Is God unfair?

Posted by on Jun 13, 2017 in Blog | 4 comments

I was speaking at the Slavic Baptist Church this Sunday, and with the help of an excellent Russian interpreter tackled the ever perplexing question of why good people often suffer, and the question which arises from this, “Is God unfair?” I was interacting with some of the views explored by Philip Yancey in his excellent book Disappointment with God, and the response to the message made me think that what was said would be worth sharing with a wider readership.

So with a few minor edits, here is what I said…

I have been a pastor for over 30 years now, and in that time I have heard people express confusion about the way God works again and again. While they haven’t always said “God’s not fair” or that they are disappointed with God, it’s clear that’s how they feel. Sometimes it’s more dramatic than disappointment. It’s rage and anger. Back in 1985, 40 years after the second world war had ended, I listened while a man became incensed as he spoke about seeing people suffer in the concentration camps back then. “I no longer believe in God” he said. “But if there is a God, then frankly I don’t think much of him!” Elie Wiesel, who has written so movingly of his survival of the Nazi holocaust, has scathingly commented that if there is a God, he should resign and let someone more competent take his place. Strong words – strong words indeed…

Sometimes it’s not anger, but more a sense of despair. I listened to another man for whom nothing ever seemed to go right expressing his pain with an endless series of ‘why’s’. He was struggling with depression and saw no way beyond an endless period of black heaviness that settled each day and usually lasted for hours and hours. “Why does nothing ever go right for me? I’ve really tried to serve God. You tell me what I’ve done wrong? And yet nothing ever comes together? Why does God allow it?”

Sometimes the questions are unspoken and yet hang heavily in the air. I have sat with a young family who were trying to come to terms with the death of their 5 year old from leukemia. They were too stunned and numbed to articulate any questions, but in my heart I was asking them. “God, I knew that little boy… why did you allow this?”

Often it’s not so dramatic, but is still perplexing. I remember a congregant who had purchased a new car complaining that someone had run a key from one end to the other along the sparkling new paintwork. “I’ve never had a new car before” she said. “I was so excited with it. Why did it have to happen with the new car? It wouldn’t have mattered with the old one. Isn’t God supposed to look after things like that? After all, I’m doing my best to serve Him.”

So what are we to make of those experiences that don’t make sense? How are we to live with the questions we are not even prepared to put into words for fear of where the sentiment might lead us? Today we’ll try to partially answer the important question: “Is God Unfair?” – partially – because some questions can never be fully answered. Indeed sometimes they must simply be heard, rather than answered.

IS GOD UNFAIR?

In a hundred different ways we see the injustice of life. The suffering of children caught in the crossfire of the latest war. At times we have seen photographs of emaciated children desperate for even a tiny morsel of food. Don Quixote, the Spanish nobleman who in the novel from the 17th century chases at windmills, is asked why he opts for a world of fantasy instead of reality and replies with a  story. To paraphrase it: “I have nursed men on the battle fields of the world as they were about to die, I saw there was a question in their eyes. I have sat with slaves in galleon ships, dying from the inhumane conditions – and as they were dying, I saw there was a question in their eyes. The question was not, why am I dying – but why did I ever live? So if you ask me, why do I prefer a world of fantasy to one of reality, it is because I have tried reality, and it has nothing to commend it…” And so we ask again, “Is God unfair?”

For Christians, the dilemma is real. We believe in a God who is all loving and all powerful and all knowing and always present. If God didn’t love, or wasn’t all powerful, or didn’t know, or couldn’t get to us, perhaps we could find an excuse for the lack of divine intervention in the atrocities of life. But we do not believe in a God with limited ability, and so the question “Is God unfair?” can’t be avoided.

Let’s consider some possible answers…

POSSIBILITY 1: GOD IS UNFAIR, GET USED TO IT!

