How many of us, as children, were admonished with the self-evident truth that “life’s not fair”? It’s a hard lesson, but it’s one we all learned, usually before we got out of kindergarten. As adults, we are surrounded by evidence that life is not fair: in our ten- to twenty-year-old cars, we drive past multi-million-dollar homes with pristine lawns and ridiculously expensive sports cars parked in the driveway. We see people throwing money around as if it were confetti, while we struggle to pay the doctor bills and keep food on the table. We see those who flaunt the law yet get off scot-free, and we see others who are innocent yet are punished unjustly. Centuries ago, King Solomon noticed that life is not fair: “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). No, life “under the sun” is not fair, leading many to ask, “Why not?”
Before we give some reasons why life is not fair, we should probably define the term fair, because much hinges on that word. Some people define fair as “equal in every way.” But this is not an accurate picture of fairness; we cannot equate “fairness” with “sameness” or “congruency.” Some people have curly hair, which is not “fair” to straight-haired people who wish for curls. Some people possess a natural ability for athletics, which is not “fair” to those with poor muscle coordination or a congenital heart condition. Some people have inherited money through a family business, which is not “fair” to those whose parents were not entrepreneurs. In each of these cases, fairness is not truly the issue. God, who is eminently fair, gives different gifts to everyone: “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9:20). Our responsibility is to use the gifts God has given and “be content with what [we] have” (Hebrews 13:5).
Fairness, properly defined, is “freedom from bias, dishonesty, or injustice.” To be fair is to be just; that is, to be “guided by truth, reason, and justice.” Whatever our outward circumstances, we can always choose to treat others fairly and thus make life a little more fair for those around us.
The basic reason that life is not fair—that is, life is not guided by truth, reason, and justice—is that we live in a sinful world occupied by sinful people. When people are selfish, impatient, or greedy, then they tend to act in ways that secure an advantage for themselves, with no thought of others. As a result, people are treated unfairly. Jesus told the story about the unjust judge. This judge “neither feared God nor cared what people thought” (Luke 18:2). His rulings were not based on justice or anyone’s best interest except his own. He was a wicked judge, and Jesus called him “unjust” (verse 6). When unfair people are in positions of power, then life is unfair for the multitudes.
God is just, and He always acts in accordance with what is right (Deuteronomy 32:4; Revelation 15:3; 16:7). God has commanded that His people also act fairly (Leviticus 19:36; Deuteronomy 25:15; Proverbs 21:3; Isaiah 56:1), but people do not always obey God’s commands. He gives them the freedom to disobey, if that is their choice. Those who rebel against God do not seek justice, and that is one reason why life is not fair.
The psalmist Asaph dealt with the injustice of life when he began to envy the “prosperity” of the proud and wicked (Psalm 73:3). He goes on to describe how the wicked seem to be unfairly favored:
“They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
their evil imaginations have no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
with arrogance they threaten oppression. . . .
Always free of care, they go on amassing wealth” (Psalm 73:4–12).
When Asaph considered his own commitment to righteousness, he noticed a singular lack of reward, and he began to despair that life could ever be fair:
“Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments. . . .
When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply. . . .
My heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered” (Psalm 73:13–14, 16, 21).
“Life is not fair,” admitted Asaph, and the fact bothered him. How could it be that treacherous, evil scoundrels can prosper with all sorts of material blessings, while the godly suffer? Good question, especially if God is in charge. But then Asaph had a change of perspective when he “entered the sanctuary of God” (Psalm 73:17). With his eyes on the Sovereign Lord, Asaph could look beyond this temporal world to grasp an eternal view:
“Then I understood their final destiny.
Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!” (Psalm 73:17–19).
Asaph’s conclusion was that the prosperity of the wicked, unfair as it is, is only temporary; the judgment of the wicked will be eternal. On the other hand, the suffering of the righteous, also unfair, is only temporary; the reward of the righteous will also be eternal (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:17).
A desire for life to be fair is a good thing. God is fair, and He “does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34), so our yearning for fairness is a yearning for one of God’s attributes. A love of justice and an effort to establish a more fair experience for everyone is also good: “What does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). A balanced view of life necessitates an acknowledgement that life is not fair, at least in this world, along with a commitment to do what’s right and a firm reliance upon God, who will one day make all things right (Isaiah 40:4).