Most of the time, we want life to be fair and equal, but what do we do if God himself is not always fair?
In his podcast, Gary Wilkerson mused, “Back in the early days of America, the Jonathan Edwards type preachers, the circuit riders, the hellfire and brimstone preachers, when you read about them, they have a much stronger view of certain attributes of God's. His justice, his holiness, his wrath, his truthfulness. Now, I think if you really read them in-depth, they're going to show grace and mercy and love, too.
“There was a switch 200 years later, and we have a culture now that wants to dismiss the wrath of God, almost looks suspiciously on the justice of God. Is he really just when there's earthquakes and tsunamis and cancer and COVID-19? Is God just?”
In many ways, this question people often ask, “Is God just?” seems to put justice and fairness on the same level or even use them interchangeably.
What if God is always just but not necessarily fair?
Questions About the Kingdom of Heaven
Jesus tells a parable in Matthew that has always irritated me. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’”
This repeats a few times, and the master ultimately hires workers toward the very end of the day but promises them the same pay. Cue my muttering, “That’s weird…There must be a twist;” but it only gets worse because there is no twist. The master gives them all exactly what was promised, no more, no less.
“Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house.” Reasonable, in my humble opinion.
“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:1-16, ESV).
That’s not sensible! What a terrible story. Why on earth would Jesus use this to describe his kingdom?
l’Ching Thomas, associate director of training for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Singapore, wrote, “’Life just doesn't seem fair.’ How often do you find yourself uttering those words? The unscrupulous continue to get richer while the poor continue to be oppressed and victimized.
“This complaint is especially poignant when family, friends, or leaders whom we expect to act honorably and for our welfare betray our trust. We experience the injustice of people getting away with backstabbing, manipulation, and deception, prospering while those who choose to do what is right are misunderstood and discriminated against. Where is God in the midst of all these? Does God see and judge? If so when and how?”
These questions bring up a sticky issue: What if God isn’t always fair?
How Do We Define Justice?
Barry Goldman and Russell Cropanzano looked into the rhetoric of organizational justice researchers and noted, “Justice should be defined as adherence to rules…whereas fairness should be defined as individuals’ moral evaluations of this conduct.”
In Relevant Magazine, Tim Keller expanded our understanding of the Bible’s definition for just action through the two different Hebrew words used for the concept. “Rectifying justice is mishpat. It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment.
“Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else.”
That the parents of humankind were sent out from God’s presence because one little act of disobedience (they ate a piece of fruit, big deal…right?) is not fair, but it is just. They broke God’s law, which had been clearly laid out for them, and they suffered consequences. It doesn’t matter how relatively small we believe the infraction to be; the law was breached, and a penalty was laid down. This is mishpat, rectifying justice.
When we follow God’s instructions and the Holy Spirit’s convictions as believers, we will be called to sacrifice what we want in order to serve others and care for the vulnerable. Think of everything a good, godly parent does and gives up to raise a child. That’s not technically fair, but it is a form of tzadeqah, primary justice.
Fairness is relative; justice is not.
God’s actions may occasionally match what we think is fair, but they won’t if whatever is ‘fair’ doesn’t line up with his holy standard.
No one wants a lawyer who will waffle depending on how persuasive or persistent the opposition is. No one wants a judge who will change the law to suit himself. We should be incredibly grateful for God’s justice, but it isn’t the only characteristic he has that isn’t fair.
A Very Unfair Gift of Grace
In his letters to Timothy, Paul writes, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:12-13, NIV).
Paul was a fanatic and a murderer. If God was only just, or even fair, he would have killed Paul. Instead, he transformed this man into one of the Bible’s most proficient missionaries and writers.
That’s not fair. Think about poor Stephen’s family and friends. Paul was party to their loved one’s death in what was essentially a violent, public lynching (Acts 7:54-8:2).
God had grace, though, and redeemed this apostle’s life from its blood-soaked past. Why Paul and not other Pharisees or persecutors of the early church? We simply don’t know. God chose Paul the same way he chose many of us who are now believers. Very few of us have squeaky clean backgrounds or profound talents that would make us logical candidates for salvation.
Even if we’re familiar with the Bible, God’s grace often doesn’t seem reasonable and making sense of it can be daunting.
John Piper responded to one young woman’s uncertain questions about grace by defining the two biblical faces of grace. “On the one hand, grace is called — and I think it’s an absolutely wonderful phrase — undeserved favor…. Grace is what inclines God to give gifts that are free and undeserved by sinners.”
He doesn’t stop there, though. He goes on to examine 2 Corinthians 9:8, 2 Corinthians 12:9 and 1 Corinthians 15:10. “In all three of those texts — and they’re not the only ones — grace is not only a disposition or a quality or an inclination in the nature of God, but is an influence or a force or a power or an acting of God that works in us to change our capacities for work and suffering and obedience.”
So God’s grace not only gives us a just way to escape punishment for our sins through Christ’s death, but it’s also in the gift of the Holy Spirit who transforms us. God’s justice is what we need; his grace is what we want but have no right to reasonably demand for ourselves.
Let’s just be glad God isn’t fair.