On Sunday, I preached about Jesus healing a man who had born blind (John 9). A part of that sermon has stuck with me, and I haven’t been able to shake it since. It has to do with the seeming unfairness of that man’s life, and the apparent cruelty of God.
Sometimes bad things just happen because we live in a messed up, broken down world. With the bite of that mango or pear or nectarine, Adam brought death into the world. And with death came the gradual decay of our world. Prior to the Fall, would there have been a super typhoon wiping out 3200 people in the Philippines and causing 600,00 more to be homeless? With the limited information we have about the pre-Fall world, I don't think so. Bad stuff happens, and Adam was the bad stuff inaugurator.
Other times God brings bad stuff on folks because He is punishing or disciplining or honing them. Punishing is bringing sin’s just retribution upon those who have not had it dealt with by Christ’s sacrifice. Disciplining, on the other hand, is God’s hand smacking the backsides of Christians who are not living the lives to which He has called them. Finally, honing is that process we find in Romans 5:3-4 where God is preparing us for deeper faith and greater service. Just like a chef runs his blade across a rough steel, God throws us up against hard times so that we can become sharper instruments in His hands.
But then there’s this poor schlub in John 9. Jesus’ disciples automatically figure that the second option above is the explanation for his sad state - someone sinned, so this guy is paying for it. In today’s world, we typically go for option one - bad things happens - stinks to be you (using my “remember-pastor-people-in-your-congregation-are-going-to-read-this” vernacular). Jesus, however, bypasses one and two, and throws in a third option:
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9:3)
So, let me get this straight - this man was born blind, and lived his whole childhood never being able to see his parents or his siblings. He never knew what a duck looked like; or a camel or a cloud or the color red. As he grew, he would have been ostracized from others his age - kept away from the fun and games - a defective outcast. Then, when he became a young adult, he was passed over when it came to apprenticing someone in a trade. After all, what could he do? Actually, there was one job he was suited for - one professional title he could claim - beggar. And that’s what he became.
A sad life for a sad man. Was it divine retribution? No. Was it just bad luck? No. Instead, Jesus tells us it was an intentional decision on the part of God for this man to live so many years of sadness - for so much of his life to be wasted - all so, at just the right time, He could use him to make a point. Talk about being the ultimate pawn - helpless in the hands of what seems to be a very unfair God.
What do we do with this? How do we respond to this seeming cruelty? The first answer is uncomfortable; it’s the one we find towards the end of the book of Job - “I’m God; you’re not. Shut up.” In other words, the Creator can do whatever He wants with His creation. You got a problem with what He’s doing? Get your own planet, then you can set your own rules (for my Mormon readers, that was a hyperbolic hypothetical - please don’t read too much into it).
There is also a kinder, gentler (yet still somewhat uncomfortable) way of looking at this situation, and that is to realize that the concepts of “fair” and “unfair” really have no place in the Kingdom of God. When we see things through God’s eyes - with an eternal perspective, rather than our “tree trumps forest” view - suddenly those things that seem like the end-all-be-all of our existence quickly fade in importance.
Let’s say you’re about to serve dessert to your two boys. You reach into the pantry, pull out a pie tin, and know immediately that you’ve got problems. There are only two pieces left, and one is noticeably larger than the other. Hoping for the best, you lever them onto a couple plates, and set them down in front of the kids.
Now, what is the first thing that these little kidlets are going to do? Look to their brother’s plate. The reaction is as expected - one exults in the glory of being the favored child, while the other cries out, “No fair!” Mayhem ensues. You shake your head, because they just don’t get it. You know that in the grand scheme of things the size of a piece of pie simply doesn’t matter. The pie will be eaten, and life will go on. But to the boys, this apparent favoritism is the most important thing in their short-sighted existence.
The phone rings, and, thankful for the chance to escape the melee, you snatch up a receiver and slip out of the kitchen, leaving the boys to attack each other with their plastic forks. On the line is a good friend of yours, who says, “Can’t talk long, but I’m so excited! Bob got the promotion! That means we can finally get all the way out of debt, and probably even build that house we’ve always dreamed of! I wanted to tell you right away, because I knew you’d be so happy for us.”
After sitting down at your desk, you offer some tight words of faked elation, then say your good-byes. When you set the phone down, it settles on a stack of credit card bills and a statement from your landlord that he’s raising your rent. You look out the window at your fifteen-year-old beater that’s pushing 200k on the odometer. Your retirement strategy is “Work until I die.” Closing your eyes, you say, “God, it’s just not fair!”
Meanwhile, God’s shaking His head, because you just don’t get it. He knows that in the grand scheme of things the size of a piece of pie simply doesn’t matter. The pie will be eaten and life will go on. But to you, this apparent favoritism this is the most important thing in your short-sighted existence.
Our culture is all about fairness. We live in a “Wow, must be nice” world. Like Sally says as she’s dictating a letter for Santa to her brother Charlie Brown, “All I want is what’s coming to me. All I want is my fair share.” And, if our fair share is a little more than someone else’s, that’s okay. Just as long as it’s not less.
Contentment will never come until we forget about the pie - until the words “fair” and “unfair” are expunged from our vocabulary. We are here on this earth for two reasons: 1) love God, and 2) love others. And, since real love is all about “you-first” sacrifice, if we are truly to love God and love others, then our lives need to be all about them. When we finally accept that and live it, then God promises that He will take care of our needs. Unfortunately, comfort does not qualify as one of our needs; neither do a nice house or a nice car or a retirement fund or health or a spouse or children or vacations or a perfect home life or anything else that we see others enjoying that we wish we had (I say “wish we had” because “covet” is such a nasty little word).
If we don’t rise up to view our beautiful little forest of a life from God’s perspective, we’re going to spend all our days bumping into trees. If you’ve committed yourself to Christ, then you’ve got an eternity waiting when this life is over. And, during this life, we have the joy and privilege of serving God, of sacrificing all for Him. Along the way, He may bless us with some things - a little comfort, a happy family, a car that you don’t have to push then pop into gear to get started. But our call is to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, then let Him take care of all the rest (Matthew 6:33).