Though we may be uncomfortable saying it, perhaps God is unfair. It was the conclusion of Job’s wife. In Job 2:9 she gives her advice “Are you still holding to your integrity? Curse God and die!” Her position is clear. Give up on God. Be bold enough to shake the fist at Him, say “life stinks” and depart. There is nothing we can do about the injustice that comes the way of some people, but we can at least be honest enough to voice our disgust.

Remember that this was advice spoken by a fellow sufferer. While Job’s wife didn’t have the illness that attacked him, she had also lost her children and wealth (Job 1). Sometimes if you love someone you suffer almost as much as they do when you see them struggling. When you watch it from the perspective of your own broken heart – well, don’t be too quick to judge Job’s wife. Hers was not an easy lot.

Job’s wife was hugely angry with God and adamant that He’s unfair. She was prepared to tell Him so.

POSSIBILITY 2: GOD’S NOT UNFAIR, IT’S ALL OUR FAULT

This was the option Job’s friends opted for. As you go through the remarkable story of Job’s suffering you find that Job’s friends encourage him to believe it’s a result of his sin. It’s easy to follow their logic. God is always good and kind, so if someone is suffering, it stands to reason that it’s their own fault. Job was struggling, so obviously he had some fault they were not aware of. In Job 11:13-20 Zophar assures Job that if he will only devote himself to God and put his sin away, all will be well for him again.

Many Christians have fallen prey to the logic of Job’s suspect friends. Some preachers have promised people health, wealth and prosperity if they will only trust God fully, and have then blamed the strugglers lack of faith is they achieved anything less than a life abundant with the goods of this world.

Now it is true that God in his grace often bestows wonderfully generous gifts on his children. But when the good gifts don’t come there is no reason to conclude that it is because of our sin. It could be… but most of the Bible’s heroes suffered. Usually it had nothing to do with sin. What had Paul done to deserve a thorn in the flesh? Job’s suffering was because he was so good that God agreed he could be tested. Jeremiah had a dreadful life – filled with repeated humiliations and great suffering. We remember him as the wailing prophet, but he was faithful to God. And think about Hosea, whose wife turns to prostitution. It appears that all of the disciples were executed for their faith, with the exception of John who spends his closing days in forced labour in the prison camp on the ever so bleak Island of Patmos.

Part of the reason that Job’s story is recorded in scripture is to remind us that the trite and hurtful logic of Job’s friends just doesn’t work when life is unfair. Drawing a straight line between sin and suffering is simply untrue in many, many cases. Amongst other things it forgets that we are both “sinners and sinned against” – and that much of our suffering results because we have been “sinned against”.

POSSIBILITY 3: GOD’S NICE, BUT NOT AS POWERFUL AS WE THINK

When we say that God is unfair, we may be working on a false assumption. Rabbi Harold Kushner in a popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, takes an unusual line. Having watched his son die of progeria, Kushner knew about suffering. His response was not to blame God but rather to say that God also thinks that life is unfair. Unfortunately God is not so powerful that he can do anything about it. Kushner proposes a perfectly pleasant and kindly God, but one who lacks power. God is as frustrated, even outraged, by the condition of the world. But he is stumped as to what to do about it.

However, you have to ask whom Kushner is talking about. Is the God of the Bible really incapable of acting? Whose help did he need when he made the world? And how did he so successfully intervene on behalf of his people time and time again. There are so many stories in the Bible, and almost all affirm that God has the power to work everything out for good. So other than for his deep disappointment and pain, where does Kushner’s God originate from? Clearly He is not the Yahweh of the Bible!

POSSIBILITY 4: UNFAIRNESS ALL TURNS OUT FOR THE BEST

This is one we often adopt. Sometimes it is true. We’re urged to turn ‘scars into stars’! If we’re suffering, it’s surely that we’re being tested and strengthened – and the resilience we develop during such periods is beneficial. Now it is good to be positive when difficult things happen to us. But to try and pretend that we have answered the question of “Is God unfair?” simply by suggesting that suffering toughens us, is trite!

