God Isn’t Fair

bookI’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.

LifeWay Christian Books, Twitter and Being a Witness

ImageA few weeks ago, I went into the Buford LifeWay store to purchase some books to help me with the Christian Learning Center class I teach, as well as my Wednesday night messages to  youth. As I normally do, I went over the LifeWay online catalog to make sure they carried the books I wanted, then made my list and went to the store hoping to find at least one or two of them in stock.

Now, the type of books I went searching for are – admittedly – a bit on the nerdy side. Books on philosophy, worldview, apologetics, and theology just aren’t popular for some reason (insert sarcasm font). They get relegated to a single shelf near the back, and I understand why: as Christians, we much prefer the books that tell us how to have a better life than the ones that tell us how to know God better. I get it.

But when I went looking for my titles, I couldn’t find a single one. Nada. Zero. Zip. In fact, there were no books on philosophy or worldview on the shelves at all, and precious few on apologetics.

As someone who worked for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, I was disappointed. Hurt. Angry.

Granted, not everyone is a nerd like me, but we are all called to know and understand our faith with great depth and conviction. For there not to be a single book in the store to help us deepen our understanding of the basic philosophical principles and worldview concepts of the faith…unbelievable.

And unfortunate. It perpetuates the stereotype that to be a Christian means you can’t be intelligent. Or well-thought.

So I tweeted my frustration to Thom Rainer, the president and CEO of LifeWay, mentioning the specific store and my disappointment at the books not carried. Not only did he respond to me personally (via Twitter and email) he offered to make it right.

And so today, when I went to pick up some books that I ordered, I checked the theology shelf of the store, just to see if there had been any change.

It was loaded with books on philosophy, worldview and apologetics. I can’t say that my one or two little tweets did all that, but it was gratifying to me to see that there was such a quick change in such a short time. While I’m reasonably sure that LifeWay was probably sold out of those types of books when I was in the store two weeks ago, I still felt like pointing out the need for such books was the right thing to do.

We live in an incredible time: via the power of social media, I was able to not only connect with the president of our denomination’s largest public arm, but I was able to (possibly) affect change within that organization. Twitter may often be a repository of dull and useless “insights” from people with too much time on their hands, but it can also be a powerful tool to reach people and make a difference.

But even greater than the coolness of Twitter is the power we have in speaking up. It’s not a horrible scandal for LifeWay to not carry a ton of philosophy books, but it is wrong for us as Christians to be okay with not exercising our minds. It’s wronger still for us to not to call out the church when we’re not doing what Scripture says (see Matt. 22:37, 1 Peter 3:15, 2 Timothy 4:1-4).

So let me encourage you this week to speak up when you see something that needs addressing – whether it’s within the church or within the culture around you. We are called to be witnesses to God everywhere we go (Matt. 28:19-20), so let us witness to those around us with the hope that accountability can bring positive change.

Why Exactly Are You a Christian?

why1I’m working on my sermons for this week (that’s right, I get to preach TWICE; time to panic) and one of the questions that keeps popping up in my mind is why are people even Christians in the first place?

The believer in me says that it’s because any person who has labeled themselves Christian has obviously committed their life to Jesus Christ. But what does that mean practically? How does that work itself out in the recesses of our souls?

The cynic in me says that many people label themselves Christian because that’s the label they were assigned growing up. If they’d been born in Hyderabad, they’d most likely be a Hindi or a Muslim. In Tibet, a Buddhist. In Soviet Russia, a Marxist. In Richard Dawkins’ house, an atheist. But because they had the good fortune of being born in the United States, a country where religion is involved in everything from politics to beverage selection, they roll with the Christian label and don’t give it a second thought. That point of view gets powerfully augmented when people who purport to be Christian can’t even tell you the last time they prayed or did anything else associated with the faith.

The pragmatist in me says that many people are Christian because, while they don’t quite believe in ALL of the religious mumbo-jumbo, they do believe that there’s something more to this life than just what’s in front of us. And American Christianity seems to offer the quickest and easiest solution to the nagging problem of an eternally red ledger: just confess Jesus as your Savior, say that you’re a Christian, and bingo – you’ve got one free pass to the big Playland in the Sky, expiration date never. The faith, for some, is but a grand cosmic CYB, an escape plan for whenever this fun fleshpot existence comes to a standstill. You can tell the person who’s faith is on this level because they only show up to church on one of five occasions: Christmas, Easter, a wedding, a funeral, or when the crap hits the fan (personally or nationally/globally).

I’m sure you could parse it out even further: people who have been guilted into belief; people who have found it to be a source of comfort during a trying time; the list could go on.

And if you were to man up and actually ask people why they’re a Christian, I’d imagine that you’d get an answer somewhere in between all of them.

