It is very interesting for me to see the change in perspective from being a son to being a father. This is especially true with regard to ideas of fairness. Now things were a bit different for me growing up as an only child. There never were questions about what I received compared to what my siblings received. However, issues of fairness were still there. In some cases, I was concerned about fairness by comparing my life with that of my friends. Why did they have those toys and I did not? Why could they stay out late and I could not? In other cases, the comparison was not between myself and my friends but between reality and this abstract concept of what I thought life should look like. Either way, it was about comparison and there were many times that life seemed unfair even if it was over minor issues. Now I am a father. What do I hear? “Dad, that’s just not fair!” With a family of five children, I experience a whole different dynamic than that of my parents. On a regular basis, my children see our decisions and our actions as being unfair. In certain cases, with Logan and Abby having autism and the need to sometimes react differently, I am sure that things do seem unfair. However, in many cases it comes down to the children being upset about not getting their own way. This is what I find very interesting: I just don’t care. I assumed as a child that it was a priority of my parents to seem fair. I now know the truth: parents just do not care about seeming fair. It is not that parents enjoy being random in their behavior or about secretly changing the rules, because we do have plan. The point is that parents don’t care if the children understand the reasoning behind the actions or if decisions actually look fair. All that matters is that the right thing gets done from our perspective. This is a great lesson to learn as a parent. However, this is a lesson I am still learning as a child of God. Even though I know what it is like to be a parent, when it comes to God I revert back to being a child and I want to demand fairness. I have a picture of what life should look like and when life does not happen like that, I complain to God. Life is just not fair! Well, no one said life was going to be fair. So how do we deal with this? Paul gives us some tools in Romans 9.
Whenever we study the Bible, we need to start with the author’s intent. It is very dangerous for us to start with what we think should be the truth and then look for Bible verses to back things up. Why does Paul write this section? This chapter is the first part of three chapters where Paul deals with the people of Israel. Throughout this letter Paul has been dealing with conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Each thought they were better than the other. Paul has demonstrated that both are in the same boat since we all have sin and the only way out is by the grace of God as we place our faith in Jesus. But this naturally leads to the question of all those Jews who never become Christians. Paul is very concerned about them. He states that he would be willing to give up his own salvation, if only they would be saved. Despite what some Christians believe, Paul makes it clear that it is only through Jesus that people can be saved. But what about Israel’s long history with God? God had done so much with and through Israel over the centuries. Now it seemed that God had moved from using Israel as his primary servant to using the church. Is that fair? After centuries of serving God, was it fair for God to move over to the church? That did not seem right, at least not to those of a Jewish background. It is in this context that Paul begins to reflect on why God does what he does and what happens when that does not look fair. One biblical example is the story of Jacob and Esau. Remember that Jacob was later renamed Israel and so this is still very closely connected to the fate of Israel. Paul reminds us that Jacob and Esau came from the same parents and so they seemed equal. There was no obvious reason for God to use one of them over the other. If anything, the odds tipped somewhat in the favor of Esau. Jacob was not very ethical and did not present himself as a pillar of moral strength. And yet it was Jacob that God chose to be the one he would work through. Why? Where is the list of reasons? Where is the discussion of why Jacob was better qualified? No where. God made the choice and he is God so he can make that choice. That hardly seems fair. Like children, our concept of fairness is based on how we think things should be. This looks unfair. But God made the decision. This is not just an obscure proof-text, this is the way we see God operate throughout the Bible. Job was a righteous man who served God and helped people. He lost everything. His friends, who operated under the expectations of fairness, accused Job of sin. God punishing sinners was fair, anything else was unfair. The reader knows that Job has not sinned, he is righteous, and yet he still suffers. In the end, God appears to Job and refuses to explain his apparently unfair actions and simply announces that he is the God of all creation who can do this. Jesus does not seem to be any fairer. He tells this parable: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1–16 ESV) We could spend a lot of time looking at what this means, but what I want you to see is that this does not seem fair. Imagine two people. One lives his entire life serving God. He sacrifices his money and his time and his talents. He works hard, both to minister in the church and to live a holy life by fleeing every temptation. It is not an easy life but he sees it as worth it for the reward he will find in heaven. The other man lives his life the way he wants. He lies, cheats and steals. He has no concern for morality and lives only for pleasure and personal gain. After a life of abusing himself and abusing others, he picks up a Bible on his death bed and he finally sees the truth of Jesus. He accepts Christ as his Lord and then dies. Is it fair that both men would enjoy the same eternity? No. But God is God and if God says that is the way, that is the way. Fairness, at least from our perspective, is not the determining factor.
Let us go back to our experience of fairness. We want life to be fair. But life does not look fair. Why do we enjoy plentiful religious freedom while there are Christians in other countries who are dying for their faith in the midst of persecution? Why are there good people who suffer in sickness and poverty and yet there are wicked people who enjoy health and wealth? Why are there children who are physically and mentally disabled? Why are innocent people sexually abused? Why do people cheat on their spouses? Why are there a million random events that seem to fly in the face of what we understand fairness to be? This is not just abstract theory. There are many times that I feel like it is unfair for Logan and Abby to be born with autism. They deserve a normal life. It is not fair. I can see many events in my life as an adult that seem very unfair. My first instinct is to rush to God’s defense. I want to explain away the difficulties and make God look as positive as possible. But perhaps that is not the right response. I am not saying that God is wicked or that he enjoys making our lives miserable. Maybe we do not need to know the reasons behind what happens anymore than our children have to know the background to our decisions or actions. Maybe it is as simple as letting God be God. The problem with this is that sounds awfully close to fatalism. Fatalism is the acceptance of all things and events as inevitable; submission to fate. People who are fatalistic, simply submit to suffering and have no hope of future relief from that suffering. That is not the Christian view. I am not saying that we should take the darkest time in our life and assume that God wants that experience for us for the rest of this life. I am saying that we need to get beyond questions of fairness. If something bad happens, instead of getting hung up on the ‘why‘ questions, let God be God and acknowledge that God is allowing this suffering or pain at this moment for some reason. But that is the point, there are reasons. As much as Paul stresses that God is God, he also demonstrates that God has a plan. We don’t understand it and we don’t have to. It is okay because God is in the suffering with us. So many people miss out on the best part of their life because they are so stuck on what is fair and what is not. We need to remember that God is God and he is not required to explain his reasons. However, God has also promised to be there with us and help us to overcome, perhaps in a way that we do not anticipate.
Life can sometimes be so unfair. It is our temptation to complain to God about our situation in life. Paul shares a powerful image of our relationship with God. “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 noble purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:20–21 NIV) Why is our life like this? Because God is God. Why would God move from Israel to using the church? Because God is God. This is not just a theological truth. This is the key to moving forward in life. If we hold onto to issues of fairness, we can never move forward into healing, joy and peace. Let God be God. Seek his help and his presence, rely upon his strength. But remember that in the end he is the only true God.