When Life Doesn’t Seem Fair
I may never buy another Hershey’s chocolate candy bar for my grandkids to split—no, not the solid milk chocolate with the squares, but the one with almonds. There is absolutely no way to break it into equal shares.
My grandchildren’s cries of injustice erupt as soon as they receive their portion: “NOT FAIR! He got a bigger piece,” says one child; or the exasperating whine of another announcing, “She got three almonds—I didn’t get any. It’s not fair!”
One standard and dispassionate response has become—”That’s right, life isn’t fair!”
We finally devised a solution: We let one of them break the candy bar in half—and then the other child gets to pick the portion he thinks is the bigger. It’s fascinating to watch them break it in half with the attention and precision of a neurosurgeon … always insuring that the other one doesn’t get too much.
When our portion doesn’t seem right
I wish fairness in life could be solved easily. Most things, however, do not divide into equal portions.
Life isn’t fair.
Sometimes our portion of life doesn’t seem right. Our portion isn’t milk chocolate—it is bittersweet, or sometimes it’s downright bitter. It just doesn’t seem fair that:
- A divorced mother of three preschoolers should have to work at two part-time jobs and raise her children alone while her irresponsible ex-husband parties and plays and neglects child support.
- A 34-year-old father of two little girls, ages 2 and 4, should die suddenly of a heart attack while on vacation with his family.
- A 10-year-old boy is killed by a drunk driver while the driver “escapes” with only bruised ribs and a hangover.
- A child has an operation on his appendix and gets AIDS through a disease-infected blood transfusion.
Left to my human reason, these painfully unjust circumstances don’t seem to resemble even remotely our standard of fairness. They make me angry. They cause me to question, to wonder, and to shake my head. “Why?” I ask.
Fortunately, most of us face fairness on another level. This level is not one of life and death, yet it is nonetheless very real. We, too, are left to wonder about “the fairness of it all.” Do you ever struggle over:
- Why you’re not more gifted or more decisive?
- The family you came from? Or the relationship or lack of one you experienced as a child? Have you ever felt it was unfair that you had the father you did? Or mother? Sister? Brother?
- Why you’re too old or too young for a key position that opened up at work?
- Why you’re not better with words, or more open, or why you don’t feel free to laugh?
- Your body shape, or size, or the color of your eyes or skin, or maybe a birth defect?
- Why you have a bent to get angry at those you love the most?
- Why “cheaters” prosper and get more, while you’re honest and you seem to have less?
Life isn’t fair.
Dealing with envy
Life doesn’t always deliver equal portions for everyone. Our problem is that we only see in the dimension of time, while there is One weaving the tapestry of our lives with eternal purposes. We arrogantly presume that we are the best judges of fairness and equality. Our limited perspective leads us to compare what we think we deserve with what others appear to get. The invariable result is envy.
Jesus offers a parable dealing with fairness in Matthew 20:1-16 that could be entitled “Life isn’t fair—but God is!” It’s a parable for those who tend to keep a scorecard for life—for those who are tempted to envy another.
The parable is about a landowner who hired laborers for his vineyard. Early in the morning he hired a few men for a fair day’s wage (18 cents at that time!). Throughout the morning and even into the afternoon, the landowner hired additional laborers. He promised to pay them “whatever is right.” They agreed to his terms and went to work.
Later that evening he paid each laborer his wages for a “day’s work.” He began by paying the ones who had come last. Although they worked only a short time, he paid each 18 cents for his labor.
Every laborer got the same
In fact, every laborer received 18 cents—the same amount, even though they had all worked a different number of hours.
The men who had worked diligently in the scorching heat all day complained. After they had grumbled, “That’s not fair!” the landowner reminded them he had done “no wrong.” He had paid them what he promised.
The landowner spoke to them, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own?” Then he put his finger on the real issue—”Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” They were silenced by his response.
It works the other way, too. The laborers who received 18 cents for their less than a full day’s labor were strangely silent. The master gave them more than they deserved. It’s called grace—unmerited favor.
There are at least three principles found here that will help us as we face situations that seem unfair.
1. Remember what you really deserve.
We think we deserve more. In verse 10, it says that the men who worked all day expected a bonus. They thought the landowner owed them a “little extra” even though he had promised them no such thing.
I have to admit this is a tough one for me—I look at what I’ve done and believe that my Master (God) ought to give me all I want! That’s a dangerously wrong evaluation of worth—after all, all that I have He gave me. Plus, Scripture reminds us that what we ultimately deserve is not heaven, but hell.
2. Envy begins when we compare ourselves with others.
We get into trouble when we look at what others have. We compare and become envious. The problem with the laborers was they saw too much! Their eyes betrayed them.
How’s your vision? Can you look clearly at what others have and be glad they have it? Or does the green film of envy blur your vision? How do you handle the news of a friend remodeling her house? Or the promotion of an associate at work? Or the news of your neighbor’s child who won an award that your child wanted? Check your vision regularly. Envy can cause spiritual cataracts and ultimately blindness!
3. We must ultimately trust that the Master, who owns everything, knows what He is doing.
God is the sovereign ruler of the universe. He alone controls and rules over all. And not only does He know what He is doing, but He also loves us.
Barbara and I wanted our children to grow up realizing God won’t give each of them the same “share” of earthly benefits. But we want them to know He will always deal with them in perfect judgment and according to His righteous character.
Everything that occurs in their lives will come either directly from God’s hands or be gently sifted through His fingers. Everything is for the purpose of shaping their lives in His image. Circumstances, events, and problems may not always appear to be “fair,” but they come from their loving Father.
Life isn’t fair. But I know One who is fair—and He can be trusted.
“For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality…” (Deuteronomy 10:17).