God Isn’t Fair
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. .
1 Timothy 1:15
Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach at Community Presbyterian Church in West Covina. I asked to come that day because I will be in New Mexico this week, so could not get back in time for their 70th Anniversary celebration this Saturday. If you are available this Saturday, you might stop by for the music program in the sanctuary, starting around 1:15 pm.
I preached about Abraham, who at the age of 75 was called by God to pack up his belongings and venture off on an unknown journey with the improbable promise that he and his 65-year-old wife, who were childless, would have a multitude of descendants. I saw a corollary between this 70-year-old church that has recently become a fellowship of the Presbytery, and how at this point they are embarking on a new venture, with all the uncertainty and questions related to trying something that has never been done before.
I do not know of a presbytery moving an established church to fellowship status, so we are trying something new. This has caused some consternation for the people who have had responsibility especially for the corporate functions of the church, as we try to figure out what continues, what gets stopped, and what is now to be managed by the Presbytery. As with many transformations, some of the past will be kept in the future.
This is good news for most of us. I have sometimes been surprised how strongly North American church folk proclaim “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5.17) Obviously it is biblical, but frankly most US Christians have much they would prefer not to pass away, for we enjoy great privilege, far beyond that of the average human in this world. I understand this emphasis as rhetorical flourish, because I do not believe the average American Christian has offered up all that we are and all that we have to the service of God.
Now I happen to believe that it is an important exercise to offer up all that we are and all that we have to God; I just don’t think most of us do it. Even Abraham, the epitome of faithfulness, who wandered around for a quarter of a century before seeing the miracle of the child promised by God, was able to take all his relatives and servants, and all that he could move, when he left his luxury homestead in Haran.
From a skeptic’s standpoint, it would seem that the idea of a new birth, where everything old has passed away, is really only attractive to those who have nothing, those in great pain or want, or those who have done something terribly wrong. In the scripture passage cited above, it was the latter situation, for Paul. He goes on to say that by saving the most wretched sinner, God is giving hope to all who might believe: “for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:16) But even Paul did not give up everything—he retained his privilege as a Roman citizen, his marketable skills as a tentmaker, and his education and rhetorical gifts from his Jewish culture. He was, however, willing to subject himself to the scorn of his former peers, and to be thrown in jail for his faith—and to use all that he had in service to the Gospel.
I’m meandering around an essential question that has always plagued me: does God play favorites? How does God deal with the great diversity among individual experiences, from the extremely wealthy few to the masses of homeless and hungry; from those of us who enjoy the best of American life to those in Puerto Rico, also American citizens yet struggling with multi-layered challenges; from criminals who are given leniency and released while small children are being incarcerated by a government that didn’t seem to even have the sense to keep written record of their identities and families of origin? How is it that so many of us—myself included—have become entranced by the saga of 12 boys and a young adult coach trapped in a cave in Thailand, while over 125 people are killed in and around Hiroshima and Kyoto, Japan with barely a mention on the news?
Perhaps I am confusing God’s view of us as individuals with the way the world looks at individuals—and whether we are in any position to judge if God is being “fair,” as if we have any right to demand that God be held to our standards of justice and fairness. But this question has been a central puzzle in my faith life—how dependable is God who allows me to have such an easy and privileged life, when others (as close as my own mother) had to live such a difficult life?
We all want to understand and rationalize what we see God doing in our lives. We like to keep our faith—and God—manageable, not too threatening to our way of life or the way we see ourselves. But while I cannot know what God sees, nor can I demand that God reduce God’s wisdom to my understanding, I can look to the Bible and see how God repeatedly tells us to care for the widow and the orphan, to seek justice for the oppressed, and how God can overthrow the most powerful or work through them, depending on how they hinder or help God’s plan.
So just to help myself go forward in faith, I let go of any notion that God will be constrained to my understanding of “fairness.” God’s knowledge, wisdom, and mercy are far greater than what I can comprehend, and I accept that. While I cannot be callous to the pain of others, I’ve also come to believe that my bearing all the pains of the world does not necessarily lessen the pain of others; rather, can I trust enough in God’s plan of salvation to enjoy what I have been given, while I work for others to find peace and joy in their lives as well? But I have to challenge myself not to lessen my obedience to God’s will so that I may retain my privilege—but to the extent I can put my gifts and privilege to the service of God’s will, all the better. As with Abraham, I believe God blesses us, that we may be a blessing to others.
As you might have guessed, this is a central puzzle in my life, and I don’t have any easy answer, except “let go, and let God”—offer up my life, and all that I have, to God, and pray without ceasing, that I may be guided to be and do as God wants to use me in this life.
Following the “enjoy what I have been given” lesson, I am trying to take some vacation time this week. Hopefully my mind will become clearer in the New Mexico desert—we shall see!