Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Monday Morning Meditation #77: Is God Unfair?

This week I continued to read the Book of Jeremiah, where I came across a complaint of Jeremiah that is not unlike the complaint that many believers make today. Why, asks Jeremiah, do the unrighteous prosper while the righteous suffer? Is that not, indeed, unfair? Should it not be the other way around? Should not the righteous prosper and the unrighteous suffer? Would that not make it easier for all to to believe? Should we not expect God to be fair, to reward "good" people with a "good" life?

God provides an answer to Jeremiah, perhaps not entirely the response we might have expected:
14 This is what the LORD says: “As for all my wicked neighbors who seize the inheritance I gave my people Israel, I will uproot them from their lands and I will uproot the people of Judah from among them.
15 But after I uproot them, I will again have compassion and will bring each of them back to their own inheritance and their own country.
16 And if they learn well the ways of my people and swear by my name, saying, ‘As surely as the LORD lives’—even as they once taught my people to swear by Baal—then they will be established among my people.
17 But if any nation does not listen, I will completely uproot and destroy it,” declares the LORD.
Reading: Jeremiah 12: 14-17.

Meditation: When I was an atheist, I never gave much thought to what was fair and not fair. To me, as Charles Sykes once said in an op-ed piece (San Diego Union-Tribune, September 19, 1996), "Life is not fair; get used to it." I was used to it, and I never compared my life to the life of others. Were I to have done so, I would have considered some to be luckier than I and others to be less lucky.

After coming to faith, I encountered many discussions on the "fairness" of God, including books such as When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Rabbi Harold Kushner) and 21 Reasons Bad Things Happen to Good People (Dave Early). And then there are my catechism kids who think that God should protect them and all God's people from any harm or difficulty or suffering and allow them to surf through life on the wings of the wind with nary a feather, uh, hair, ruffled. The aforementioned books try to provide logical counter arguments to my catechism kids' assumptions. To some extent, my kids buy the arguments; to some extent they do not.

The source of my catechism kids' difficulties in accepting the bad things that happen to them is their comparison with others' lives. They expect life to be fair in the sense that good reaps good and bad reaps bad. They don't want to believe the line from Star Trek in which Mr. Spock tells Dr. McCoy, "In a test of good and evil, evil can win unless good is very, very careful."

In a world of free will, there is bound to be good and evil. And where there is evil, there is bound to be evil that triumphs over good if one judges a good life by material goods, career success, power, and prestigious relationships. That is not, however, how God judges success, and it certainly is not the model of a good life that Jesus showed to us -- or any of the saints, for that matter.

None of those things matter to me. I still do not compare my life to that of others. I don't care about the Joneses. They have their life; I have mine. My life has been full of what others might consider suffering: an abusive childhood, children and grandchildren with birth defects, career ups and downs, a considerable amount of poverty throughout my childhood and much of my adult life. Nonetheless, I have traveled the world (often with only $20 in my pocket) and have been able to contribute to improvements in the lives of children in many places. I have had a good life for a good life is not necessarily an easy life, a luxurious life, or a fair life.

And thank God, that it is never too late to recognize the source of our help and support. Thank God for God's grace and mercy even to those who have perpetrated evil against us, for we, too, are all in need of God's grace and mercy. Thank God that God is willing to bring back anyone who repents and asks for forgiveness and that He will set the foreigner who believes in Him among us for most of us were once those foreigners whom He established among His people. Exemplifying God's compassion should be our goal, not crying to Him that life is not fair or that His willingness to forgive people even at the moment of their last breath is not fair. It is fair -- and kind.

On January 30, 2000, Fr. John Claypool gave a radio homily called "Life Isn't Fair, Thank God!" That homily is a wonderfully clear explanation of why what appears fair and unfair to us may be very different from God's definition of fair, which is based on charity (in both senses of that word). Here is the ending to that homily:
"There is an old rabbinic parable about a farmer that had two sons. As soon as they were old enough to walk, he took them to the fields and he taught them everything that he knew about growing crops and raising animals. When he got too old to work, the two boys took over the chores of the farm and when the father died, they had found their working together so meaningful that they decided to keep their partnership. So each brother contributed what he could and during every harvest season, they would divide equally what they had corporately produced. Across the years the elder brother never married, stayed an old bachelor. The younger brother did marry and had eight wonderful children. Some years later when they were having a wonderful harvest, the old bachelor brother thought to himself one night, "My brother has ten mouths to feed. I only have one. He really needs more of his harvest than I do, but I know he is much too fair to renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he is already asleep, I'll take some of what I have put in my barn and I'll slip it over into his barn to help him feed his children.

At the very time he was thinking down that line, the younger brother was thinking to himself, "God has given me these wonderful children. My brother hasn't been so fortunate. He really needs more of this harvest for his old age than I do, but I know him. He's much too fair. He'll never renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he's asleep, I'll take some of what I've put in my barn and slip it over into his barn." And so one night when the moon was full, as you may have already anticipated, those two brothers came face to face, each on a mission of generosity. The old rabbi said that there wasn't a cloud in the sky, a gentle rain began to fall. You know what it was? God weeping for joy because two of his children had gotten the point. Two of his children had come to realize that generosity is the deepest characteristic of the holy and because we are made in God's image, our being generous is the secret to our joy as well. Life is not fair, thank God! It's not fair because it's rooted in grace."
Contemplation: That is far as I can go with you this Monday morning. I now retire to private prayer to thank God that my life has not been fair for I would have found far less learning and far fewer rewards in a fair life. Then I will move on to contemplation, my favorite part of the day, letting God take over the direction in which my relationship with Him moves.

I will leave you now to your prayer and contemplation. First, though, I would like to bring to your attention a Monday morning prayer post that you might enjoy:

Fr. Austin Fleming, priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and pastor in Concord, Massachusetts, posts a prayer each Monday morning that he calls "Monday Morning Offering." I enjoy his prayers very much. I think you also will find them inspirational. He has graciously given me permission to include a link to his blog on my Monday Morning Meditation posts. (During the week, he also posts great homilies and other thoughtful discussions. I enjoy reading those, too, as do readers of this blog who have taken the stroll over to his blog.)

For additional inspiration throughout the week, I would point out two sets of blogs: (1) the list of devotional blogs on my sidebar and (2) my blogroll, where I am following a number of inspirational priests and writers about spiritual matters. I learn so very much from all these people. I highly recommend them to you.