I was raised a Christian. Told a church full of family and friends when I was eleven years old that I believed Jesus Christ died for my sins, was buried and rose again on the third day. And I did believe it.

I was an apostate by 18. Too many unanswered questions, too many small minded views.

College was an anger- and alcohol-fueled haze, a place where I tried to live outside as many of my religious boundaries as possible – when I had the courage. Deep down, there was a part of me that knew my life was a rolling mess, and while I quite often talked of wanting to live it up, I more often wanted to just find my own little space and get away from the world.

Eventually, my internal struggles could offer no resistance. Put in a position to make a choice between the values with which I’d been raised or the hell in which I’d chosen to live, I chose the former. I fell on my face before God, poured out my heart, surrendered my will and made peace with Him.

And I learned that I didn’t have to quit being me to do that. I was just as much a Christian with my doubts and questions and weird way of looking at the world as the sweet little old lady who never so much as thought a discouraging word. I look back on that time now as the moment that I took control of my faith; it was the moment that I sincerely became a Christian. Not because someone told me to, or because it was all I knew, but because it was what had proven to be truth in my life. After trying so many other ways of living, I knew faith in Christ was what was true.

(As an aside, if I weren’t a Christian, I would be a very happy agnostic. It would make the most sense to me. And I tell you this for honesty’s sake, lest you think I’m just picking one fuzzy-feel-good mode of thinking over another.)

Really, I guess that’s the question that’s driving me: do you own your faith? Do you own your way of religious thinking/philosophy? Or is it merely something transmitted to you by birth or chosen as a sense of insurance?

So how about it?

Why exactly are you a Christian? Or, if you’re not, why are you what you are? I’d love to read your comments.

The Never-ending Quest to Be Right

I’m weary from the past couple of days insanity. The election and all of its required hand-wringing is now over, but the backlash from the results remains. I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people insisting that the election was won or lost solely on a particular issue or strategy. The reality seems more likely to be a combination of multiple factors, and such is the nature of life.

Yet folks still insist that they know what turned the tide. They have the inside info. They know the truth.

It’s been ugly at times, this failure to see anything other than their own point of view. It has also been instructive. As one of my students suggested last night, one of the things that contributed to the current national schism is the stubborn insistence that “I’m right; you’re wrong” holds sway in everything.

This has nothing to do with politics, though politics seems to be one arena where the impulse is brought to the forefront. It has more to do with the simple fact that so many of us feel an almost insatiable desire to be right. And I’m not talking morality, or being a good person kind of right; more a I-know-better-than-anyone-else kind of right. An arrogant right that suggests that somehow the individual has cornered the market on the true way the world works, and no one else has. Suddenly, there’s no room for a discussion of ideas and agreement to disagree; there’s only the mantra that the one who’s right must prevail.

Facebook illustrates this so beautifully. Anytime you see a post with over 25 comments, there’s an 85% chance that the thread has devolved into someone asserting their correct view of the universe against others who would refute that view. And it can be about anything: God’s existence, the reliability of science, whether or not HALO is the single greatest video game franchise of all time. If you bother to opine about a subject, prepare yourself to immediately have that opinion challenged.

We’ve turned into a nation of bullies. If you don’t agree, we’ll just hammer away at you until you either change your mind or shut up. Either way, the bullies win.

And lately, everyone is a bully. The Christians. The Muslims. The Tolerant. The Intolerant. The Hippies. The Liberals. The Government. PETA.

As Buffalo Springfield sang, “Step out of line, the man come and take you away.”

Only now The Man is everyone. It’s funny–apparently we defeated Big Brother by becoming Big Brother. We can lay the blame for this at the feet of post-modernism (the deconstruction of the foundational assumptions of modernism, or essentially questioning everything), but that doesn’t explain exactly why everyone has embraced such an existential free-for-all. For that, we should look back to Genesis, into ancient story of mankind.

God told Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam did it anyway, becoming his own arbiter of right and wrong, becoming possessed of his own horrible point of view of the universe. And we’ve repeated that same flaw all the way through our species’ existence. Severed from God’s perspective, we’ve lost all sense of what is Right. We’ve resorted to manufacturing such definitions on our own and descended into chaos. We fight to be right, when we can never be such a thing. We are limited, finite creatures, tainted by sin and captive to our own delusions.

We have God’s Word and His Spirit to guide us, but even then we argue about who correctly understands, who correctly hears. Church history is replete with examples of how we can’t even agree about words on a page, or commands to love and teach others to do the same.

The only thing I take comfort in is that the One who defines what is Right, the One who is just and good and perfect in and of Himself, will one day sit all of us down and open our eyes to what is true. What is right. And in that moment all of us will bend the knee to Him and praise Him as Lord.

