Is God Fair?

Original Date: 
Sunday, July 8, 2012

Habakkuk 1:12-2:5 When Life Doesn’t Makes Sense: Is God Fair?

There’s this company called Successories that sells motivational posters. You’re probably familiar with their work. They’re the company that sells posters like this: a picture of a rowing team over a slogan that reads: “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishment toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”

The idea is that employers will hang these up around the workplace as a way to inspire the employees and convey the company’s values. So here’s another: a beautiful picture of a sunset with a quote from Helen Keller: "Keep your face to the sun and you cannot see the shadows."

They’re pretty popular, and I’d expect most of you have seen them. One more: a mountain side with the quote: “Excellence: Some excel because they are destined to, most excel because they are determined to.” Pretty inspiring, right? Makes you want to go out and grab life by the horns.

But there’s another business that looked at the all the success of Successories with a bit of cynicism. They’re called and they started wondering if motivation is really something that can be drummed up by a poster. So they came up with their own line of posters. They call them DeMotivators, and here are a few examples:

Pretty picture, looks a lot like the rowing team, but read the caption: “Get to Work: You aren’t being paid to believe in the power of your dreams.” Or, again: another pretty picture, looks like a Successories product, but read the quote: “Motivation: If a pretty poster and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job. The kind robots will be doing soon.”

They’ve got a whole bunch of these on their website. It’s a hoot. Here’s my favorite: “Indifference: It takes 43 muscles to frown and 17 to smile, but it doesn't take any to just sit there with a dumb look on your face.” Or, I thought this was pretty funny: a beautiful silhouette of man and a woman running a mountain ridge with the caption: “Persistence: It's over, man. Let her go.”

And then this. I think that’s a picture of a lava flow running over a highway. The quote says: “Obstacles: Some things can not be overcome with determination and a positive attitude.”

Here’s my point. The DeMotivators get at this nagging truth: sometimes, even when you do everything right, life does not work in your favor. The Successories product line is built on the notion that if you have the right attitude, and give the right amount of effort, you will be a success. And often—even most of the time—that’s true. That’s why those posters are so popular. But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things go against you. Some obstacles simply cannot be overcome just because you have a great attitude. Or, as this DeMotivator says: “The journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very, very badly.”

And that leads to this question: is life fair? When we do everything right, and we give our very best effort, and life still throws us curveball after curveball, we wonder: where’s the fairness? When you’re making the sweetest lemonade possible, and yet life keeps sending you more lemons, you start to wonder: Where’s the fairness? Is God fair?

Cleaning House with a Dirty Broom
Which leads us to the book of Habakkuk. Last week I started a series called When Life Doesn’t Make Sense based on the little book of Habakkuk. This book is basically a prayer journal containing Habakkuk’s thoughts and complaints and then God’s answers to those complaints.

Last week, we saw that Habakkuk was living at a time when the nation of Judah wasn’t doing all that well. There was a weak and corrupt king and all kinds of violence and strife and conflict and miscarriages of justice. So Habakkuk calls God’s attention to all the wickedness and he asks, in essence, “How Long, O Lord? How long are you going to let all this wrong continue?”

And God answers and He says: “I got this Habakkuk, I got this. I’ve got a plan. I’m going to send in the Babylonians. And they are vile and ruthless and greedy and compassionless and they’re going to come in and clean house. That’s the plan.”

And, of course, Habakkuk isn’t so sure he likes that plan. To Habakkuk, God’s solution to the problem seems a little, shall we say, extreme. Does God really need to use the extra wicked Babylonians to fix the wicked Judeans? Is that fair?

And so, now we get what the NIV calls Habakkuk’s Second Complaint. Some scholars think that Habakkuk wrote this some time later than the first complaint, at a point after the Babylonians have already invaded. Habakkuk 1, starting at verse 12:

12 O LORD, are you not from everlasting?
My God, my Holy One, we will not die.
O LORD, you have appointed them to execute judgment;
O Rock, you have ordained them to punish.
13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrong.

