Life is not fair

Pastoral Messages | September 7, 2017

I know many people who take comfort in a just world. “People get what they deserve,” these ones say. Most of us develop and refine our ethic of fairness as children. It’s in childhood that we experience that vicious argument in the back seat of the family car, wait for a parent to intervene, and when the parent finally does seek to resolve the crisis, one of the kids is left to cry out, “But that’s not fair.”

Belief in a just world may bring a certain degree of comfort – at least for awhile. We’re convinced that our goodness will pay off. Even when we witness atrocities in the news, we somehow reason that it’s not likely going to happen to us. The ugly corollary to this belief is that victims in the news probably had it coming to them in some fashion because they weren’t living right, or living in the right place, when the calamity struck. There’s even a Bible verse one could dig up to justify this belief. “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6).

But then cancer strikes out of the blue. Or Hurricane Harvey and Irma rise out of the blue gulf waters. And then whole idea that people get what they deserve suddenly loses merit.

After a massive earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province in 2008, killing nearly 90,000 people, social scientists conducted an elaborate study to learn how survivors were coping. What they discovered was that those who lost family and friends in the quake were, not surprisingly, more likely than others to believe that the universe is unfair. Those who continued to believe that the universe is fair suffered the least anxiety and depression.

Well, it may be nice to be anxiety-free, but if that condition depends on being a disciple of the people-get-what-they-deserve principle, it’s not worth it. Jesus never had much use for our fiction of this world being just. The father of the prodigal son who squandered his inheritance never planned on being fair (Luke 15). His mind was set on practicing profound unfairness. He couldn’t help but be gracious and generous, and grace and generosity (by definition) aren’t fair. On and on, the stories of Jesus all strike a similar chord.

I think about all the people who love me more than I deserve, and of a Lord who displays more generosity and forgiveness than I deserve. I look at the phenomenal outpouring of love for the victims of these hurricanes we’re witnessing. It’s deep compassion at a level that throws every scale of justice and fairness way off balance. Real compassion doesn’t occur when deserving people decide to share their well-deserved surplus. It occurs when those who feel they have been blessed beyond all fairness express their gratitude.

God be thanked for a world of grace that supersedes a world of perfect fairness. That’s a world where real compassion triumphs, even in the midst of devastation and death.

Peter W. Marty, senior pastor

Copyright © 2017 Peter W. Marty. All rights reserved. Any use of this material must be attributed to Peter W. Marty. To reproduce this material in published format, please contact Peter.

3 Comments on “Life is not fair”

  • David DeWit

    September 7, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    In my mind, there is an interesting distinction between the oft-used terms “justice,” “mercy,” and “grace.”

    We often pray for a “just” world and are admonished in church to seek “justice” as part of our Christian walk. Justice might be defined as getting what one deserves. If one deserves good and receives good, everyone usually goes away happy. The unfairness that you give examples of in your superb essay happens when one deserves good (or at least doesn’t deserve bad), but receives bad instead.

    “Mercy” is not getting what you deserve, i.e., not receiving bad when you actually deserve bad. The book we discussed recently in Pastor Katy’s early morning discussion group (“Hallelujah Anyway” by Anne Lamott) stresses the crucial importance of mercy in the Christian life. I have a feeling that praying for Christians to show “mercy” in the world might be fully as important as encouraging them to work for a “just” world.

    “Grace” is getting what you do not deserve – receiving good when you actually deserve bad. Speaking personally, knowing my shameful self, I regard grace is an incredible gift from God through the intervention of Jesus Christ. This is the message of the Gospel. Christians might do well to practice imparting grace to others in their world and to leave the judging of who deserves what to God.

    Thanks, Pastor Marty, for a thought-provoking piece.

  • H W

    September 7, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    42 years ago today my 18 year old brother lost his life in a tragic mountain climbing accident…life’s unfairness hit me at the core of my being. He didn’t deserve to die at such a tender age and his friends and family didn’t deserve to suffer such a tragic loss. We’ve all suffered tragedy. I absolutely believe that we become a more compassionate people through our suffering.
    Peter, your words gently remind me that I have been blessed beyond all
    measure of fairness. I pray that God would give me a more generous heart and the nudge I need to extend compassion to others in this unjust world. Amen. -HW

  • J R

    September 7, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    Well said – AGAIN ! Thanks for your perspective! I often feel overwhelmed with all of my lives blessings and always feel my best when I get out of “self” maybe I am selfish – because when I do help others – I do it because it does make me feel good ( closer to god )

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Daniel 12:1-3

The Time of the End

1“Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued.2“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.3“Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

Psalm 16

1Preserve me, O God, for I take refuge in You.

2I said to the LORD, “You are my Lord;

I have no good besides You.”

3As for the saints who are in the earth,

They are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight.

4The sorrows of those who have bartered for another god will be multiplied;

I shall not pour out their drink offerings of blood,

Nor will I take their names upon my lips.

5The LORD is the portion of my inheritance and my cup;

You support my lot.

6The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places;

Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.

7I will bless the LORD who has counseled me;

Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.

8I have set the LORD continually before me;

Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

9Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices;

My flesh also will dwell securely.

10For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol;

Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.

11You will make known to me the path of life;

In Your presence is fullness of joy;

In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.

Hebrews 10:11-25

11Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins;12but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD,13waiting from that time onward UNTIL HISENEMIES BE MADE A FOOTSTOOL FOR HIS FEET.14For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.15And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,





He then says,



18Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.

A New and Living Way

19Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus,20by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh,21and since we have a great priest over the house of God,22let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful;24and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,25not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Christ or Judgment

Mark 13:1-8

Things to Come

1As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples *said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”2And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.”

3As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately,4“Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?”5And Jesus began to say to them, “See to it that no one misleads you.6“Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He!’ and will mislead many.7“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end.8“For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.

Daniel 7:9-14

9“I kept looking

Until thrones were set up,

And the Ancient of Days took His seat;

His vesture was like white snow

And the hair of His head like pure wool.

His throne was ablaze with flames,

Its wheels were a burning fire.

10“A river of fire was flowing

And coming out from before Him;

Thousands upon thousands were attending Him,

And myriads upon myriads were standing before Him;

The court sat,

And the books were opened.

11“Then I kept looking because of the sound of the boastful words which the horn was speaking; I kept looking until the beast was slain, and its body was destroyed and given to the burning fire.12“As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but an extension of life was granted to them for an appointed period of time.

The Son of Man Presented

13“I kept looking in the night visions,

And behold, with the clouds of heaven

One like a Son of Man was coming,

And He came up to the Ancient of Days

And was presented before Him.

14“And to Him was given dominion,

Glory and a kingdom,

That all the peoples, nations and men of every language

Might serve Him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

Which will not pass away;

And His kingdom is one

Which will not be destroyed.

The Vision Interpreted

Psalm 93

1The LORD reigns, He is clothed with majesty;

The LORD has clothed and girded Himself with strength;

Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved.

2Your throne is established from of old;

You are from everlasting.

3The floods have lifted up, O LORD,

The floods have lifted up their voice,

The floods lift up their pounding waves.

4More than the sounds of many waters,

Than the mighty breakers of the sea,

The LORD on high is mighty.

5Your testimonies are fully confirmed;

Holiness befits Your house,

O LORD, forevermore.

Revelation 1:-4-8

John 18:33-37

33Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”34Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?”35Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?”36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”37Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”