God is not fair
Today has been an emotional day and it’s only 9.15 in the morning. I’ve just finished reading an article written by my wife regarding the terrible start in life our son Zeke had. I’ve also been keeping up with the saga of someone who’s been ripped off in an online transaction (read about it here, but be warned, there is some bad language). I recognise millions of people have so much more to contend with than I do and lately just about any story of powerlessness or injustice makes me think of ‘fairness’ or more importantly the lack of fairness in the world today.
I can’t even watch a simple kids’ movie like ‘Air Bud’ because of the tension raised (oops did I say that out loud?).
Perhaps the triggers for you are different. Perhaps the trigger which gets you started on the ‘fairness’ issue is when you have dealings with the Tax Office. Perhaps it’s when you get a phone call from the credit company on the weekend ‘with a please explain’. For some people the whole topic of ‘fairness’ comes to light when past experiences with the local church are recalled.
In the past I’ve brushed over the topic of fairness and done my best to avoid thinking about it (and avoiding movies/news/documentaries which have any sort of tension based on unfair circumstances – hmmm that explains why I’ve seen every episode ever made of Mythbusters and Top Gear).
Why do I do that? And why is it becoming more of an issue now? For one thing, at my stage in life and having begun a church planting journey alongside my family and friends, the issue of fairness presents itself on a regular basis. My friends who have chosen to plant a church with me have given up everything for the cause and for God. But the results so far are not what we expected.
In fact, it doesn’t seem fair. And now, to be exposingly honest, it seems some churches which don’t have any focus on evangelism seem to be blessed with resources well beyond us.
I wish I could ignore the blatant discrepancies - just keep going and continue to assume all is well… all is fair.
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 “When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 “And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to those he said, `You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. 5 “Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. 6 “And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, `Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ 7 “They said to him, `Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, `You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, `Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ 9 “When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. 10 “When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. 11 “When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, 12 saying, `These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ 13 “But he answered and said to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 `Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 `Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ 16 “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”
I just find this passage incredibly applicable to my planting situation at the moment. I mean who would be happy with working for the entire day… doing a good job… but with one hour to go in the long day a new co-worker is brought out into the field to work beside you and that worker doesn’t even raise a sweat. The time comes for payment and you all get exactly the same amount?! It would be an understatement to say I’d be a bit ticked off!
So because of the situation I find myself in, and because of passages such as this one in Matthew, I feel forced to say it, and I wish I didn’t have to say this, but God is not fair!
Several years ago I was called into Caboolture hospital, because a priest could not be found to administer the last rites to a dying man. This elderly man and his family were moved into the “death room” as it was commonly called in the hospital. I agreed to go see the man and his family, but explained to the hospital staff who called me that last rites ‘are not really my thing!’
When I arrived in this small room, the family were all sitting quietly, actually quite a number of family members were there and it was a very uncomfortable moment. I felt I was there more for the family than for the man lying on the bed. So I started to engage them in conversation about the man. I was trying to get them to talk and remember the good life this man may have had with them.
However a little way into the conversation the man woke up. He was far more alert and active than I had been led to believe. I explained to the man who I was and that I would like to talk to him and pray with him. I also made it clear that I do not give last rites… as if I have any power to forgive a man’s sin! But I told Him he could meet the person who could, Jesus.
He made the point and was very clear on it, that he did not want to be a hypocrite: how could he follow God now after living a life without him. It seemed so unfair to him.
Being a young and inexperienced Pastor I tried my best explain to him God’s way are not our ways. I tried to explain to him that our mind is not God’s mind and we can not fathom the depth of God’s perspective on this question, “Is it fair for someone to live their whole life one way and then in one final fleeting moment turn around and plead for mercy, and get it?” I looked for a water tight theological explanation to explain the ‘unfairness’ of it all.
Knowing what I now know I would have said something completely different. Rather than try and be all theologically nice and in control, I would be far more direct. I would answer him by simply saying, “No you are absoulately right! It isn’t fair! But, luckily for you and me, God is not fair”.
He doesn’t treat us fairly. What does the Bible say about us, “We have all sinned and gone astray”.
If He was fair we would all be hell-bound.
Personally I think this notion of God being fair is silly and needs to be removed from our mindset. What happens when we tell our kids that God is fair and will treat you accordingly? Several things; first, our kids could think God will always come through for us in the way we expect… that we won’t face persecution. We won’t have to stake our lives on faith. If you take this view, God is seen more as a large scale and fairness is proportional to the amount of good one does in life. So when push comes to shove for our kids, when things go bad and it seems as everything is against them as it surely will be at sometime in their lives… they will say, “Well He didn’t come through for me, and so I’m off… to look for something which is fair.”
At best our kids might grow up and become fine ‘respectable’ Christians. We can see evidence of this type of thing within christendom today and sadly even in our own lives. For example, lets imagine God comes to town and all sorts of people are saved - people who are of questionable repute.
How about mass murder Jeffrey Dahmer who kept body parts of his victims in his fridge? Who was saved just before his own death? We can’t figure it out. We can’t put the pieces together, the scales don’t balance. It is easy for us to harbor bitterness towards those who haven’t done as much as us.
Do you get what I am saying?
We end up having a Christianity which is more about “me” than about “Him”. Because what becomes paramount to us is the notion that God must treat us fairly.
This passage in Matthew is starting to be more like the prodigal son passage. The older brother missed the company of the father ‘because of his good works’. He could not see through the injustice to sit at the party with His father and brother. The older brother was trying to work his way in and the unfair grace shown to the younger brother grated.
