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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

Making Sense of Life's Inequities

(This article first appeared at

Early in my career, I spent two years in the Big Apple commuting daily on the city’s transit system. The sights, sounds, and smells of a New York subway are enough to make even the most iron-clad stomach queasy. So when I heard Ken Boa tell the following anecdote, that experience came back, in Technicolor.

One day a commuter boarded the “C” train with a stomach rumbling from an overindulgent lunch. After a few stops, the pressing bodies, squealing breaks and the stench of perspiration, bad breath, and urine became too much. When the train doors opened to let the woozy traveler off, all he could do was pitch his entire carte du jour onto the poor fellow waiting to board. As the doors closed, the bewildered man on the platform looked up blubbering, “Why me?”

“Why me?” is the great existential question of all time. When the “subway of life” dumps its refuse in our lap, we shake our head in wonder. After all, we reason, we haven’t hit the wife, neglected the kids, lied to the boss, or kicked the dog—least wise, not today.

Life’s unfairness is troubling. When the church member slanders us, our job is “surplused,” the diagnosis of cancer comes, or our neighbor is killed in a car accident, we are stupefied by the injustice of it all. Centuries ago, the wisest man in the world was likewise confounded, declaring it meaningless that the righteous get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked get what the righteous deserve.

Some, like Clarence Darrow, take such troubles as proof that life “is a ship that is tossed by every wave and by every wind; a ship headed to no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot, simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves.” Indiscriminate misfortune, they argue, is the logical outcome of an unsupervised universe governed by chance.

Nevertheless, our initial reaction betrays the nagging sense that there should be a cosmic order at work; that life must be fair; that rewards can be earned; and that, if one is successful, life will be good. Some even imagine a benevolent Bookkeeper who immunizes them from calamity if their ledgers are “in the black,” while those “in the red” are left to suffer.

This “pay for performance” mentality conditions us to view tragedy as judgment, either from a nebulous principle of karma or from God himself. Reality, though, is another matter. The Indonesian tsunami claims the lives of righteous and unrighteous alike. Sudanese children are massacred while their totalitarian butchers run amok. Christian bookstores struggle while adult bookstores thrive. Such inequities not only disturb us as they did Solomon, but they disturbed the people of Jesus’ day as well.

Pontius Pilate was a difficult and insensitive tyrant in Palestine. First, he incensed the Jews by erecting Roman ensigns with Caesar’s image throughout the Holy City. Then, he demanded tax from the temple treasury. When the Jews objected, Pilate directed an armed force, disguised as ordinary citizens, to go into the temple crowd and slaughter the rebellious malcontents.

Like the Birmingham church bombing that took the lives of four young black girls in 1963, the killing of God’s people at the hands of a pagan tyrant was unthinkable. It wasn’t long before Jesus was forced to field the question that was on everyone’s mind: Was this a divine judgment?

Jesus quickly countered the suggestion, replying, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:1-5). In plain language, Jesus said it is wrong to read God’s intent into life’s tragedies.

To drive the point home further, Jesus continued his discourse by recounting another incident involving a group who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,: “[How about] those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Notice, in both cases, how Jesus turns the focus from why some die to how one can live.

Death, Solomon writes, is “the destiny of every man,” and along with pain, loss, and suffering, is the natural consequence in a world tilted on its axis from sin (Ecclesiastes 7:2). But while we can’t choose whether we’ll die in this world, we can choose whether we’ll live in the next. Jesus explained, "Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life."

All the same, we pine for the day when justice will reign and all things will be made right. In the shadow time, we struggle with a God who admits, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ecclesiastes 8:14). Does that mean God plays favorites, and if we could figure out what makes Him tick, we get on the inside track of his good graces? Well, yes and no.

Diversity in the kingdom hall of fame is legion. From Abraham, whose geriatric wife was far beyond childbearing age, to Mary, a young peasant girl without a husband, God’s selections seem strange and ill conceived to any modern-day HR consultant. His most strategic assignments go not only to the least able and least qualified, but often to those who don’t even want the job, like Moses, Jonah, and Paul.

Such is the nature of God’s “favorites,” chosen not according to personal wishes, merit, or achievement, but according to a different selection criterion: “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Romans 9:16). If we think this unfair, we would do well to consider the fate of the Old Testament prophets or New Testament apostles before we insist on being the beneficiaries of God’s favoritism.

OK. Maybe God doesn’t play favorites in the usual sense. But what about the inequity of his punishments? Consider Ananias and Sapphira who were struck dead after they lied to Peter about the proceeds of a land sale. Their sins were hardly any different from the person today who fails to tithe, and yet the disparity in consequence is incomprehensible. Granted, but the inequity there is only apparent. For in both cases, as with all of humanity, the punishment is death. The only difference is the timing—in one case, it is immediate; in the other, it could be 10, 20, or 70 years.

What’s more, punishment in this world says nothing about destiny in the next. For example, when Paul addressed the church in Corinth about a man having an affair with his stepmother, he pressed them to turn the man “over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5).

Thus, punishment in the “here and now” has no necessary bearing on destiny in the “yet to come.” At the same time, an untimely death does cut short the opportunity to fulfill our earthly commission—to restore culture and multiply God’s kingdom—affecting our rewards, rather than our membership, in the world to come.

Some are sure to view such punishment as brutally severe. However, in the case of the believer, as for the Corinthian adulterer, such discipline, Paul writes, is intended so that we “will not be condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32). Discipline, up to and including death, is a merciful act of Him who keeps his sheep in the palm of his hand, allowing none to be snatched away.

God, to hold us secure in His kingdom without violating our free will, would not only be justified, but merciful in executing the sentence we rightfully deserve before we reach the point of apostasy. Thanks to Him, Jude writes, “who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy” (Jude 1:24).

It is right for us to be upset over injustice in this world. At the same time we need to remember that the greatest injustice of all was suffered by Him who died so that death would not be the final word in a narrative filled with heartache, suffering, and pain. As C.S. Lewis writes,

Does God then forsake those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, 'Why hast thou forsaken me? . . . There is a mystery here which even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted... had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent to far more desperate posts in the great battle. (The World’s Last Night)

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