Introduction: The Unfairness of Life
"You know how I am insulted, how I am disgraced
and dishonored; you see all my enemies. Insults
have broken my heart, and I am in deep despair.
I had hoped for sympathy, but there was none;
for comfort, but I found none."
Jenny threw her fork down on the dinner table. “It’s not fair. Johnny got the biggest piece of pie and he got the biggest piece of cake yesterday!”
Children begin life with a need to take everything in. Their life depends upon taking the first breath, taking in their mother’s milk, taking in the world through their eyes and ears to make sense of this new place, and learning to reach out and grasp hold with their tiny fingers.
Yet, children will not live long unless they also learn to let go, learn to give up that which they have received, and learn how to share. Unless a child lets go of his first breath he will soon die; unless a child releases her bladder and bowel she will poison her body. If a child never learns to release his grasp, he will be imprisoned by his own clutching.
As the child grows, parents teach the child to share. Children learn to share their toys, their food, their space and their time. Thus, early in our lives we are taught to live by a standard of fairness. Further, and importantly, we also learn that though we share, we will still have enough. Moreover, we soon appreciate that when we share we gain our parents’ approval. So it is that we learn to wait our turn, we learn not to cut in line, we learn to refrain from taking what is not ours – these are ways we learn to share. Soon we feel that we are good when we share and we feel guilty when we don’t.
As we grow up, however, we discover that life is not always fair. We learn that people do not share equally. Perhaps our hearts were broken when someone we loved decided to leave us. Perhaps we lost money we had saved for years. Perhaps we were injured in an accident, or have had an extended illness. Perhaps someone deliberately harmed us or someone we love.
From these very specific disappointments, we may have decided that all of life is unfair. From one or two major depressing events in our lives, we may have been tempted to make a big jump – to choose to believe that life itself is not fair.
Difficult events may lead us to join the author of Ecclesiastes in saying:
“So life came to mean nothing to me, because everything in it had brought me nothing but trouble. It had all been useless; I had been chasing the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2.17).
When children try to understand why life is unfair they may think it is because they are bad or someone else is bad. Throughout history, people of faith have given several causes for why bad things happen to good people:
- Bad things happen to good people because God is testing us.
- Bad things happen to good people because of other people's sinfulness.
- Bad things happen to good people because of the sins of our ancestors.
- Bad things happen to good people because God is teaching us something.
- Bad things happen to good people because God is punishing us for some sin we are not aware of.
Our search to find meaning in life’s difficulties – to find the “why” – seems to be an inescapable aspect of being human. We search for explanations to life’s crises. We want to know why difficult and sometimes horrible things happen to us, to those we love, and even to strangers.
Yet, often there is a nagging sense that the answers we provide are not soul satisfying. If God is testing us, or punishing us, or trying to teach us a lesson, or if we suffer because of the sinfulness of others or our ancestors, we may find temporary satisfaction in an “answer” to the unfairness of life. In some way, these explanations seem to have some fairness to them.
But, and this is a big “but,” somewhere deeper in our spirits a voice says, “This is not the God I know; this is not the kind of God I can give my
heart to.” These solutions to life’s unfairness may not bring us a full sense of peace. These answers may leave us with the uneasy question: “How is God going to teach me or punish me or test me in the future?” These solutions may leave us with a stern, distant God, less interested in a relationship with us, and more interested in enforcing a set of rules or dogma, often at our expense.
Other people, perhaps less religiously oriented, would say the reason that bad things happen to good people can be explained by science. People get sick because of viruses and germs. People attack other people because they “lack impulse control,” or have suffered an abusive childhood. People are injured in traffic accidents because of the laws of physics.
Yet such answers seem to describe more of the “how” than they describe the “why.” A mother, who learns that she has inherited a rare disease and will probably die before her children are grown, may know “how” she came to be ill — it was hereditary — but still agonize over the question “Why?” How can it be fair that she will not survive to see her own children live into adulthood? And more troubling to her still is the question of how can it be fair that her children may have inherited this same disease.
The question “Why?” as regards the unfairness of life is often at its most basic level not a question at all. Rather it is a statement. The statement is something like this: “What happened to me is unfair. I don’t deserve this. I am angry about this. No explanation about why this happened to me would be good enough, because it is not fair.
I won’t let go of being angry until somebody, until God, fixes this. I am just going to be angry, because what happened to me is unfair.”
