Can the concepts of fairness – being fair or unfair – be applied to God?
Most of those debating the issue would say yes, and most usually wind up saying that God, at times, is certainly “unfair.” For instance, this is usually illustrated in the well-known statement that God loved Jacob and hated Esau (Romans 9:13).
That God would therefore give an “advantage” to Jacob that He would not afford Esau is deemed to be unfair. It is interesting that those who would arrive at that conclusion somehow miss Paul’s statement in the same book that God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11).
And therein lies the problem. How can we reconcile those two verses in the same New Testament book?
How do we understand the concept of “fairness” as it applies to God? And, an even more critical question would be – should we even try to apply the concept of fairness to the workings of God?
Critical to this discussion is the concept of right and justice, especially in trying to answer the question of whether fairness and justice can be used interchangeably. Most would agree that fairness is the idea that everyone should get what they deserve. Corollary to that would be that fairness is based in that which is right.
It is interesting to note that in both Testaments there are Hebrew and Greek words for both the concepts of right and being just, but there is no word for fair or fairness, at least not in the sense we use those words.
Perhaps the closest we can come to a word that might express what we believe to be fairness is the word equity, which is usually the translation of a Hebrew word (yashar) as it appears in context of verses like Isaiah 59:14, Isaiah 11:4, Psalm 98:9 and Ecclesiastes 2:21. For instance in Isaiah 11:4, the NASB, CEV, NLT and GNT all translate it with the word “fair” and “fairness. (But with righteousness He will judge the poor, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth… NASB).
The Hebrew idea of yashar is that which is straight or right, and in fact, in Isaiah 11:4 the word built from that is mishor: which actually means a level place. Geographically, mishor is translated plateau or plain (e.g. cities of the plain, Joshua 13:21). Why is this significant? Because traditionally, the concept of equity (and fairness?) is that everyone is on the same level and no one has an advantage over anyone else. We use that idea metaphorically when we say everyone is on the same level playing field, meaning a fair competition where no side has an advantage.
It seems clear that equity, equality and fairness can be thought of as linguistic cousins. But here is an important question again – is fairness and rightness the same? And, if they are, then unfairness and wrongness must also be the same.
If you answer that they are the same, that to be fair is to be right, then God is fair and will always be fair because He can never do wrong, which is what unfairness would be! You cannot avoid that conclusion.
Here is another way we might approach the issue. Instead of defining what we think fairness is, define what it is not. Being unfair is selfish. Being unfair is unjust. Being unfair is incorrect. Being unfair is not right. (And, so on.)
Now, can any of those concepts be applied to God? Is God selfish? Is God unjust? Is God ever incorrect? Can God ever be not right?
Right is based on morality and ethics, while fairness is based on impartiality and equality. We say fairness is getting what one deserves, but so is rightness with the addition of getting what we justly deserve. That is the whole point of the parable Jesus told in Matthew 20:1-15 (which, incidentally, is often used to prove that God is unfair). It would seem that fairness must always be determined by what is right.
If then, this is going to be applied to God, a syllogism might best demonstrate it:
First Premise: Fairness is based on what is right. (which is true)
Second Premise: God is right in all He does. (which is also true)
Conclusion: God is therefore always fair. (which must be true)
If we say that “life is not fair,” that may be true, but it is a statement based on our (fallen) perspective. If we say what is fair is not always just and what is just is not always fair, that also may be true, but again, it is statement based solely on our perspective as humans. Some have suggested (Bill Gothard, for instance) that fairness is therefore a "human construct."
I think we need to understand this issue by forcing ourselves to approach it from God’s perspective (limited as we are in our ability to do so). When I do that, I must admit that what is fair is always just and what is just will always be “fair,” in that it will always be right. Abraham reminds us in Genesis 18:25 that the Judge of the whole earth will do right. Indeed, can He ever do wrong?
Think of that for a moment. Is “unfairness” an imperfection? It is certainly hard to think of it as being anything but, at least in some respects. So, if being unfair reveals a less than perfect nature, how can it ever be applied to God? If you claim God is being unfair, are you not then accusing Him of being imperfect?
This is the dilemma we face. If, in our perception, God is not fair, there is one thing we can know for certain and that is God is always right (Ezekiel 18:25 and notice how some translations use the word fair/unfair).
Some will argue that fairness and rightness are not morally equivalent and that being fair is the act of applying what is right. If this is correct, and there are plenty of reasons to believe it is, then rightness precedes fairness. It occurs to me that, for us, this is where the breakdown comes because unfairness ensues when we do not apply justness and rightness correctly.
But that breakdown is our problem. God never incorrectly applies justice or rightness and if that is true (which it must be) then God is never unfair!
There is only one way in which I would say that God is not being “fair,” in-so-far as we define fairness as everyone getting what they deserve. In that regard, God is not fair because we do not get what we deserve due to His amazing grace. (Are we not glad of that!)
Ezra 9:13 “What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved…” (NIV)
Psalm 103:10 “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” (NIV)
Lamentations 3:22 “Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.” (NIV)
In summary, I do not see how the concepts of fairness/unfairness can be applied to God. His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). Fairness and unfairness are perceptions we have that relate to the human experience. Because they relate at some point and at certain levels to rightness and wrongness, they cannot be applied to God, who only does one and can never do the other.
If God is unfair, if He is at some point in time not fair, then He would be at that moment wrong, and wrong is something God cannot be and remain God. Similarly, if fair equals justice, how could a Just God be unjust, which He would be if He were ever unfair? God cannot be unfair any more than He can be unjust.
I have come to the conclusion that we cannot say God is fair/unfair in the same sense that we understand and apply those terms. Our sense of fairness is based on limited knowledge and resources. God’s application of what we might call “fairness” is based on His sovereignty and on His unlimited knowledge, uncontested justice and immeasurable grace.
Copyright © Joe LoMusio, 2020