The more I think about this the more I see these early workers are very much like the older brother from the prodigal son story. The younger brother worked so he would be indebted to his dad. The older brother who we generally look up to as doing the right thing in the story, works so that his Dad is indebted to him. When the younger brother comes back and the feast is made up for him, the older brother says, “Oh but dad, I have worked so hard for you”.
In essence the early workers are actually saying, “Oh but dad, I have worked so hard for you”.
Perhaps this is more of the point of this passage. Perhaps the passage is showing it is not so much the work we do that earns the reward. Perhaps it is more to do with the Farmer/Father than with us. God does indeed treat us unfairly. He rewards when there is no obligation to reward. He blesses when there is no reason to bless. Even our best deeds are like filthy rags before Him.
So how do we handle fairness? How do we continue losing everything and counting it all gain?
I could imagine some of those earliest workers thinking, well tomorrow I will just start work late in the evening.
Or in a today’s perspective, I could imagine some reading this passage and saying, “Well if God is like that farmer, then I will just wait till the last moment”. Kind of of makes sense doesn’t it?
However, there is one fatal flaw with this idea. Take notice that it is the farmer who goes looking for the workers. The workers don’t find the farmer!
No one knows when the farmer will come calling. No one knows the day or hour. Life has the tendency to change in a blink of a eye. I’m certain I could go from testimony after testimony of people whose lives have been turned around, completely changed in the blink of an eye because of some events in their life or in a loved ones’ life.
I remember a great evangelist who once said that he would rather lead a child to the Lord any day over some adult! Because that child had a whole life time ahead of them to serve Christ.
So the application is this, if God is calling you, regardless of your age and where you are in life. GO! Because, you don’t find him, he finds you, and who knows when he will be coming your way again, if ever!
That goes for us as a whole community of faith as well. It worries me to think that even now we could be missing out on some terrific outpouring of His Spirit in evangelism, because when He has come looking for workers we have said, “Nah, not today. I’m not ready”, or the “Results won’t be worth it”.
Don’t waste your life, don’t waste a minute of it!
This passage in Matthew contains wonderful truths. And the advice is simple. Go with God when He calls you. Don’t focus on what others are getting paid. Don’t be jealous that some other ministry is succeeding and yours’ seems to be failing.
Actually on that note have a look at:
Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God
Do you see that? Run that race which is set before you! It’s personal, like in a running race, we all have our own lane, we need to keep focussed on the end and stay within our lane. The Bible picture is not so much a race between contestants, but an individual race. We each run the race which God has set out for us, not for anyone else.
What a liberating view this is. Most of my Christian life I have wanted to be a Billy Graham. I wanted to preach to thousands and see thousands respond. I had a chance a few years ago to go to the US and I even went to the Billy Graham museum. I tell you by the end of it I was ready to give my heart to Christ. If someone was at the door at the end and ask me if I knew Jesus and would I like to meet him, I would’ve said lead me in prayer now!
I came back to my home church and I preached like I have never preached before. And not one person responded! This repeated for several more weeks. I was so disappointed. I was shattered. Every inch of my body, every amount of energy I had was put into writing and speaking those sermons. I truly believed that in doing so I could have even just a potion of Billy’s results.
I felt like a big old displacement cruiser. You know the difference between a displacement and planing boat?
I had all this horsepower for evangelism and preaching, but it didn’t matter because the hull just couldn’t displace anymore water.
I was trying to run in Billy’s lane, not the lane set out for me.
I am now far more comfortable and aware of the lane and race He has put me in. It is to enhance, equip, excite and even evaluate God’s people for evangelism and new ministries.
Hebrews 10:36 says For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
If I stick to that purpose, if I don’t focus on what others are getting paid or what others are doing ministry-wise, then guess what? I will receive a prize. A fair wage for a fair day’s work. Much like the early workers in the Matthew text.
To be honest I’m now more interested in developing those who will get in and do the had work. My heart breaks for those in my group who have given it everything and continue to give it everything, who are longing to see a greater move of His Spirit. I want to be with those people, more than those who just come in see some results and say ‘look at me’, or worse come in and only stick around for a short period of time because the results didn’t come fast enough. If you are struggling with the fairness of it all… if you are jealous of other people’s ministries say this with me – ‘I will look at God not at the blessings He provides in the results. I will do whatever He gives me to do and leave the rest to Him!’
2 Timothy 4:1 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. 5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. 6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8 in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.
I charge you be ready to go when He calls, in season or out of season. In other words even whether you feel like it or not. Be patient, endure. Keep your eye on the prize – and by the way the prize isn’t a ‘successful international ministry’ and the race laid out for you. And one day you will receive a prize from none other than Jesus Christ Himself.
Man can you imagine that. You are standing in heaven. Jesus comes to you face to face, and He says, “Well done you good and faithful servant”.
Amazing stuff. But totally unfair!
Because we learn from the Bible that it is Jesus who sort us out in the first place – just like the farmer did with the workers, and that any good works we do are actually as a result of Jesus. Our good deeds are what? Like filthy rags. The reality is that crown is all His work! And we get it. Totally unfair.
I want to run the race set before me so I can get the biggest, coolest looking hat with the most jewels in it. Not because I want to show off, not because I want to get paid more than the people around me. But so I can take it off in heaven and lay it back at His feet and cry out ’Jesus, it wasn’t me! It was all you! You are worthy – not me! It is all about you! You have been more than fair! You have been wonderful – mighty – majestic – too marvelous for words. And I can do nothing but stand in awe of you!’