For this reason, if we find ourselves not satisfied with answers as to “how” something happened – I was distracted, or I was drunk and my car ran into you – we still find ourselves continuing to ask “Why?” We are probably protesting that something unfair has happened to us, that we do not want to accept what has happened to us, that we are angry about what has happened to us, and that we do not intend to change our attitude until someone or God fixes it.
What we may be most angry about is that the universe and God are different from what we want them to be. As children, we were taught that
to be good and to win our parents’ approval and safe keeping we needed to learn how to share, to be fair. As adults, a part of us continues to believe that we will always be safe if we are good. We believe if we share with others, if we are good to others, life will be fair to us.
We discover through illness, accident, crime, natural disaster, and through the hurts that other human beings cause us, that life is not always fair. We would like to stomp our feet, cry and say, “It’s not fair!” As adults we may do this by asking “Why?” When no answer satisfies us, and we continue to ask “Why?” we know that protest lies at the bottom of our question.
This booklet is based on the assumption: “Life is often unfair.” The answer to “why” remains an open question or perhaps even a mystery. We turn in this booklet to ask how we will respond to these givens: that life is often unfair and that we do not know why. How, in the midst of the mystery, do we cope with the unfairness of life?
Chapter 1: Lament
"The thought of my pain, my homelessness, is bitter poison.
Yet hope returns when I remember this one thing:
The LORD's unfailing love and mercy still continue."
Lamentations 3.19, 21-22
Bobby was taking his new kite outside to fly it for the first time. He was thrilled with his father’s gift. He flung the screen door open just as the ball of string dropped from his hand. As he reached to retrieve the string, the screen door bounced back snapping the kite’s fragile wooden strut. Bobby was shocked. He couldn’t believe it. His new kite was broken. The broken wood had also pierced the thin paper of the kite. In a flash, Bobby felt ashamed, dejected, embarrassed, and angry. Why had this happened? How could it have happened? What could he do about it? All these questions raced through his mind. And almost as quickly, he found an answer. “I know. I’ll take it to my father. I know he won’t be happy, but at least he can fix it, and then I can fly my brand new kite!”
Bobby found his father sitting at the dining room table. Bobby couldn’t believe it when his father said the kite couldn’t be fixed. “Why not?” protested Bobby. His father explained that he could not think of any way to repair the wood. Bobby said, “Well what about tape or glue?” His father explained that this would not work. Bobby insisted, “Why not?” By that time his father’s patience was growing thin and his anger rose to the surface. “Bobby, if you hadn’t been so careless, this would not have happened. I told you to be careful!”
Now Bobby had a worse problem. His father was often angry with him for days when something like this happened. Bobby could just imagine getting the silent treatment from his dad. Finally, Bobby mustered his courage and said, “I know, but I don’t understand why you can’t fix it.”
Fortunately for Bobby, his father relented and explained how fragile the wood was and how tape or glue would not be strong enough to withstand the force of the wind. Bobby protested again, “Why not?” Restraining himself one more time, though with an irritated tone, his father responded, “I’m sorry, Bobby; I know how disappointed and angry you are, but I can’t think of a way to fix it.”
How difficult it is to accept that life is at times unfair. Bobby certainly did not want to accept the fact that his father was unable to repair his kite, so he continued to protest, he continued to ask “Why?” If we can identify with Bobby’s excitement and disappointment, we may find ourselves saying, “Well, his father should have bought another kite.”
We, too, do not want to accept loss, and grieve for those unfair aspects of our lives. We do not want to accept that times come when we cannot go back to the way things used to be. These moments in our lives become critical “choice points.” We can avoid dealing with these losses by denying that they have happened, or by questioning why they have happened, which may be the first steps in our path of spiritual healing. The danger at the beginning of spiritual healing is that, like the child who continues to grasp hold of a toy, we continue to focus only on our denial and questioning “Why?” Because we wish to avoid feeling grief and accepting loss, we can remain stuck in our denial and questioning stage.
As we seek to let go of our denial and avoidance, we may begin to experience grief. Another word for grief is “lament.” A lamentation may be a song or poem about grief, regret, or mourning. Many religions and much of the world’s great literature use lamentations to express the grief that comes when life seems unfair.