On that point, we’ll all agree. And we’ll all be right.


Certain topics wind there way into your brain and have a way of camping out there. I was able to preach this past Sunday at my church, and given that the Fourth is this week, our theme for the day was freedom. I sat down to study freedom in both a biblical and cultural context, and came away with a some new perspective on the idea.

I want to share those thoughts with you today. To some this will be a screed, a pointed opinion piece that skews one direction or another. That’s true. But I hope, as always, that those who read it will consider not just the presentation, but the points. Thus, to make the blog a manageable read, I’ve focused solely on my comments as they apply to our cultural context.

Just last Thursday, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a 5-4 ruling affirming the PPACA, otherwise known as the Healthcare Reform act. Though the issued ruled ran 183 pages in length, the over-simplification is this: the Healthcare Reform that has caused no small amount of angst and discussion is legal.

Predictably, the ruling lead to immediate backlash. Posts on Facebook and Twitter were especially indignant, with many people comparing the ruling to a sudden shift towards communism. Or as one of my friends put it, “The U S of A is now the USSR.” Other folks were more pragmatic in their responses – “Let’s get out and vote and restore this country!” – while others were simply angry for anger’s sake.

Such is the state of the nation. But beneath all the rhetoric, beneath the hyperbole and anger and fear, lies something primeval. In fact, it’s so basic to human nature that it predates the rise of civilization. And it’s something that we have granted divine right here in the States, elevating it to the one thing we cherish above all others.


In a world where the mention of the word evokes images of a blue-faced Mel Gibson screaming in a Scottish accent, what does freedom really mean? Here in the US, we understand it to be an inalienable right, an ideal that is preserved and protected for every individual at all costs. We see it as the ability to live without restrictions, to achieve the unlimited potential of our imaginations. It gets expression in everything from the size of our bank account to the gender of the person we want to marry, and the current ethos of the culture says that no one, not God, not government, has the authority to curtail it.

That attitude is patently – and painfully – false.

Freedom has its limitations. There are boundaries that are not to be crossed in order for a free society to exist. Here in the United States we call it the Constitution, and while the intention and interpretation of that document may be the source of endless debate, what cannot be argued is that establishes a framework for the freedom we so cherish.

It establishes limits. To personal actions. To governmental actions. The Constitution of the United States of America says, in effect, these are the mutually agreed upon conditions of our society, intended to give the maximum number of people the maximum amount of freedom as a whole. It does not allow us carte blanche; it does not grant each individual the right to do as his or her heart may desire; it says that certain actions will be declared unlawful so the majority may be otherwise free.

Once upon a time, this was the ethos of our country. That we would willingly curtail the extent of our personal freedoms in order to secure freedom for the many. But that has changed. In a post-9/11 world, more and more people are resentful of the idea that any personal liberty should be sacrificed for the greater good. And our government has often stepped far beyond the historical boundaries of their power and done things that have been, at best, intrusive, all in the name of freedom.

But the cultural shift preceeded even that.

In fact, the shift away from acceptable limitations on freedom is reflected in a shift away from responsibility for freedom. The limits that our forefathers framed within the founding document were built upon the citizenry accepting their responsibility for maintaining those freedoms. Whether you read the Constitution narrow or wide, the language of mutual responsibility for the existence of our country is inescapable. And yet, we have a great many who would seek to shirk those responsibilities in the name of freedom.

Part of it comes back to the American dream; my entire life I was taught that the first third of my existence was intended for the accumulation of knowledge and experience; my second third was intended for applying that knowledge and experience in some sort of venture that would secure my financial future; and that the final third of my existence was intended for me to do whatever the heck I wanted to do.

No limits. No responsibilities. No one to tell me otherwise.

So if our life is meant to culminate with the ability to transcend rules or expectations or responsibilities, why wait? If the system is so broken, if politics and government and citizenship is so pointless, why participate? Why vote? Why care?

But the problem is that freedom requires someone to care, to work, to tend to the responsibilities that make the very notion of our country possible. Freedom requires that someone bear the cost; and we need to come face to face with the reality that while we are fighting for our right to do as we please, somewhere on this rock we call home a man or woman is standing guard in full-body armor and a 70-pound pack, carrying a AR-15 fighting for our right to exist as a nation.

Freedom has its consequences. It has its costs. Some are higher than others.

It’s a price that history has shown us is worth it.

I won’t make a grand pronouncement about our nation being at a crossroads, but we do find ourselves in a unique place where our understanding of what freedom really is will define how that freedom works. As we come to the 4th and celebrate our nation’s birth, let us reflect on its past and consider its future – and may we do so with all seriousness.