June 21, 2006

In Praise of an “Unfair” God

1518 page29 capow often I hear—in my office or wafting down the hallway—“That’s just not fair!” To those in the age group with which I work (university students), almost no value is esteemed more highly than fairness. Though unlikely to put the concepts into consistent practice because of lack of experience, fairness and equity are hugely important to them.
When one sibling is allowed to date at 16, and the other at 17, they screech, “That’s not fair!” When a classmate who studied less gets a better grade on an exam, they at least think, That’s not fair! And as they approach philosophical questions, such as whether or not there is a God, they struggle with how a good God would allow suffering. In effect, “How can He be good if He is not fair?”
I have found, with the passing of years, that I’m asking a strikingly different question: “How would I like it if God was fair?”
What I think we mean when we ask questions of God’s fairness is “Why can’t He act as I think He should?” not “Why can’t He give me what I deserve?” God’s merciful grace means that I am gifted with unmerited, undeserved favor. I get better than I deserve. For example: 
  • Is it fair that I have often rebelled against God, the consequence for which is death, and yet I still live? 
  • Is it fair that I have not always been unselfish, but God unselfishly showers me with blessings? 
  • Is it fair that I haven’t always been an attentive friend, but am blessed with the dearest of friendships? 
  • Is it fair that when I pull out into traffic without adequately consulting my blind spot, the oncoming car swerves just in the nick of time?

1518 page29Oddly, in those situations, when I am clearly being blessed beyond what is fair, I have grown to think the outcomes are natural and right. But are they, strictly speaking, fair responses to my choices? No, indeed. I’m realizing with joy and relief that my concept of “fair” is fairly limited, in light of the eternal.  

Do we really want to be part of a world in which we always get fair responses to our choices? Do we truly want to be treated with complete fairness? To always get what’s coming to us? Horrors!
Sadly (or fortunately, depending how you look at it), I often get better than I give. We all do. But, in gratitude for His unmerited favor, do we pass that same mercy on to others? When someone cuts us off in traffic, do we muse, “I wonder if they are usually a very cautious driver, and this was a rare aberration?” Or do we think (or scream), “How did someone like that even get a license?” When we see someone painfully ill with AIDS, do we wonder, Was this person a medical professional who contracted this terrible illness through their sacrificial service? Or do we speculate, I bet these are the consequences of the frightful choices they’ve made? When someone dear to us breaks a confidence, does our wounded heart say, “If I lost a friend for every poor choice I’ve made, I’d be lonely indeed”? Or do we say, “See if I ever trust her with anything again as long as I live”? Recipients of grace, we are called to be grace-givers.
We are tremendously blessed to be the cherished children of a God far greater than we are, whose sense of justice far transcends our own. He is a God who often, in love, allows us the consequences of our choices so that we can learn and grow, but who often in love, gifts us with completely unmerited grace.
To paraphrase C. S. Lewis: “Is God not just? Oh, no, child. What would ever become of us if He were?”
Valerie N. Phillips is the associate director of the women’s residence hall at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she has ministered to university women for more than 25 years.