But That Is Unfair!

God is good and is never unfair:

While driving home today from a speaking engagement, I was stuck at a traffic light. I noticed a billboard ad for some legal firm. The wording on it was something like: “We can challenge an unfair will.” It got me thinking (as most things do). Just what is an unfair will exactly?

I am no legal expert so I may stand to be corrected here, but if the main beef is you do not like what was left to you – or not left to you – in someone’s will, then that is one thing. If a will was made fraudulently or under duress, that might be another matter. But if the main concern is the first option, then it seems a bit off.

After all, does not a person have the right to make out a will as he or she sees fit? It is their property or money or assets, etc., that they are deciding on as to where it all ends up. Maybe some old woman has three sons. She makes a will, and when she passes on, the three discover that two of them each got 40 per cent of the goods, while the third only got 20 per cent.

Obliviously the third son might well think this is unfair: ‘Should we each not have gotten 33 1/3 per cent?’ Well, the woman is entitled to do as she wishes here – it is her stuff that she is passing on. She might have left it all to some charity and left the sons nothing.

Or she might have given each son ten per cent, and left the rest to others, or to other causes. That is her prerogative. It is her stuff after all. And there might be good reasons why she did the 40/40/20 split. Perhaps the third son was a real rascal who never helped the mother, while the other two did.

So why am I writing about all this? Well, as is so often the case, I find it very easy to turn the stuff I come upon into sermon material. I find it quite easy to translate something I have seen or read or heard into a spiritual discussion. And it is the same here.

God of course in his grace gives to people what he will. One can even talk about how his electing saving grace reaches some, but not others. But since THAT topic of predestination and election rattles too many cages for too many folks – including too many believers – I will more or less leave that particular discussion out here. But people can see some initial thoughts on this elsewhere, as in this piece: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/06/12/predestination-election-new-testament-data/

But the point remains: God can do as he pleases. He is sovereign and we are not. He can choose to give certain gifts to some people, but not to others. He can allow one Christian to go through all sorts of hardships and trials, while another might seem to go through life relatively unscathed in this regard.

He can give the gift of marriage to one believer, but the gift of singleness to another. He can bless one person with great wealth, while blessing another with relative poverty. He is God. He can do what he likes, And everything that he does do is fully fair, is fully just, and is fully part of his grace and kindness.

And we have plenty of biblical material to work with here as to this matter. One key passage would be the parable of the vineyard workers as found in Matthew 20:1–16. You know how the story goes: a master has three groups of workers hired to do labour for a denarius a day.

Each group did a different amount of work as they were taken on board at differing times during the day. But they each got paid the same amount. At which those who worked the most hours complained about those working the least, but still getting the same pay. The important part of this parable is found in verses 13-16 where the master gives his reply:

“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.”

This is key: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Remember that this parable begins with these words in verse 1: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house…”

So this story tells us something about God and how the kingdom operates. It certainly speaks to God’s grace. There is nothing unfair about God’s grace, especially since he owes us nothing. And there are other parables that speak about this issue of “unfairness” as well.

Simply consider the parable of the Prodigal Son for example. There we have two quite different sons, but the father’s love and generosity for both shines through. But many readers would say it is unfair: the faithful son stayed and worked, while the reckless son left and squandered his money. Yet the father lavishes grace on both of them.

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But God does the same with us. The problem is, we are often confused about basic things such as fairness and justice. R. C. Sproul is always good at making this matter clear for us. He says this about it:

In the parable, a large group of the workers received grace. One group received justice. However, no one received injustice. But the workers who labored all day thought they received injustice. They thought the owner owed them something.

 

If we were to try to list everything God owes us, it would be the easiest task we were ever assigned, one we could complete in record time. The truth is, He owes us nothing except His wrath as punishment for all our sins. A much more challenging assignment would be to try to write down all the things we owe God. We would never complete that task. We are much in His debt for our offenses against His righteousness. Yet He still freely gives us good gifts each day, each hour. Everything that we have comes from Him, not because we earned it but because He mercifully provides it.

 

If there is any sentiment that has no place in the Christian heart, it is the sentiment that God owes us something. He owes us nothing. The only title we have is to our sin, unless in His mercy He bestows the title of the kingdom of God freely upon us. That is what He has done for everyone who has believed.

There is no room for any complaints here. Charges of unfairness and injustice are just not applicable to God. As Daniel Doriani puts it:

Suppose you and I want to attend a great concert or sporting event together. The event sells out at once, but tickets float around, and we still hope to find two of them and go together. Suppose that a friend of yours gets sick at the last moment and that you gain his ticket and go. Later, you tell me how very exciting the concert (or game) was. Am I happy that you were able to go? Maybe. But it is also easy to feel envy: “Why did he get that ticket instead of me? It’s not fair!