Habakkuk starts with very good theology. God is eternal. He’s from everlasting. And He’s Holy. He’s set apart.

That means God is in an entirely different category from you and me. He’s in a category all by Himself. He’s always existed, He’s the creator of everything, and He does no wrong. He is “THE Holy One.” The only being in all of existence about which this can be said.

It says His eyes are too pure to look on evil. That doesn’t mean He never sees evil, He sees evil all the time. He bears witness to every evil act and every impure thought you’ve ever had. He sees evil, but He never approves of it. He does not tolerate wrong.

This is very good theology. This is a very accurate description of God. But it raises an inevitable question, the rest of verse 13:

Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves?

Here’s Habakkuk wondering: Is this fair? How can the holy God use a group of people as deplorable as the Babylonians to execute His judgment? It’s as though Habakkuk is saying: God, I know that I wanted you to do something about the wickedness in Judah? But the Babylonians? They’re even worse! As I said last week, this is like using a dirty broom to clean house. This a case of the cure being far worse than the disease.

In fact, to get at just how bad the Babylonians are, Habakkuk tells a sort of parable. Verses 14-17:

You have made men like fish in the sea,
like sea creatures that have no ruler.
15 The wicked foe pulls all of them up with hooks,
he catches them in his net,
he gathers them up in his dragnet;
and so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and burns incense to his dragnet,
for by his net he lives in luxury
and enjoys the choicest food.
17 Is he to keep on emptying his net,
destroying nations without mercy?

The Babylonians are like fishermen. They’re like those big factory ships out in the Atlantic that pull those mile-wide trawling nets. And they scoop up whatever gets in the way of their nets and then just discard any of the ocean trash they don’t want. That’s the Babylonians, just indiscriminately marching over the land destroying any people who get in their way: “emptying his net, destroying nations without mercy.” That’s bad.

But here’s the worst part: they don’t even know that it’s God who is allowing them to do this. Instead, they act like fishermen who think their nets are their gods. Do you see that in verse 16: “He sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet.” They think it’s their own strength, their own ingenuity, that allows them to conquer nations and build empires.

They don’t even know God. They don’t even know that it is Jehovah behind all their success. And now they’re invading the Promised Land and tearing down the temple and carting God’s chosen people off into exile. And the question, again: How is this fair?

Thoughts on Fairness
Now, let me pause for a moment in the exposition of the text to make a couple of observations about fairness. We wonder how it can be fair when we put all the right effort into something and the results are still not what we wanted. Then we see others who don’t try at all, and they seem to be enjoying all sorts of success. Habakkuk wonders how it can be fair that the Babylonians are being allowed to triumph over God’s people.

And the first observation on fairness is this: Fairness is not a sliding scale. Right and wrong, righteousness and unrighteousness, is measured by God’s standard, not ours.

Go back to the end of verse 13 and you’ll see that Habakkuk is looking for a sliding scale. He asks God: “Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” Now, think about that. Just back in chapter 1 he was complaining because Judah was so unrighteous. But now, the Babylonians show up, and he’s like: “Wait a minute, they’re bad! We’re more righteous than they are!”

And we all think like that. We like to divide the world up into Black Hats and White Hats. The Bad Guys get the Black Hats and the Good Guys get the White Hats. And do you know who always gets a White Hat when we do this? We do! Right? Nobody wants to think of him or herself as a Bad Guy. So we always wear White Hats and then we look around for people who are worse than us and we assign them Black Hats and then we start comparing. And, of course, if somebody we think ought to be wearing a Black Hat has it better than us, then we start wondering: How is that fair?

But, here’s the thing. When we’re talking about the way God sees things, there’s no sliding scale. It’s not like God is going: “Well, those people are a little better than those people and those people over there, why they measure up really well against these folks…” It doesn’t work like that! God doesn’t see White Hats and Black Hats. Instead, He looks at us and all He sees are Black Hats. O.K.? There’s God, and then there’s everybody else. The standard isn’t how we measure up against other people, the standard is God—THE Holy One.