Thus, when we are not able to find an answer to the question of why we suffer, and we can feel the sadness of our loss, we enter into a period of lamentation, a period of grieving. Like Bobby, we would rather there were a way to “fix it.” Like Bobby we may experience many different feelings. Sadness and grief are uncomfortable feelings, and most of us would like to avoid them. In fact, men especially have been taught that to allow themselves to feel sadness or grief is a sign of weakness.
The truth is that it takes a great deal of emotional strength and courage to let grief into our hearts, to express our sadness in words, or tears, or writing, or anger, or some other activity. It is the grace of God and courage that can move us into lamentation.
The Hebrew Scriptures contain the book of Lamentations, a profound cry of suffering of the Jewish people. In 586 B.C., Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jewish people, was overrun by the Babylonian armies. This was the third time the city had been attacked in a generation. Many Jews were exiled to Babylonia, separated from their families and from their Temple, which was destroyed. Only those who have known the ravages of war can begin to appreciate the suffering endured by the people – men, women, and children.
The book of Lamentations is also an attempt to understand why such calamity fell upon them. In these verses, one reads of the destruction of a city, the deportation of a population, the anguish of a people, the struggle to understand where God is in their suffering, and the determination to hope in God and appeal for mercy.
The book of Lamentations provides a helpful example for us when we feel life is unfair. How will we respond? What is the path for spiritual healing? The path begins with grieving. First we acknowledging that we have been avoiding and denying our loss and then opening ourselves to the heartache that occurs when loss comes to us. Lamentations calls us to express our grief in word, song or whatever expression seems right for us.
Expressing our sorrow in the face of life’s unfairness is difficult spiritual work. When we are faced with major loss, it is sometimes helpful to understand the expression of grief as work. Grieving, lamentation, while not chosen, becomes our spiritual task. The promise and the hope is that in allowing ourselves to grieve, we will be renewed and renew our relationship to God. This is not a promise that we will return to the way things were, but that, through grief, God will do a new work in us.
You are encouraged to engage the Scriptures in this chapter. Allow yourself to experience the grief experienced by so many of our ancestors in the faith. Allow yourself to know that you are not alone in having to deal with the unfairness of life. Allow yourself to hope that there is life through grief.
Readings for the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures
The writer expresses sorrow on behalf of the people of Jerusalem as they mourn their loss.
How lonely lies Jerusalem, once so full of people!
Once honored by the world, she is now like a widow;
The noblest of cities has fallen into slavery.
All night long she cries; tears run down her cheeks.
Of all her former friends, not one is left to comfort her.
Her allies have betrayed her and are all against her now.
Judah's people are helpless slaves, forced away from home.
They live in other lands, with no place to call their own -
Surrounded by enemies, with no way to escape.
No one comes to Temple now to worship on the hole days.
The young women who sang there suffer, and the priests can only groan.
The city gates stand empty, and Zion is in agony.
Jerusalem's old men sit on the ground in silence,
With dust on their heads, and sackcloth on their bodies.
Young women bow their heads to the ground.
My eyes are worn out with weeping; my soul is in anguish.
I am exhausted with grief at the destruction of my people.
Children and babies are fainting in the streets of the city.
Hungry and thirsty, they cry to their mothers;
They fall in the streets as though they were wounded,
And slowly die in their mother's arms.
O Jerusalem, beloved Jerusalem, what can I say?
How can I comfort you? No one has ever suffered like this.
Your disaster is boundless as the ocean; there is no possible hope.
People passing by the city look at you in scorn.
They shake their heads and laugh at Jerusalem's ruins:
"Is this that lovely city? Is this the pride of the world?"
All your enemies mock you and glare at you with hate.
They curl their lips and sneer, "We have destroyed it!
This is the day we have waited for!"
The Lord has finally done what he threatened to do:
He has destroyed us without mercy, as he warned us long ago.
He gave our enemies victory, gave them joy at our downfall.
O Jerusalem, let your very walls cry out to the Lord!
Let your tears flow like rivers night and day;
Wear yourself out with weeping and grief!
All through the night get up again and again to cry out to the Lord;
Pour out your heart and beg him for mercy on your children -
Children starving to death on every street corner!
Lamentations 2.10-13, 15-19
Our glittering gold has grown dull; the stones of
the Temple lie scattered in the streets.
Zion's young people were as precious to us as gold,
but now they are treated like common clay pots.
Even a mother wolf will nurse her cubs, but my people
are like ostriches, cruel to their young.
They let their babies die of hunger and thirst;
children are begging for food that no one will give them.
