Gold Coast Bereans

Out of Ghana, West Africa; Christian hearts and critical minds seeking, speaking and writing the truth with love. This is a conversation of a group of friends, now living in the USA and the UK, who have known each other for more than 20 years.

Monday, January 08, 2007

A fair or unfair world and our Sovereign God

Hey guys, a provocative question for you. In musing about recurrent protestations by my kids about the fairness of this and that matter, I have come to wonder about the whole concept of fairness. Does the bible teach fairness? Indeed does it NOT teach the opposite? Examples of “unfairness” include the following:

God’s choice of Israel over the other nations in the OT

Isaac and Esau. The second born getting the blessing of the first born

The parable of the workers in the vineyard—the guys who came late got the same pay as the guys who worked the entire day.

The parable of the rich man who filled his barns only to die the very next day. In fairness, did he not have the right to enjoy his labor?

The fairness of Joseph being selected over his older brothers,

fairness of Jonathan’s death in battle even though he had been a faithful friend to David

The fairness of we being selected before the beginning of time by grace to be God’s elect

Hell as eternal/infinite punishment for a finite period in life of disobedience

There are probably others. Indeed, can anyone show me a single instance where fairness is explicitly taught? If not, is this idea—particularly one that teaches that God has to adhere to our standards of fairness—simply one more false man-made (or devil inspired) doctrine designed to make us question God’s goodness? Is it not true that by buying into this doctrine many like the pastor we recently spoke about (the one who no longer believes in hell) have ultimately stumbled in their walk with the Lord? Perhaps an insistence on fairness connotes human entitlement, whereas scripture seeks to emphasize God’s grace.Your thoughts? Regards, Gaius having-second-thoughts-about-fairness-as-a-precept

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I agree with your comment that very often our view of unfairness is linked to a feeling of entitlement. However, I see some of the examples you gave very differently, for example

God’s choice of Israel over the other nations in the OT

I don't think God chose Israel. I think it's more accurate to view it as He chose Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob and David). The Israelis were just the people who happened to be descendants of the patriarchs. And among them it was only those who kept the covenant who were blessed. The covenant though was with Abraham and his offspring. But among the Jews as with everyone else, bad things happen to some good people and good things happen to some really bad people.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard—the guys who came late got the same pay as the guys who worked the entire day..

They each got what their contract said. I actually think it was a parable of fairness. What we get depends on our relationship to the payer, not to other recipients.

The parable of the rich man who filled his barns only to die the very next day.

He did deserve to enjoy the fruits of his labor. What he did not deserve (and had never earned) was a right to live the next day. Of course I am against abortion but in a certain respect none of us has a right to life, regardless of the antiabortion rhetoric.

The fairness of Joseph being selected over his older brothers,

They were bad people. Very, very bad people. President George Bush can tell you what should happen to bad people or evil doers.

The fairness of Jonathan’s death in battle even though he had been a faithful friend to David

Those who live by the sword usually die by the sword. His time had come.

The fairness of us being selected before the beginning of time by grace to be God’s elect

It's not without our consent.

Hell as eternal/infinite punishment for a finite period in life of disobedience

Try to think of eternal there as "ultimate" rather than as "everlasting". Just as in "eternal" life. It's our normal destination, just that we avert it by accepting grace. It's the grace that is unfairly given (we didn't deserve it).

In short, I agree that there are many examples of unfairness, but if you take the view that we are damned, doomed bastards to begin with, most episodes of perceived unfairness become instances of grace. And who can fault God for that? If ten people are drowning, and you save one but leave the rest, are you guilty of anything? I think not. But if ten were surviving, and you caused even one to drown, you would be doing a bad thing. Of course it's more complex because God could save all ten, but that's where the argument of Him being the potter and we the clay or pot comes in. - Calorius.

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I will limit myself to a few points. By the way, Calorius has an excellent matter of fact way of driving his points home which I think is an (unfair) gift that God has given him.

Those who live by the sword usually die by the sword. His time had come.

Did Jonathan really live by the sword? I am glad you said "usually" because a running theme throughout Ecclesiastes which you allude to in your “good things happen to bad people and bad things to good people statement” is the apparent randomness of events when seen from an earthly perspective. God Himself said that He would not let David build His Temple because his hands had been bloodied excessively. Following that logic then David should also have died by the sword instead of his comfortable old age where he even had a young maiden lying by him to comfort him

I was thinking recently about Saddam going down by the hangman's noose and yet a few weeks ago Pinochet (another documented brutal dictator but who remained loyal to “important friends”) lived to the ripe old age of 90 and died of natural causes. Nearer home General Sani Abacha died at 52 and
Nigeria has been partly successful in retrieving part of the millions of dollars he siphoned away into Western banks and yet Mobutu of Zaire died of illness in his old age with the alleged stolen billions sitting nicely in some secret Swiss account. You are right in saying we all don't deserve a single day and I would add that it does not matter how any of us eventually dies. We will all be called to give account and we have but one plea- the blood of the Lamb. This does not mean we should live depressed, fatalistic or cynical lives. On the contrary it should challenge us to make use of the (borrowed) time we have until we go to the Master or He returns.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard - the guys who came late got the same pay as the guys who worked the entire day

Once again, Calorius has the simple but correct application. From the very first time I read this parable as a kid I was struck about how unfair it was that people got paid the same for different work. But recently I have applied that principle in my own life when I felt I was not being fairly compensated for my work. I just have top look at my own contract terms and not compare myself to my colleagues doing the same or a perceived less amount of work. In the past I also felt bad for the five virgins who did not have extra oil for their lamps and for the older brother of the prodigal son. Its Grace, that is all it is. We got what we didn’t deserve, - Robbo- much overwhelmed by God's grace to me.