 

The feelings are real but misplaced. No one deprived me of a ticket I deserved. No one treated me unfairly. I am upset that I did not receive a favor, a grace that you received. We need the rebuke found in Jesus’ gentle questions. Doesn’t God have the right to give gifts? Are we envious because he is generous?

 

Nonetheless, if God gives something to you, but not to me, we are prone to accuse him of being unfair. To be precise, the complaint touches only one aspect of fairness. God always gives everyone retributive justice – what we deserve before the law. In that sense, God is always fair. But he does not treat everyone exactly the same way. That is, the Lord does not always practice distributive justice – he does not distribute identical favors to everyone. He does not treat everyone the same way. No two people have the same body or mind, the same home or friend or nation. But as the Lord gives gifts, he never gives less than we deserve. God’s generosity actually takes two forms. He gives gifts we do not deserve and he withholds punishments we do deserve…

If a person writing a will has the right to decide how it gets divvied up, how much more does God have the right to decide how and when and where he is generous? He owes us nothing, but lavishes his grace upon us nonetheless. None of us have any grounds for complaint. We all have grounds for praise and thanksgiving.

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10 Replies to “But That Is Unfair!”

  1. This reminds me of Jonah’s attitude when God saved Nineveh and allowed a worm to eat the gourd.

    God’s response bears repeating:
    Jonah 4:10-11 (KJV) Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
    And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

  2. I was only reading the other day Bill of an actor who decided to leave all his children out of the will, one site saying that He “stated he wasn’t under undue influence; he noted that he acknowledge the existence of his children but deliberately decided not to list them in his estate”.

    No happy-happies there, but it was his to do with what he wished.

  3. Bill, Having just been to a seminar that touched on succession and the NSW Succession Act 2006 (no I am not going to enter into some technical diatribe here), a lot of the unfairness suits concerning the dispositions of estates governed by wills has to do with beneficiaries from previous marriages, mistresses benefiting from majority of the estate and estates left to charities or pets.
    This is especially the case where one progeny of the deceased is financially stable/well off and another is either near destitute, disabled with medical bills or some other disparate situation.
    One case that was covered at the seminar concerned a father who gave nothing to his children while he was alive and nothing to them in death.
    There are also cases which seek to rectify wills that are defective at law.
    Much like the parable of the Prodigal Son, the first one lamented being the good obedient son whilst the other received his inheritance before his father had passed.
    Bitterness envy and greed are often the fruits of disputes over dispositions of estates under a will. Especially when the testator experiences a long painful road to passing and the potential beneficiaries circle the warm corpse cravenly eyeing what they think will be theirs only to be horrified at the “reading of the will”.
    The irony is that often the corpus of the estate is consumed litigating these disputes whilst all the beneficiaries are left with is a pyrrhic victory or the same share as what they started with.
    We are all sons of adoption. Adoption in the sense that it was expressed in Roman law at the time the expression was written and not the stigmatised second class meaning that is known these days.
    We inherit that which we were never entitled to deserved to receive.
    This situation often exposes hidden sinful natures of “good” people.
    Thankfully my brother and I kept it simple.

  4. Before my grandpa died he had us come get anything we wanted, there was just me as the only grandson and my parents as my dad’s brother was in California and had cerebral palsy so he couldn’t come, and everything else would go to the trust he set up. We only wanted a few things. The only I wanted was the hi-fi not a expensive thing but full of memories. If the dispute, or unfairness, is about something meaningful to you someone else got surely talking to that person about what that object means is better than suing or getting lawyers involved.

    Also life IS unfair so we just have to deal with it! Life is unfair in our human definition of fairness which is hard to ever pin down because sometimes it means we all get treated the exact same sometimes, like the laborers who worked all day, it means we get more than others. Life is also unfair in another way: we truly DON’T get what we deserve as you pointed out. Perhaps we should take solace in the unfairness of life realizing how much worse things could be for us if we truly did get what we deserved.

  5. I find it interesting that Jesus used the Roman denarius in His parable. At the start of the Roman empire soldiers were paid a denarius a day but by the end of Augustine’s rule I understand that had increased to eight denarius. So I’m guessing at the time of the parable Roman soldiers would be paid at least two denarius per day.

    The denarius (meaning ten asses) was the equivalent of ten pennies and it took twenty-five to buy a gold coin. If I remember correctly it was worth over half a Jewish silver shekel, so a little over the equivalent of the atonement money specified in Ex 30.

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