I’ve been reading Andy Stanley’s book Deep & Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend. It’s a good read. If you’ve not picked it up, head to the local bookstore and flip through it a bit. Andy’s every bit as engaging on the page as he is in the pulpit, and the first section of the book alone is worth the read.
I’ve been Tweeting different lines that I think are particularly solid (don’t worry, I’ve been giving Andy credit) and today I came across something that really resonated with me. Here’s the line:
“Read the Gospels and you will have a difficult time finding even one example of Jesus being fair.”
That gave me pause. Jesus isn’t fair? How can that be? Isn’t he the fullness of God made man? Isn’t God fair? So wouldn’t that necessarily mean that Jesus had to be fair too? What the heck is going on here?
But Andy goes on to cite ample evidence from the Gospels: Jesus didn’t heal everyone, didn’t feed everyone, didn’t offer everyone immediate entrance into His Kingdom. He didn’t train everyone the way he did the Twelve, and even among that select few he pulled aside Peter, James and John for even deeper relationship. He was hard on the religious, gracious to the sinners, and constantly spoke in folksy stories that concealed the truth. Jesus waited until Lazarus died, then got on to Martha when she scolded him for waiting. He healed the blind man at Bethesda and left the other injured, broken people to simply watch the miracle pass them by. Heck, he let Judas pretend to be a good guy and steal money from the poor.
So what do you know?
Jesus isn’t fair.
This immediately made me think of something that I’d read earlier this week on CNN.com; it’s an iReport from a woman who is raising her children without religion. It’s fairly standard stuff, but what stood out to me were two things: first, that people had flagged the story as inappropriate and CNN, after careful review, rightly reinstated the story. The editors even went so far as to post a disclaimer that the story was flagged by readers as offensive and request that they stop doing so.
Second, the story stood out because the mother listed as one of the reasons she didn’t teach her kids about God is because God isn’t fair.
Here, read for yourself:
If God is fair, then why does he answer the silly prayers of some while allowing other, serious requests, to go unanswered? I have known people who pray that they can find money to buy new furniture. (Answered.) I have known people who pray to God to help them win a soccer match. (Answered.) Why are the prayers of parents with dying children not answered?
If God is fair, then why are some babies born with heart defects, autism, missing limbs or conjoined to another baby? Clearly, all men are not created equally. Why is a good man beaten senseless on the street while an evil man finds great wealth taking advantage of others? This is not fair. A game maker who allows luck to rule mankind’s existence has not created a fair game.
Between this mother’s view and Andy’s statement, I’ve been wondering: who says God is fair? Why do we think that? And if God isn’t fair, then what does that mean for how we understand him?
So what is fair? Most people think that fair means an even playing field, that no one person gets a leg up on anyone else. And that definition is true. (See here if you want to read what else fair means.) Fair means that no one gets special treatment; no one gets to circumvent the rules. My kids are masters of this concept already: if I allow my son to technically eat less than my daughter and still get a treat, Ella is quick to point out that my decision isn’t fair. “Why do I have to eat everything and he only has to eat something?”
I could point out that Jon’s smaller, therefore his belly is smaller. I could point out that Ella enjoys eating and always has, so the “clean your plate” standard for her isn’t exactly an onerous burden. I could even go so far as to say, “I’m the dad and I make the rules.”
The reality is, she won’t care. Because she will still feel slighted anyway.
And the truth of the matter is that, from her point of view, I am NOT being fair; but I am being just. Jon physically can’t eat as much as she can because he’s younger and his stomach’s smaller. Jon also is a painfully picky eater, and so getting him to meet even the relaxed standard I’ve set for him is a remarkably hard thing to do (and truthfully, he rarely ever meets it).
The problem, and it’s the foundation for what Andy was talking about with his “Jesus isn’t fair” observation, is the tension between truth and grace. Truth says that all people are under the same standard: we are measured against the holiness of God, a standard by which no man can be found righteous. Grace says that God will overlook our failures and count us as righteous by his Son. So on the one hand rules, but on the other one, grace. And since God made the rules, he knows and understands them best. So that means that, sometimes, he isn’t fair. Sometimes one person’s prayer is answered while another one isn’t.
But it doesn’t mean God is unjust. He can’t be. It would violate his character.
Look, I’d be a lying dirtbag if I said that I didn’t think God was unfair sometimes. I’d also be a lying dirtbag if I said that I didn’t want him to be unfair; the truth is, I want him to be unfair. I just want him unfair in my favor. But God isn’t like that. His justice won’t allow it. And so he doesn’t answer every prayer exactly the way we demand/expect/want. He doesn’t give everyone unlimited resources and perfect health and all of the other things that we want but don’t get (and secretly think we deserve); things that – once denied – lead us to labeling God unfair.
But no matter what we think, no matter how we frame it and present it, the reality is that if God is as Christianity and Judaism and Islam assert – the source from which all life flows and is sustained – then only he knows what is right and just and true and fair. And what he knows is beyond our limited capacity. And if we take Scripture at its word and believe the things that it reveals about him, about his nature and character and will, then we must admit to ourselves that he will do things we cannot understand. A limit that, for us, makes the trials and tragedies and triumphs of this life intense and powerful and beautiful.
There will be people who read this and rip it to shreds. I understand. I’m not trying to write a thesis here, no matter what the word count may tally. I’m trying to wrap my head around a tension that too often derails us as followers of Christ, as children of God. It’s a new area of thought for me, and so I welcome the challenges/opposing viewpoints/vicious trolling. The comments are open for your viewpoints and I welcome you to leave them. I’ll respond as I can.
I guess in the end, I come back to something my friend P. C. Frailey said to me on Twitter the other day: most people spend their time attacking a God that doesn’t exist. They point out flaws that God doesn’t have, because they define God as something he hasn’t revealed himself to be. In the end, they are beating against the air.
God is just. God is gracious. Sometimes that means he isn’t fair.
I think I can be okay with that.