace of a country that in very recent history largely despised the idea of Socialism. Sanders connected with a pain point in the voter rolls, and he played to his audience masterfully.
The notion of fairness, or the lack thereof, can be observed in numerous arenas in western culture. Just as the children cry “Unfair!” on elementary school playgrounds, that same objection is employed to gain attention wherever injustice, real or imagined, is purported to exist. Some assert unfairness from a racial perspective, believing one race or another has an unfair advantage in life. Others declare inequalities from a gender platform, believing that one gender is given preference over another in hiring practices or compensation for work performed. Still others bemoan educational inequities, whether at the elementary or secondary level, or in access to or preferences granted in post-secondary education.
Economic unfairness is an oft-heard protestation from those who object to the economic classes in society, something the Communists believe they can solve by mandating a classless society. They believe that giving all people equal status and opportunity will resolve any issues of unfairness, not realizing that those who dole out those determinations of status are, by default, placed in positions to abuse that power for their own benefit.
These and similar battles continue to generate heat and unrest, with some believing the government must legislate equality into each circumstance, while others believe the government should not be involved in the discussion at any level. The concept of fairness and justice, however, does not limit itself to the political, educational, or economic realm. Our concerns regarding fairness bleed into the spiritual realm where we struggle to understand the interaction of God with humanity, and to reconcile his love with the life-struggle drama being played out before us. Why did God let the tornado wipe out my town? Why did God let my child die? Why does God allow earthquakes? Why is my country filled with obesity when men and women in third-world countries can count their bones? This is not fair. God is not fair.
Grumbling Against God
At the risk of sounding a little cold, I will assert that what is truly fair is whatever God decides is fair. “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”1
In Matthew 20, Jesus related a story about a man who owned a vineyard, and hired several crews to work it.2 Early in the morning the landowner recruited workers for his vineyard, and negotiated a specific wage for a day’s work. About nine o’clock that same morning, the owner found more workers who were willing to work his vineyard, so he negotiated a wage with them as well and sent them to work his vineyard. The same thing happened at noon, and then again at three in the afternoon, in each case, the landowner negotiating a wage with the workers, and then sending them to work in his vineyard. Even later, at five in the afternoon, the landowner came across some men standing idle. He hired them and sent them into his vineyard.
At sundown, the landowner called the vineyard foreman, and directed him to pay all of the workers the negotiated rate, beginning with those who were hired last. For their brief time of labor, those hired last were paid a full-day’s wage. Seeing this, those who were hired first excitedly expected they would be paid more. When they also received the same full-day’s wage, they grumbled about it, saying it was unfair for them to work the full day, bearing the heaviest load of the work, right through the hottest part of the day.
But the owner of the vineyard was having none of this, essentially saying, “Your complaint is invalid. You agreed to a day’s wage and you have been paid what you agreed to. If I choose to give the same wage to someone who did not work as long as you did, it is my money and my business. So, take your pay and go.”3
We look at our lives, and compare them to the lives of others, and we conclude that we are being treated unfairly, inequitably. Why is it that my nephew had to suffer brain cancer twice before he even reached the age of 20? That is not fair. Why was I born into a comfortable and loving home in Kansas while others are born into poverty in Somalia? That is not fair. Why do I live in a city where I can walk with little concern for my safety while others live in cities where they rarely leave the confines of their homes for fear of being mugged, raped, or shot? That is unfair.
If we measure fairness using a human-divined system of equability, it is true that everything above appears very unfair. In such a system, the cold reality is that life is grossly unfair, and nowhere do I find Jesus claiming otherwise. As soon as sin entered the human equation, selfishness was set free to run rampant in human relationships, and with selfishness, there is blatant inequality, unfairness, injustice, and evil. Selfishness is a ravenous beast whose hunger is never satisfied. Life is not fair. People are not fair. And God is not fair. God is not constrained to operate on a human system of merit despite the fact that we act as though we believe he should do so. However, if we examine our case more closely, I believe we will see the flaws in our argument regarding God’s unfairness, and feel a bit silly for making it.
