If Life Was Fair, We’d All Be Doomed

I love William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.* Most people who know the story know it from the movie. And many of them can toss off lines from it at the drop of a hat:

“As you wish … .”

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

“Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”

“Sonny, true love is the greatest thing, in the world, except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe.”

And everyone’s favorite:

“Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam wifin a dweam… And wuv, twue wuv, will fowow you fowevah …”

Life’s not Fair

The point of the movie is pretty clear: true love wins as Wesley rescues Buttercup from the evil prince. But the book has a different point entirely. Goldman doesn’t sugar-coat it and he doesn’t try to hide it behind sappy sentimentality:

“This book says ‘life isn’t fair’ and I’m telling you, one and all, you better believe it.”

“I’m not trying to make this a downer, understand. I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair.”

Goldman makes sure that by the time you’re done with the book, you’ll be clear on the concept. It’s still funny and witty and adventurous and full of true love and in fact I like the book much better than the movie – which is hard to imagine, since I think the movie is genius – but Goldman drives the point home: life’s not fair.

I’ve come to learn that’s a good thing.

Fairness is Overrated

“The beauty of grace is that it makes life unfair.”

(Relient K, Be My Escape)

Anyone with half a lick of self-awareness knows they’re not perfect. It’s a fact known around the world: we all make mistakes. The Bible says as much too.

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23.)

“Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you.” (Psalm 143:2.)

“All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:3.)

What is there to cheer about? If life is fair, we are all going to have to answer for our sins. Here, then, is the good part – the Bible doesn’t say as much. Instead, it says things like:

“He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:10.)

“All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24.)

“We were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:3-5.)

God’s grace makes life unfair; it also makes it better.

That’s not fair! Yay!

Most of us have a healthy sense of justice. At least I know I do, especially when I am the one being wronged. It might be something relatively minor like a friend inadvertently standing me up for a lunch date (it’s happened occasionally), or something more significant like someone trying to take my job away from me and get it for himself (that one happened too, a few years back). Some people also get conscience-stricken when they realize they’ve been the one meting out the injustice; I know I am to blame for many injustices to people in my life, and rightly deserve punishment for it.

But when it comes to our eternal state, whether it will be one where God serves out justice and punishment as deserved or not, here’s a conversation I can imagine happening:

“You’re not being fair!”

 “You’re right, I’m not.”

 “In fact, you’re being unfair!”

 “You’re right, I am.”

 “How can I thank you?!”

How do I know this? Because the Bible is clear and unequivocal when it assures us that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1.) I belong to Christ, and because I do I know that I will not face judgment for my sins. It may not be fair, but I’ll take it.

Fairness is overrated anyway.


*Here’s another post I wrote about The Princess Bride, for fans who can’t get enough.

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25 Responses to If Life Was Fair, We’d All Be Doomed

  1. Adriana says:

    Very true. Praise be to God.

  2. Auntie Em says:

    Two things: the impressive priest helps me as a Texas choir director to teach kids to get the RRRs out of their diction: “So treasah yah wahf…”
    And my favorite secular story of justice and grace: during the Civil War a young soldier was brought to General Lee for some transgression– he was trembling. General Lee said, “Don’t worry, Son, you’ll find justice here.” The boy answered, “I know; that’s what I’m scared of!”

  3. Jeannie says:

    As the narrator of Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River puts it: “Fair is whatever God wants to do.”

  4. nmcdonal says:

    As I said before, Tim, you had me at “William Goldman”

    • Tim says:

      A friend of mine in college turned me on to the book long before the movie came out. I was surprised at the different emphasis of the one versus the other, but they both work so well. Which did you experience first, Nick, book or movie? Did it affect your perception of the story-telling?

      • nmcdonal says:

        I must say I saw the movie first – it was my Dad’s favorite. I agree with your assessment: opposite moral. I actually like them both; I think the movie had to be more upbeat to be a success. It had its own quirkiness that I appreciated. In some ways, the narrative humor of the book is the movie jokes on steroids. That’s why I think I loved the book, too.

  5. Aimee Byrd says:

    I probably wrote this comment the first time you posted this article, Tim, but my 9th grade English teacher hammered the differences between fairness and justice, because we love to treat them as the same meaning, although they are very different.
    God is just, and he will have justice in the end. It’s simply inconceivable (had to use that word to stick to your theme) that his own Son took my justice and shared his full reward with me. I don’t get it, but I’ll take this just God over the fair one any day.