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I guess we all agree. My point was that the human notion of fairness faults God on each one of these points because it is based on a sense of entitlement—what I have, I deserve; what my neighbor has (health, riches, promotion, beauty) should be mine, too. In contrast, the Bible teaches undeserved grace from the Father’s hand. Everything we have is an undeserved gift. This is the lesson of the parable of the workers—undeserved grace.

Still, what we believe determines how each one of us views these stories, reflects how we view God, and mirrors how we process life’s occurrences. In the case of the workers in the vineyard, people who believe in the human notion of fairness would, while accepting the legality of the contract, likely object to the fairness of the contract itself. Today, such people would probably form a political action group to lobby congress to establish laws that mandate contracts that reflect work done—examples might include the “workers against the teachings of Jesus” lobby with a mantra like that “equal pay for equal work”.

In similar vein, people with a “fairness” outlook might feel sad for or bewildered by the parable about the rich man. Some of these might even say he was “robbed” of his retirement. Similar reactions would be expected with Isaac vs. Esau, Joseph and his brothers, hell as eternal (final) damnation for a mere 70 years of disobedience. There appears to be no “fairness” in such a construction. In contrast, anyone who believes, like us, that every good thing comes from above would have no problem with any of these parables/teachings. Why? Because we know we are sinners deserving of punishment; we know we deserve nothing and so are grateful for whatever we are given. We see every blessing as gift to be stewarded to the best of our capability.

In a culture that teaches “fairness”, and entitlement, and equality (not only of effort but also of outcome), it is not always easy to teach our kids these lessons, or as Robbo says to assume a posture ourselves of undeserving servants when life seems “unfair” or unduly harsh compared to that which we observe for those around us. I think this is what our kids struggle with the most—why does he or she get more pocket money, why does he or she get to stay up...etc.

I hear a similar refrain (reflecting fairness/unfairness) from families that lose a child or have a child diagnosed with a serious illness. It is often some variant of “why me?” or “this isn’t fair!” Contrast that attitude with David’s, who says “the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be His name”. Those 2 responses belie very different worldviews. Again, I think we all agree. I posted my question, because I could find no instance in the Bible of the world’s view of fairness.

Bottom line is, given the right worldview, gratitude rather than envy/complaint is the only attitude befitting a Christian. It should be our constant guide. Nothing else is right or consistent with the kind of response we as His dearly beloved children should have for the immeasurable riches of His graceand mercy shown toward us. - Gaius Columbus also grateful for and awed by God's goodness.

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There is another aspect: as the comedian Super O.D. used to say, "the owner of the something is the chopping"- i.e., the person who owns something is the one who gets to enjoy it- or call the shots. It is God who defines the moral code. He gets to say what is fair or not. I remember the late Uncle James pointed out to me once, that God, who was the one that said "thou shalt not kill" had the right to command Saul to kill in battle. There is a way in which it is true that there are no absolutes except God. It is a part of His Infiniteness, just like His omniscience, omnipotence, or Immortality. And because those attributes are unique to Him, He does not share them. So there are no absolutes besides God. He is Sovereign, and He alone is Sovereign. He is not even obliged to explain anything to us. It is what it is.

There is also a way in which we as humans tend to elevate the law above the lawgiver (in this case the law Maker). We tend to do that because the law is known, written, finite, objective, and easy for us to fathom. The Law Giver is is a more difficult concept and cannot be contained by us. Sometimes we even want to live the law devoid of Him (a form of Godliness but denying the power thereof) like those who want to place carvings of the Ten Commandments in the courtrooms. That's the wrong approach because "the letter [of the law] killeth, but the Spirit giveth life". That is why "mercy triumpheth over judgement". The cedi is not stronger than the Bank of Ghana which issues it. We should not hold the contract as more substantial than the signatory.

Yet another argument is that every law has a target population. As Jesus said, "the [Sabbatical] law was made for man." Somewhere else it talks about how laws are made because of lawbreakers, not the good people. In that sense, the Judaic law and its derivative moral code was laid down for man- and not for God. He is exempt. He is truly above the law, just in the same way that school prefects do not obey the juniors' lights out rule, and police on duty do not obey certain traffic rules. All of the Old Testament laws have a context, a target population and geographical and time boundary. Regarding marriage for example, there are certain moral laws (don't put away your partner without cause) which "Moses gave to your fathers because of the hardness of their hearts" and certain other moral precepts which were "from the beginning...for which reason a man shall leave his mother...” And then there are even higher standards laid down for followers of Christ.

My kids help me understand this. Every once in a while, they will devise some game for us to play, like counting car numbers while we travel. But as we go along, they keep making up new rules that favor them. When I protest, they remind me that they were the ones who created the game, and it is as they say (I think they also lie). I always lose anyway. God, the Potter, who created it all, can change the rules as He likes, and it is what He says. If Ian Fleming says James Bond can hold his breath for 10 minutes and step over alligators and make boats fly, then James Bond can do all of the above.

On another level, my kids often try to get their way with something by claiming fairness, as in "I should get to watch 30 minutes of TV because my sister did..." What I ask them is, "who makes the rules, and who decides what is fair... grown-ups or children?” All said and done, it is good that we are on the side of the One Who makes the rules and calls the shots. - Calorius


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