Every now and then, and apparently out of nowhere, a question will flit into my mind. It might not demand much attention at first, but when something unexpected reminds me that it’s there, I tend to take more notice.
Exactly this kind of question arrived in my mind on the second of January last year. I know this because I wrote it down: is God fair? I wasn’t asking this question because I had an opinion on the matter. I hadn’t really thought about it before and so I wondered what the answer might be.
The same question came up over cheese and crackers when I was out for dinner with friends recently. It was an unexpected context, but in some ways the relaxed atmosphere and company was the perfect forum for discussing it, and it helped that we were all Christians. Between the hors d’oeuvres and the getting of drinks, our analysis was neither exhaustive nor was it particularly disciplined. However it was enough to spur me on to ponder it further.
But how do you even begin to establish whether God is fair or not? Should you even try? It’s true to say, as one friend at dinner observed, that we all have a sense of what is and isn’t fair. But isn’t it also true that although we might often agree about what’s fair, there will be other times when we definitely don’t? Just cast your mind back to squabbles in the playground or negotiations over a family board game. So how can we possibly figure it out? Whose sense or standard of fairness should we use?
Rules: Our own sense of fairness seems to relate directly to our understanding of ‘the way things ought to be’. If we are playing a game, we cry “Unfair!” when we think that someone else has broken the rules or changed the rules (like moving the goal posts) or failed to tell us all of the rules or applied the rules inconsistently.
The question as to who’s allowed to make the rules only causes further debate, dissension and even outright war. Imagine what it would be like if board game manufacturers didn’t include the rules with the game! Each of us would want to be the one who made and applied the rules, because that would only be fair—to us.
The sad reality is that, in the board game of life, inconsistency and inequity seem to be the rules and this drives us mad. We believe we deserve to be treated as well as others are treated and to have what they have. We constantly make comparisons, so we’re fine-tuned to notice if someone else gets better treatment than we do, and if someone else has more or better things than we do. (We’re less likely, however, to protest when others get worse treatment than we do, or have fewer or inferior things compared to us.)
We hate the inconsistent and inequitable way this game plays out. But as much as we try to change it, most of our efforts to create a level playing field seem futile. And as we struggle with our own impotence and inability to change the course of the game, we’re inclined to turn to the game’s manufacturer with the accusation that he is not fair. From our perspective, the game doesn’t work the way it ought to. It’s broken. So if he made it, then he can and should fix it.
Instructions: And yet, the God who made the game of life also made us and he gave us the original instructions for the game. We have not followed them. Instead, we’ve all ignored him and made up our own rules, and together we’ve trashed the game for everyone. The reason the game of life is broken is because we broke it. And the reason things aren’t the way they ought to be is because we aren’t the way we ought to be.
And that’s why the biblical perspective is so disturbing for us. Although the Bible clearly acknowledges how unfair life is—how some prosper while others suffer—it does not soothe us by telling us that it’s not our fault. Instead, in Psalm 130:3 we read, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?” In Romans 3:10-12 we read, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one”.
If God is to be completely fair—if he is to give us what we truly deserve—then he must hold us to account for the way we have played the game of life. None of us have followed the instructions clearly printed on the box. Every one of us should be thrown out of the game, marked for destruction and cast out of his presence forever. None of us has lived according to God’s good intention and will.
Mercy: The truth is that we are unwise to demand that God act with utter fairness, because we desperately need him to act with abundant mercy. When God shows mercy to any of us he acts unfairly, not because he should show the same mercy to everyone. For God to be completely fair and just, he should not be merciful at all. To be merciful is to choose not to give someone the punishment they deserve.
According to God’s word the wages of sin is death, the right and just consequence for our rebellion against him. If you work for someone else, it is right and just for you to receive wages in payment for your labour. Likewise, when we sin, it is right and just for us to die and to be cut off from God forever. He cannot act against his character. He cannot ignore sin and leave it unpunished—that would be unjust and he cannot act unjustly, because he is always just.
Verdict: So, when God acted to deal with the problem of our sin—our refusal to live according to his directions—he chose to take our just punishment on himself, sending Jesus to die in our place. But this was not fair. Jesus did not deserve to die; we did. Jesus did not deserve to be the object of God’s terrible and just wrath against our sin; we did.
What God did in Jesus was not fair, simply because it was merciful. God graciously pronounces a ‘not guilty’ verdict for every sinner who repents and humbly trusts in Jesus as Saviour and Lord; for each one who knows and confesses how profoundly guilty and undeserving they are.
And yet, paradoxically, Jesus’ death on the cross for sin was also fair, because it was just. God did not ignore sin, but punished it once for all through his beloved Son, acting with justice and in complete accord with his just nature. And this was fair. In fact, the time is coming when God will replace the whole box and dice and all the players will submit gladly to their maker, and follow his instructions. Fairness will no longer be an issue.
So, is God fair? Yes he is, because he is holy, good and just, and he does not leave sin unpunished. Is God unfair? Yes he is, because he is merciful and patient, and at great cost to himself he has provided a way for sinners to be forgiven, not wanting anyone to perish—to be out of the game forever.