Part of the beauty of childhood is seeing things in black and white. For this reason, heroes in kids’ movies need not be flawed, and villains need not be redeemed. To a kid, right is right, wrong is wrong, with no gray in the middle. Because of this, kids quickly pick up on partial treatment. They know if their neighbor got six M&M’s when they only got five. They know if their brother got to stay up until 8:02 when they had to be in bed at 8:00. They know who got to ride shotgun last time, who was the last to do the dishes, who went first in Uno the last time they played, and on and on. And when they pick up on a perceived miscarriage of justice, they sound the alarm: “That’s not fair!” (Of course, they’re okay with a lack of fairness if it means they get to receive mercy while their sibling receives justice, but that’s a different lesson entirely.) If we’re honest, we’re not so different on this side of childhood. We want fairness as well; only we’re not demanding it from our earthly father anymore. Now we demand it from our heavenly Father. That leads us to a very important question: Is God fair?
We must start looking for an answer by defining two key terms: just and fair. Justice, as defined by the online Merriam-Webster dictionary is “being in conformity with what is morally upright and good.” So, to simplify, being just means doing what is right. Fair, as defined by that same dictionary, means “marked by impartiality and honesty”; or, to put it another way, being fair means never playing favorites, but treating everyone the same way.
We know that God is just. We know that He will not let the guilty go unpunished, and because of that He poured out His righteous wrath against my sin on His own Son who took the just punishment for my transgression against His Law. We know that God will judge the living and the dead one day (2 Tim. 4:1) and that He always does what is right. But that’s not our question. What we want to know is whether God is fair. So let’s get to it.
No, He’s Not.
In one sense, I would answer that no, God isn’t fair. Though this isn’t the answer you were hoping for, it is the one you understand. After all, why does God allow some righteous saints to suffer greatly and other to suffer little? Why does God entrust children with special needs to some families and not to others? Why do some people have brilliant minds, able to understand complex subjects quickly, while others have to labor over even simple concepts? Why are some elect and some not? Why do the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper? None of these things seem impartial at all. In fact, sometimes it very much appears that God is singling a person out for harsher treatment than another person. We’re all sinners to be sure. But we don’t seem to get impartial treatment from God. We live in a world cursed by sin, and that curse affects us all in different ways. Therefore, if I believe that for God to be fair, He must make all of our lives the same level of difficulty, then, no. He’s simply not fair.
Yes, He Is.
But all of that is from a finite, human perspective. If we stop there, we surely cannot draw accurate conclusions about the infinite, eternal God. Therefore, though it seems to contradict everything we experience, let’s consider how God is absolutely fair. First, He is the same God to everyone who calls upon Him. He shows no partiality toward anyone who calls on His name. He’s also no respecter of persons when it comes to putting people into His service. In Scripture we see Him use lowly shepherds, promiscuous harlots, pagan kings, barren women, tax collectors, adulterers, and murderers to accomplish His purposes and proclaim His greatness. His promises are as valid to the homeless, hungry orphan as they are to the celebrity pastor. He is near to the brokenhearted, whether they’re in a palace or in a ghetto.
Second, He always, always acts in accordance with His character. Never for one millisecond does God act inconsistently with who He has revealed Himself to be. We are not so. As a teacher for more than ten years, I tried hard to be consistent in grading and in discipline, but I know I made mistakes. I’m sure that I disciplined one student for something that I allowed another student to get away with. I didn’t do it intentionally; it happened because I’m human. I cannot be totally consistent. Parents, you understand this as well. You have given mercy to one child for something that you punished another child for doing. It wasn’t malice or even favoritism; often it was a difference in context or just plain old forgetfulness. You’re human—you make mistakes. But God’s not human. He doesn’t forget. He never ever acts capriciously or arbitrarily or in any manner that would violate His character.
Third, He wants the same thing for all people. I realize that I’m stepping into controversial theological waters here. But consider 2 Peter 3:9—”The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” He has the same heart toward everyone. I can’t deal with the very difficult question of why He chooses some and not others. That is literally one of the most difficult questions in the universe. Paul, in grappling with this very conundrum in Romans 9, gives us this response:
20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? 22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23 And [He did so] to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory (Rom. 9:20-23).
The short, albeit dissatisfying, answer that Paul gives is that it’s for His glory—because that’s what God always, impartially does: He acts in the way that will bring Him maximum glory.
Not only does God desire that all men come to repentance, but in believers He is working for the same end in each of their lives: conformity to the image of Christ. One of the most precious passages to believers in times of hardship is Romans 8:28 in which we find the promise that God is working all things together for good in the lives of those who love Him. However, we must consider the important question of What is this “good”? The answer is found in the next verse: “to become conformed to the image of His Son.” Or, consider the same truth from the book of Hebrews. In talking about discipline in the life of a child of God, the writer says that God always disciplines His children for their own good “so that [they] may share His holiness” (12:10). God is working impartially and fairly in the lives of every believer to bring them into conformity of the image of Christ. However, that’s not one-size-fits-all kind of work. God, the perfect Father, knows exactly what is necessary to refine, purge, mold, and train His children to take on the character of the Savior.
So, is God fair? Well, if by that you mean, Does He give everyone the same set of circumstances? Then no He’s not. But if you mean, Is He perfectly impartial, consistent, and acting for the same goal for every soul on the planet? Then the answer is a resounding yes!