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Life is Unfair

At some point, every human being confronts the mysteries that caused Job to tremble in terror. Is God unfair? One option seemed obvious to Job’s wife: “Curse God and die!” she advised. Why hold on to a sentimental belief in a loving God when so much in life conspires against it? And in this Job-like century, more people than ever before have come to agree with her.

Some Jewish writers, such as Jerzy Kosinski and Elie Wiesel, began with a strong faith in God, but saw it vaporize in the gas furnaces of the Holocaust. Face to face with history’s grossest unfairness, they concluded that God must not exist. (Still, the human instinct asserts itself. Kosinski and Wiesel overlook the underlying issue of where our primal sense of fairness comes from. Why ought we even expect the world to be fair?) Others, equally mindful of the world’s unfairness, cannot bring themselves to deny God’s existence. Instead, they propose another possibility: perhaps God agrees that life is unfair, but cannot do anything about it.

Rabbi Harold Kushner took this approach in his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. After watching his son die of the disease progeria, Kushner concluded that “even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check,” and that God is “a God of justice and not of power.”

According to Rabbi Kushner, God is as frustrated, even outraged, by the unfairness on this planet as anyone else, but he lacks the power to change it. Millions of readers found comfort in Kushner’s portrayal of a God who seemed compassionate, albeit weak. I wonder, however, what those people make of the last five chapters of Job, which contain God’s “self-defense.” No other part of the Bible conveys God’s power so impressively. If God is less-than-powerful, why did he choose the worst possible situation, when his power was most called into question, to insist on his omnipotence? (Elie Wiesel said of the God described by Kushner, “If that’s who God is, why doesn’t he resign and let someone more competent take his place?”)

A third group of people evade the problem (of God’s unfairness) by looking to the future, when an exacting justice will work itself out in the universe. Unfairness is a temporary condition, they say. The Hindu doctrine of Karma, which applies a mathematical precision to this belief, calculates it may take a soul 6,800,000 incarnations to realize perfect justice. At the end of all those incarnations, a person will have experienced exactly the amount of pain and pleasure that he or she deserves.

A fourth approach is to flatly deny the problem and insist the world is fair. Echoing Job’s friends, these people insist the world does run according to fixed, regular laws: good people will prosper and evil ones will fail. I encountered this point of view at the faith-healing church in Indiana, and I hear it virtually every time I watch religious television, where some evangelist promises perfect health and financial prosperity to anyone who asks for it in true faith.

And finally, there is one more way to explain the world’s unfairness. After hearing all the alternatives, Job was driven to the conclusion I have suggested as the one-sentence summary of the entire book: Life is unfair!

Disappointment With God, Philip Yancey, Zondervan, pp. 179-181