God most certainly is not fair. It is not fair that the creator of all that exists should become one with what he created, only to be deeply despised and rejected by his own creation. It is not fair that Immanuel, God with us, should be beaten beyond human recognition4 and torturously fastened to a cross as a payment for my misbehavior. It is not fair that Jesus should die as a payment for my sin debt. No, God is not fair at all. But he is just.
God deals with us not according to what is fair, but according to the depth and breadth of his love for us. He deals with us according to his mercy and his grace. If we were to have our calls for fairness and justice heeded, not one of us would survive, because we are all guilty of sin.5 Justice and fairness would demand payment of our debt, and the wages of sin is death.6 God forbid that he should ever deal with us according to fairness. Thank you, God, that instead you extend to us mercy and grace. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”7
Many years ago, I was talking with another pastor about the death of his son. In that discussion, he said something so shocking, so matter-of-fact, and so profoundly true that I have never forgotten it. He said, “The question is not, ‘Why did God let my son die.’ The question is, ‘Why does God let me live?'” The answer to his question is, “Because God is not fair.” If God were fair, we would all be paying the price for ourselves, rather than relying on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus in our place, and on our behalf.
Why Is My Life So Hard?
Life is hard; it is difficult. That is just the simple truth of it. Jesus confirmed this in John 16, telling us, “In the world, you have trouble”8 – and indeed, we do. You and I have seen and known those who pretend to float from one victory to the next, and if we did not know better, we could look at ourselves and wonder what is wrong with us, or with our faith, that we don’t enjoy the trouble-free life that our disciple-in-denial friend pretends to enjoy. Life is hard. Consider these passages, and what they tell us about living life as a Christ-saturated man or woman:
Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. – 2 Timothy 3:12 (NASB)
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; – 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NASB)
But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. – Matthew 10:17-18 (NASB)
Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. – Matthew 24:9 (NASB)
You will be hated by all because of My name, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. – Mark 13:13 (NASB)
They will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake … But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name. – Luke 21:12b, 16-17 (NASB)
If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. – John 15:18-20 (NASB)
They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God. – John 16:2 (NASB)
I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. – John 17:14 (NASB)
Nothing in what Jesus and Paul said above offers any indication that, as Christ-followers, we should expect a life of sliding gleefully on the ice of blessedness. Quite the opposite. If what Jesus said above is to be believed, we should expect persecution, and think it strange if the persecution is not present. Pastor Greg Laurie said, “Righteousness, by its very nature, is confrontational. The very fact that you believe in Jesus bothers some people…”9 Jesus confirms this, and explains it by saying, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”10
On January 16, 1983, I confessed Jesus as Lord, and submitted to a plunge into the watery grave of baptism. When I was pulled upward, out of that water, I was indeed a new creature,11 and I served a new master.12 But nothing in my physical world had changed. I was still a university student. I had to study, and my grades did not instantly become straight-A’s. I still had the driving record of my youth, and my automotive insurance reflected that reality. I still struggled with zits, and could never get my hair to lie just right. My body still became ill from time to time. Life was still difficult, but I now had a Long-View outlook that allowed me to understand my circumstances in a completely different way.
The belief and the teaching that all of the problems in my life expire when I become a Christ-follower is, at best, a misrepresentation of what Jesus taught his disciples. It flies in the face of the whole concept of counting the cost, of deciding whether or not my level of commitment will even allow me to be a follower after Christ. If the life of a disciple was nothing but endless bliss, Jesus would never have taught the way he did about the call to follow him. Peter would never have written about suffering for doing good.13 James would not exhort his readers to endure suffering with patience.14 The writer of Hebrews would never list his great roll call of faith.15 Life is hard, even a Christ-Saturated Life.
We do not become Christ-followers because it makes our lives easy. We become Christ-followers because it makes us clean before a holy God.