People who once ate the finest foods die starving in the streets;
those raised in luxury are pawing through garbage for food.
The writer describes the suffering he has endured, and concludes by expressing hope in God.
I am one who knows what it is to be punished by God.
He drove me deeper and deeper into darkness
And beat me again and again with merciless blows.
He has left my flesh open and raw, and has broken my bones.
He has shut me in a prison of misery and anguish.
He has forced me to live in the stagnant darkness of death.
He has bound me in chains; I am a prisoner with no hope of escape.
I cry aloud for help, but God refuses to listen;
I stagger as I walk; stone walls block me wherever I turn.
He waited for me like a bear; he pounced on me like a lion.
He chased me off the road, tore me to pieces, and left me.
He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows.
He shot his arrows deep into my body. People laugh at me all day long;
I am a joke to them all. Bitter suffering is all he has given me for food and drink.
He rubbed my face in the ground and broke my teeth on rocks.
I have forgotten what health and peace and happiness are.
I do not have much longer to live; my hope in the LORD is gone.
The thought of my pain, my homelessness, is bitter poison.
I think of it constantly, and my spirit is depressed.
Yet hope returns when I remember this one thing:
The LORD’s unfailing love and mercy still continue,
Fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise.
The LORD is all I have, and so in him I put my hope.
The writer, speaking on behalf of the community, tells God of the ways in which the people of Jerusalem have been disgraced, and he prays for mercy.
Remember, O LORD, what has happened to us. Look at us, and see our disgrace.
Our property is in the hands of strangers; foreigners are living in our homes.
Our fathers have been killed by the enemy, and now our mothers are widows.
We must pay for the water we drink; we must buy the wood we need for fuel.
Driven hard like donkeys or camels, we are tired, but are allowed no rest.
To get food enough to stay alive, we went begging to Egypt and Assyria.
Our ancestors sinned, but now they are gone, and we are suffering for their sins.
Our rulers are no better than slaves, and no one can save us from their power.
Murderers roam through the countryside; we risk our lives when we look for food.
Hunger has made us burn with fever until our skin is as hot as an oven.
Our wives have been raped on Mount Zion itself; in every Judean village our daughters
have been forced to submit. Our leaders have been taken and hanged; our elders are shown no respect.
Our young men are forced to grind grain like slaves; boys go staggering under heavy loads of wood.
The old people no longer sit at the city gate, and the young people no longer make music.
Happiness has gone out of our lives; grief has taken the place of our dances.
Nothing is left of all we were proud of. We sinned, and now we are doomed.
We are sick at our very hearts and can hardly see through our tears,
because Mount Zion lies lonely and deserted, and wild jackals prowl through its ruins.
But you, O LORD, are king forever and will rule to the end of time.
Why have you abandoned us so long? Will you ever remember us again?
Bring us back to you, LORD! Bring us back! Restore our ancient glory.
Or have you rejected us forever? Is there no limit to your anger?
The Hebrew Scriptures also contain the book of Job, the sotry of one man's troubles and human suffering. Job, a good and righteous man who lost all his children and his property, openly lamented the severity of his situation to one of his friends, and expressed his anger to God.
If my troubles and griefs were weighed on scales,
they would weigh more than the sands of the sea,
so my wild words should not surprise you.
Almighty God has shot me with arrows, and their poison spreads through my body.
God has lined up his terrors against me.
Why won't God give me what I ask?
Why won't he answer my prayer?
Job 6.1-4, 8
Included in the Hebrew Scriptures is the book of Psalms, a collection of prayers and poems that express every possible human emotion, including sorrow and joy, doubt and trust, pain and discomfort, despair and hope, anger and contentment, the desire for revenge and the willingness to forgive.
Among the psalms are those known as "psalms of lament," which are characterized by: 1) a cry to God for help; 2) a description of the problem; and 3) a plea for God to respond. These psalms may also include a profession of trust in God and a promise to praise God.
Like these psalm writers, call upon God, knowing that God understands what you are feeling and experiencing.
I have cried desperately for help, but still it does not come.
During the day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer;
I call at night, but get no rest.
But you are enthroned as the Holy One, the one whom Israel praises.
Our ancestors put their trust in you; they trusted you, and you saved them.
They called to you and escaped from danger; they trusted you and were not disappointed.
But I am no longer a human being;
I am a worm, despised and scorned by everyone!
