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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