A friend of mine, a brilliant mathematician now sidelined for several decades by chronic fatigue syndrome, wryly commented: “I’m sure that I have learnt a lot through this, and have become very deep and profound, but I don’t see what’s the point of being so wise if I’m never well enough to mix with others and pass on my insights!”

And who benefits when innocent children suffer? If I’m supposed to be made into a better and more profound person because of the suffering of others, surely it’s not fair to them. Clearly we can’t settle for this answer alone.

POSSIBILITY 5: WE’RE LOOKING AT THIS THE WRONG WAY…

If none of the 4 answers we’ve given so far is really adequate, perhaps we need to look at the question in a different way.

Philip Yancey in his book Disappointment with God, tells of asking a man he knew had suffered greatly if he was disappointed with God. To his surprise, the man, whose life had been radically altered by a car accident, and who also had to cope with his wife’s advancing cancer, replied quite firmly that he wasn’t disappointed with God at all.

“But surely, after all that has happened to you?” Yancey queried. “No,” the man replied. “You’re confusing God with life. God isn’t life. He’s God! Life’s not fair, but God is good!”

Now that’s worth thinking about!

Life isn’t fair. The Bible is clear about why it isn’t. The world has been tainted by the fall. Things no longer work properly. After their sin, Adam and Eve were warned that from then the earth would only produce food because of the sweat of their brow. Childbirth would bring pain. Relationships between men and women would be strained (Gen 3:16-19). Because of sin, life is no longer fair. The world is not as it was made to be.

So does that mean that God is the kindly but impotent figure portrayed by Rabbi Kushner – wishing things were better, but incapable of doing anything about it?

No! The God of the Bible is the God who is deeply dissatisfied with the unfairness of the world. He is so dissatisfied that His judgment sits upon this present age. He has promised He will make a new heaven and a new earth. The present one is simply not good enough.

“Oh, fine” you say. “Pie in the sky in the sweet by and by!”

It’s more radical than that. Life’s not fair, but God does not leave us to face it on our own. That’s the message of God becoming one of us – the message of Jesus’ incarnation. And that’s the promise of the crucified but now risen Jesus, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

Because of the fall we live in an unfair world. As Blake writes in Auguries of Innocence, “Every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight. Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night.” Regardless of if our lot is sweet delight or endless night, we worship a crucified/risen God who has suffered and struggled and become one of us. He does not desert us in our hour of need. God is the first to acknowledge that the perfect has not yet come. But God promises that it will. And God is with us in our journey there.

Dr Paul Brand, the man instrumental in finding a cure for leprosy, when asked the question, “Where is God when it hurts?” replied, “He is in you, the one hurting, not in it, the thing that hurts.”

Because God is love, even though we will never turn this world into Utopia, God calls us to follow a path of love so that this world might become a gentler, kindlier place, even while we wait for the promise of the future. The Church is formed for many purposes, but one is to be a community of care – a sign of God’s love for the world. Life might not be fair, but it is certainly a lot easier when lived with people who love, and care, and support you.

Life’s not fair. But God is good. And God is with us. And we can be there for one another. And in the end, God will have the new heaven and the new earth ready for us…

As always, nice chatting…

4 Comments

  1. I remember you preaching something similar at Roskill Baptist many years ago. The overriding statement I recall is that life is unfair. God isn’t. Thank you for the reminder.

    • I impressed Lesley. The original of this sermon was indeed preached at Roskill – about 20 years ago now. This was a bit of a refresh of the original – but I am really encouraged that some of it was remembered. Hope the move has gone well for you and Mark.

  2. Thanks for this very thoughtful discourse, Brian. There are no easy answers but hopefully as we reach out to a hurting world with “God’s love shed abroad in our hearts”, we can bring some joy to those who suffer and be a light in the darkness. Lots of questions to ask God face to face one day!

  3. A really helpful blog Brian. I appreciate your clear thought and accessible language. This Sunday I am speaking on the same topic as part of a series about the tough questions we have about God and faith. A lovely piece of fortuitous timing as I prepare today!

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