All who see me make fun of me; they stick out their tongues and shake their heads.
“You relied on the LORD,” they say. “Why doesn’t he save you?
If the Lord likes you, why doesn’t he help you?”
Many enemies surround me like bulls;
they are all around me, like fierce bulls from the land of Bashan.
They open their mouths like lions, roaring and tearing at me.
My strength is gone, gone like water spilled on the ground.
All my bones are out of joint; my heart is like melted wax.
My throat is as dry as dust, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.
You have left me for dead in the dust.
An evil gang is around me; like a pack of dogs they close in on me;
they tear at my hands and feet. All my bones can be seen.
My enemies look at me and stare. They gamble for my clothes
and divide them among themselves.
O LORD, don’t stay away from me! Come quickly to my rescue!
Save me from the sword; save my life from these dogs.
Rescue me from these lions; I am helpless before these wild bulls.
Psalm 22.1b-8, 12-21
Save me, O God!
You know how I am insulted, how I am disgraced and dishonored;
you see all my enemies.
Insults have broken my heart, and I am in deep despair.
I had hoped for sympathy, but there was none;
for comfort, but I found none.
Psalm 69.1a, 19, 20
LORD God, my savior, I cry out all day, and at night I come before you.
Hear my prayer; listen to my cry for help!
So many troubles have fallen on me that I am close to death.
I am like all others who are about to die; all my strength is gone.
I am abandoned among the dead; I am like the slain lying in their graves,
those you have forgotten completely, who are beyond your help.
You have caused my friends to abandon me; you have made me repulsive to them.
I am closed in and cannot escape; my eyes are weak from suffering.
LORD, every day I call to you and lift my hand to you in prayer.
LORD, I call to you for help; every morning I pray to you.
Why do you reject me, LORD? Why do you turn away from me?
You have made even my closest friends abandon me, and darkness
is my only companion.
Psalm 88.1-5, 8-9, 13-14, 18
My Sovereign Lord, help me as you have promised
and rescue me because of the goodness of your love.
I am poor and needy; I am hurt to the depths of my heart.
Like an evening shadow I am about to vanish;
I am blown away like an insect. My knees are weak from lack of food;
I am nothing but skin and bones. When people see me, they laugh at me;
they shake their heads in scorn.
Help me, O LORD my God, because of your constant love, save me!
Make my enemies know that you are the one who saves me.
They may curse me, but you will bless me.
May my persecutors be defeated, and may I, your servant, be glad.
May my enemies be covered with disgrace; may they wear their shame like a robe.
I will give loud thanks to the LORD; I will praise him in the assembly
of the people, because he defends the poor and saves them from those who
condemn them to death.
Readings from the New Testament
The apostle Paul, writing to the believers in Corinth in the first century, describes the hardships he and his companions endured for the sake of the Gospel.
We do not want anyone to find fault with our
work, so we try not to put obstacles in anyone’s
way. Instead, in everything we do we show that
we are God’s servants by patiently enduring
troubles, hardships, and difficulties. We have
been beaten, jailed, and mobbed; we have been
overworked and have gone without sleep or
food. By our purity, knowledge, patience,
and kindness we have shown ourselves to be
We are honored and disgraced; we are insulted
and praised. We are treated as liars, yet we speak
the truth; as unknown, yet we are known by all;
as though we were dead, but, as you see, we,
live on. Although punished, we are not killed;
although saddened, we are always glad; we seem
poor, but we make many people rich; we seem to
have nothing, yet we really possess everything.
2 Corinthians 6.3-6a, 8-10
Thoughts for Reflection
- When life has been unfair, how have I explained "why" it has been unfair?
- When life has been unfair how have I generally responded?
- How do I express grief for the losses in my life?
- What loss, if any, in my life have I been avoiding or denying?
- What does the concept of grief work mean for my life today?
Good and gracious God, before the world was formed, I was yours. After I die, I am yours. But right now I look for you and I feel lost. Life has not been fair to me. I wonder if it is something I did wrong. I know I am not perfect. I know there are consequences to my actions. Help me accept responsibility for myself. Help me express my grief for the losses that have come into my life. I have not wanted these changes, but I have not been able to avoid them.
Dear God, help me restore my hope and my faith in your presence in my life now. Lead me a step at a time through my grief until I shall again be able to feel the smile of your face upon me. Amen.
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