    • Tim says:

      Agreed, Aimee. God’s justice and God’s mercy are inseparable aspects of who he is, and both are different from our concept of fairness in inconceivable ways.

  6. Laura says:

    I appreciate your post Tim! We need this reminder frequently! Thanks for sharing it with us from the other blog. Here is another post (not written by me) that I also appreciated on the same topic entitled “Sweet Unfairness.” http://sojournerspace.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/sweet-unfairness/

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for that link, Laura, it was excellent. I really liked this line: “I dare not ask God to be fair with me.”

      Great point. Fairness is overrated anyway. Grace, on the other hand, can never be overrated.

  7. Mary Anne says:

    Let me begin by saying that the character I most identify with is Les Miserables is Inspector Javert, so read what follows with that in mind. I have an absurdly high drive for justice and at times I make Javert look like a hippie.

    God is not, as you say, “fair”—but He’s the only one who should really get to pull that one out on a regular basis. Here’s a for instance: it drives me nuts (and always has) when a parent or teacher or some other authority figure, in dealing with children, tries to silence protests of “That’s not fair!” by declaiming, “Well, life isn’t fair.” Sure it isn’t. But kids will learn that soon enough, won’t they, and it doesn’t take away your responsibility to be as fair as you possibly can. And yes, I know sometimes the kids are just arguing to be arguing and after a certain point you have to cut it off. But so many authorities don’t even bother; they just skip to the end and hope for peace and quiet.

    They won’t get it. Guaranteed. 😉 Can you tell I butted heads with authorities often in my childhood? Kids know, people. They know when they’re just getting the brush off just because you can be bothered to deal with them.

    And yes, there are many, many times when humans must and should show grace and mercy—be imitators of God—instead of lowering the boom. I bear in mind as I write this that Javert is an awful warning; his encounter with mercy literally breaks his brain and I would not want to end as he did. I’ve talked this over with my Mizzie friends often and one conclusion we always come to is “I hope God was kinder to Javert than he was to himself.” AMEN.

    And I suppose that’s one of my struggles with the grace you’re talking about, Tim. We’re all children in the sight of God, but I do wonder at times about how he applies his concept of “unfairness.” (King David, I’m looking at you . . . ) But don’t worry, I’m not about to go leap off the Pont au Change into the Seine . . . *g*

    Tim, tell us more about how this affects you as a judge. I suppose that you often have to concentrate on what’s fair and just. When is it within a judge’s purview to offer mercy instead of strict justice? That must be a tough call sometimes.

    • Tim says:

      The quick answer about inside the courtroom decisions, MA, is that I don’t do mercy or justice. I do law, and I do my best to apply it fairly. If someone comes into the courtroom looking for justice, they’re looking in the wrong place.

      For the kid thing, I completely agree. Tossing off “Well life’s not fair” is a total disservice to kids. When my kids would ask why they had to do something they didn’t want to do, I’d explain it. Sometimes I’d preface it with “Because I’m the Dad”, but an explanation as always coming right behind that so it really came out “Because I’m the Dad, and because …”.

      • Mary Anne says:

        “I do law”—hmmm, OK. That makes sense. Though I had to laugh about not coming into a courtroom looking for justice. As one of my friends frequently observes, “We don’t have a justice system; we have a legal system.”

  8. Amen to the post. 🙂

    And amen to that novel. It’s one of my favorites!

  9. kimita says:

    Yes, the fairness of God is a gift we so often take for granted or don’t even acknowledge. I spent last year memorizing Psalm 103 and am amazed still at v. 10. Have you ever read The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul? He mentions justice and fairness in that book and talks about grace…that we all often think we deserve grace or more grace from God (based on our current circumstances being unfair) but as soon as something is deserved, that’s where justice begins and grace ends. Very thought-provoking read. Great blog you have here!

    • kimita says:

      Sorry…meant the “unfairness of God” 🙂

      • Tim says:

        Got it, Kim. 😉

        And I did just read Sproul’s book. It had been sitting in my to-be -read pile for a while and I got to it a couple months ago. Excellent stuff. My wife and I also did his video series on predestination, where he talks even more on the subject of grace, and how it stops being grace if we think it’s owed us. He’s such a great thinker and gifted communicator all in one.

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