“It’s not fair,” wailed a gap-toothed girl in a fit of despair. To further express her dismay she added, “You say you have Jesus in your heart, but you really don’t!” Geez. To hear my faith challenged at breakfast time by a spunky, barely grade school-er over the question of an equal candy cache among siblings gave me pause. Granted, my daughter is six years old and used an age-appropriate technique to manipulate her situation. Yet the same refrain is often echoed by us grown-ups while we discuss things like gender rights, income distribution, long airport lines, weather forecasts and awards for every fledgling Little League-er. I’m all for sharing candy and wealth and rights and brightly-festooned medals, but is this justice?
The word fair is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary to be “in accordance with the rules or standards”. As such, if a standard has been established to, say, fully eat and clear one’s plate at mealtime, to do so would meet the standard and earn – become entitled to – an appropriate reward such as a happy body or a treat from the pantry candy stash. Likewise, if a standard of work has been defined by a set of measurable outcomes, to meet those objectives would be to meet the standard and earn the determined pay.
When we sense that we have not received a return in accordance with what we deserve, we cry “foul”. In these moments we are quick to seek justice, an impartial administration of the standard, to justify our claim and restore our due reward. But what about those moments we fall short of the standard? Are we as eager to see justice accomplished when the judgment is not in our favor? Then it seems we blame the law or its administrator for being unfairly biased or harsh, producing a burden not in accordance with our ability to meet it. Or, we blame ourselves for failing to live up to its measure.
The law reveals a limit of what we deserve. First graders and mommas and judges and presidents and all six billion of us eventually discover that we can’t perfectly follow every rule of every authority and that often those standards are contradictory, fallible, nonsensical or unrealistic. Our earning power is fatigue-able. Sometimes, in response, we prefer to remove law from life by ignoring or changing its statutes. Without a certain standard, we cannot fall short of it but we also remain undeserving, unable to become worthy of its reward.
Take, for example, the biblical rule to honor one’s mother and father as established in the Ten Commandments. Hypothetically, to ignore this rule (since elimination of it falls outside our human jurisdiction!) allows a child to avoid the appearance of falling short of it when challenging her parents’ strict candy ration but also prevents that spunky, sparkly girl from receiving the long life promised to those who meet the standard.
It is precisely here, short of the benchmark and without a promise to satisfy our effort, that we begin to hope for something other than fairness. Rather, we desperately desire the relief of mercy. Incredulously, we find it within the requirements of the truest Law and its Judge’s method of justice:
“Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness…
It is not through law that [we] receive the promise that we would be heirs of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all [who believe in] the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” (Rom 4:4-5,13-17)
In this promise, we see an obligation to the law exchanged for the free receipt of a gift, an absence of merit traded for the worthy status of world-heir. We see mercy as a restoration of innocence for all who would accept the Judge’s offer of atonement and, through that sacrifice, our justification as the fulfillment of his law.
We’ve come to think that our reward is found in fairness rather than forgiveness which is a tragedy because “[s]he who has been forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47), whereas one who loves much meets God’s righteous standard and receives an eternal promise of wonder that “no eye, ear or mind has ever conceived” (1 Cor 2:9).
The law has always been about love, its fullest expression Jesus’ radical mercy in us for those who don’t deserve it. With sin judged and condemned, we are free from the very imbalance we work so hard to right. Equality is no longer treasured as a measure of fair compensation but of unity within a shared body of “co-heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17).
A mother can hope that one day, as the law of love grows in a young girl’s heart, her watchful candy count will be abandoned for a generous invitation to delight together in the tasty treat.
“No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law has been made known, to which the Law testifies. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Rom 3:20-24)
“For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” (Rom 8: 3-4)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.; But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be [mature], therefore, as your heavenly Father is [mature].” (Matt 5:43-48)