Life's Not Fair

Life's not fair.

I hate that phrase. I heard it over and over as a kid but I could never understand why it bothered me so much. At first, I thought it was because that was the line my parents would use to end any argument with me. Whenever I would be unhappy with a punishment, no matter how just or unjust it was, I would tell my mom or dad, "That's not fair!" Like clockwork, their response was always, "Too bad. Life's not fair." Just like that, the debate would be over and I would head to my room defeated and disappointed. 

As I matured into adulthood, my girlfriend (and now wife) would also remind me of this bitter truth as I ranted about some biblical or theological issue. I specifically remember being upset at how God treats Job and how brutally unfair God is toward a person who has done nothing wrong, to which she responded, "Well God never said that life would be fair. He is God: he can do what he wants." While I believed that to be true, it wasn't good enough for me. Why do we always insist that life isn't fair? What is the issue with wanting things to be fair?

Now please don't be mistaken: I am a student of "Qoheleth University" (thank you Dr. Wallace). What I mean is that I agree wholeheartedly with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes in its observation that the righteous do not always prosper and the wicked sometimes do. It does not matter how obedient you are to God's will because there are things in life that simply remain out of your control. We are all born with different genes in different cultural backgrounds at different times in history; some people have a better chance of living a good life simply because of the family they were born into. We don't all have the same starting point. We don't all have the same opportunities. Some of us are privileged and some of us are not. That is the reality of the world. Life isn't fair.

My problem is not that this is true. My problem is that we aren't bothered by it.

When I hear "life's not fair," it's usually coming from the mouth of someone trying to justify an injustice. It is an attempt to keep us from doing something while staring in the face of inequality. It is telling ourselves, or someone else, that any actions that would bring about justice are an act of futility. It encourages us to accept that this is a reality that cannot be changed and reprimands us if we dare to think any differently.

I am one who has made this claim to my siblings, friends, and even elders. I think that the reason we all do it is because we have been trained to do so. We’ve had the phrase beaten into our heads for so long that we have come to use it whenever we hear someone make the accusation of “that’s not fair.” And so a phrase that can serve as a very helpful reminder that life (and God) don’t always function the way we want them to can very quickly turn into an excuse for silence and non-action.

I don’t think I have to convince you that we serve a God of justice, but too often we spiritualize that justice and think it only pertains to our individual salvation. What is more, we mistake the idea of “justice” for that of revenge: we must be given an equal punishment to the crime we committed. We think that since God is “just,” that means he must punish all of us according to our crimes against him; hence, there is a fire of eternal torment to highlight the vastly wicked nature of our rebellion.

As I read through the Bible, especially the prophets and the Gospels, I am amazed, first, by the mercy of God on those who are broken and sinful. Jesus speaks with a prostitute (Luke 7:36-50), a Roman Centurion (Matt 8:5-13), a Pharisee (John 3), and 12 bumbling idiots who don’t get his message no matter how plain he makes it (all of Mark). In the prophets, I see God calling down judgement on Israel for not following his commands, but always with the reminder that he will restore them. Justice must be done because they have not looked like the people God intended them to be, but this justice always comes with mercy.

Secondly, I am amazed by the amount of social justice God personally performs and demands of his people. In the famous words of Micah 6:8, the prophet reminds the Israelites, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In the prophets, justice is helping the poor and serving those who cannot help themselves (In most cases, orphans and widows – See Isaiah 1, 10:1-4, Jeremiah 7:5-7, 22:1-5, Amos, 5:10-15, Micah 3:1-12, just to name a few). In many of these passages, God declares that he will bring judgement on those who don’t perform justice. In other words, because God is just, he expects his followers to be just as well.

Jesus also sets this example when he performs healings of many kinds. He travels to leper colonies and heals them so that they may return to society (Luke 17:11-19). He eats meals with tax collectors and other “sinners,” thus establishing a social connection with those who were thought to be outside of acceptable society (Matt 9:9-13). He raises the only son of a widow (Luke 7:11-15), speaks with a promiscuous Samaritan woman (the very bottom of the social hierarchy - John 4:1-42), and speaks highly of an unclean, bleeding woman who touched his cloak without his permission (Luke 8:40-49). Everything that Jesus does has social implications for Jewish and Roman society and each action establishes more justice in an unjust world.

Why do we keep insisting that life isn’t fair? Are we just making excuses to not act like God wants us to? Does it give us a reason to be unfair to our family and friends? Does it permit us to hand down unjust punishments to our kids and to those whom we supervise at work? Does it allow us to passively accept the nature of the world and not call for any change?

Are we simply afraid of acting fairly?

The fact that life is not fair indicates for me that life is not like God: this is not what the kingdom of God looks like. While I understand that we are imperfect and any attempts at justice will ultimately be lacking, does that really give us a reason not to try? I have never been told to stop reading my Bible because I “can’t be a perfect Christian,” so why is this any different? We won’t always get it right. We won’t always act in the way that God desires. But the goal is not perfect action.

The goal is God.

If God is a God of justice, injustice should make us sick. It should compel us to march in the streets when we see something that does not line up with God’s plan for God’s kingdom. We should be inspired to take a stand, and even take a knee, when we see an earthly government act in a way that is contrary to God’s rule. As my fellow blogger put it last week, “A theology that does not drive those studying it to rebuke injustice in all political systems, and the pursuit of liberation both spiritually and physically, is lacking what helps humanity experience the community and the Divine around them.”*

It is agreed upon: life’s not fair.

Now what shall we do about it?