Fair freshness of the God-breathed spirit air,
Pass through my soul, and make it strong to love.
— George MacDonald (Diary of an Old Soul)
“It’s not fair!” is the chorus that rises from a veritable army of prepubescent logicians with legs and arms flailing against the ground. If you’ve ever been around a child, you know that a sense of fairness—of justice—is stamped on their psyche at a very young age. We also know the too-often response of the cynical parents who are tired of arguing: “Life’s not fair.”
Israel’s God had a different answer. When the exiles hurled their blind accusations against Yahweh: “The way of the Lord is unfair” (v. 25, NRSV), God replied through Ezekiel: “O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” (v. 29, NRSV).
Paraphrase: “Do you really think that I’m unfair—the highest example of justice and mercy? Could it be that maybe, just possibly, you’re the ones to blame?”
. . .
Israel accused Yahweh of unfairness because of these two phrases:
- If righteous people turn and pursue sin, they will die.
- If sinful people turn and pursue righteousness, they will live.
Unfair? If anything, it sounds like God is being unfair to himself! After everything God did to preserve and care for Israel, and after all Israel did to insult and abuse their God, it’s incredible that God chooses to show mercy at all.
. . .
The exiles who responded negatively to Ezekiel’s comments had a “merit-bank” view of God. In their eyes, all the good they did in life would be weighed against all the bad. As long as the balance was weighted in favour of the good, they felt safe with God.
On the surface, this mindset might seem fair. Under the surface, it’s incredibly naive:
- Israel did nothing to deserve God’s mercy. God picked Abraham out of a family of idolaters and promised that he would make a great nation out of them. All of God’s favour was unmerited in the first place.
- How do you weigh the good and the bad? Do you use your own standards? What is one affair worth? Three alms to the poor?
. . .
This attitude still exists today. Even in light of Jesus’ message of unquestioning mercy to the repentant sinner, people still want to believe in a merit bank. It works on a human level, right? (I spoke nastily to my wife, I’ll buy her flowers.) Why shouldn’t it work on a divine level? Were you jealous of your neighbour’s new car? Drop a fiver in the offering plate.
Merit-bank theology simply doesn’t work. Plain and simple. What God cares about is your posture before him. Right now: have you turned to follow God, or are you persisting in your own way? That’s what matters.
What seems like unfairness on God’s part is really overwhelming mercy. Like Israel, we have no right to claim any special favour from God. It’s only because he loves us that we exist in the first place. His message is not unfair, it is gracious. It doesn’t matter what you have done in your life. Turn to God and you will find him running to meet you.
. . .
Merciful God, help us to see things through your eyes. Remind us of your kindness to us, and help us to live inspired by your mercy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.