So that leads to my second observation on fairness: Fairness is not always going to be in our favor. If we want God to act with fairness and immediately judge all wickedness, then we need to keep in mind that isn’t going to go all that well for us either.

We can all sympathize with Habakkuk. It’s sort of like if you live in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of crime and violence, and you call up the police and say: “Hey, could you come do something about this neighborhood?” And they say, “No problem, we’ll drop a bomb on your street next Tuesday.” And now you’re thinking: Hey, wait a minute, I live on that street! In a sense, that’s what happened to Habakkuk. By bringing in the Babylonians it feels like God has exercised the nuclear option.

But go back to the sliding scale. So often, when we call on God to be fair, when we ask God for justice, what we mean is for God to bring justice to everybody else. But we think we should be exempt. We forget that in God’s eyes we are all wearing Black Hats.

And so, we need to keep in mind that as much as we want God to be fair, we are all desperate for His mercy as well.

Standing on the Ramparts
Now, let’s go back to the text. Habakkuk is still wondering: what about the Babylonians? If Judah deserves to be punished, what about them? Chapter 2, verse 1:

I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint.

Habakkuk pours out his heart to God, and then he declares his intention to wait. And, I’ll suggest that Habakkuk is a good model for us here. I appreciate Habakkuk’s commitment to wait for God’s answer.

Last week, I mentioned that there is a difference between questioning God and accusing Him. Questioning God is when you say, “God, I know you’re good, and I look at the earth, and I don’t understand what you’re doing.” That’s questioning God.

Accusing God is when you say: “God, you say that you’re good but I look at the earth and I don’t see it. So I think you’re a liar. Or I think you’re a failure. You’re not doing your job.” That’s accusing God. When we accuse God we basically say to Him that we think we could do a better job running the universe than He can. That maybe He should start consulting with us. And that, I’d suggest, might be a little arrogant on our part.

But what Habakkuk is doing, having questions and going to God and saying: “I don’t understand, please help me understand.” That’s actually humility. That’s faith. Habakkuk commits to wait for God’s answer. But he knows—and this is the key!—that God does have the answer.

David Bast, President of Words of Hope, writes:

[Habakkuk] believes both that there are answers—the right answers—to his questions and that God will reveal them to him. If our hope is that God will never give up on us, our faith means we never give up on him. (Why Doesn’t God Act More Like God, p. 43)

And finally, God does answer. Verses 2-5:
2 Then the LORD replied:
“Write down the revelation
and make it plain on tablets
so that a herald may run with it.
3 For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
it speaks of the end
and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come and will not delay.
4 “See, he is puffed up;
his desires are not upright—
but the righteous will live by his faith —
5 indeed, wine betrays him;
he is arrogant and never at rest.
Because he is as greedy as the grave
and like death is never satisfied,
he gathers to himself all the nations
and takes captive all the peoples.

Essentially, God comes to Habakkuk and says: “I’m going to give you a revelation—a vision—and I want you to write it down. I’m going to give you a picture what is coming, and while it might seem like a long time coming, don’t give up. Because it will happen exactly when I mean for it to happen. Remember, Habakkuk, the arrogant trust in themselves and are always hungry for more. But the righteous are the ones who trust in me. So keep trusting in me Habakkuk, and you’ll see what I have planned.”

Some scholars think that the vision Habakkuk received is what is recorded in the first 15 verses of chapter 3. It’s what is known as a “theophany”—an appearance of God—and it is quite awe-inspiring. For example, Habakkuk 3:3:

His glory covered the heavens
and his praise filled the earth.
4 His splendor was like the sunrise;
rays flashed from his hand,
where his power was hidden…
6 He stood, and shook the earth;
he looked, and made the nations tremble.
The ancient mountains crumbled
and the age-old hills collapsed.
His ways are eternal. (Hab. 3:3-4; 6)

God also goes on, in the rest of chapter 2, to explain that the Babylonians face their own set of woes. We’ll look at that next week.

The God Who Enters Our Pain
But what I want to do today, with the rest of our time, is direct you back to Habakkuk 2:4. I told you last week that this is the key verse in Habakkuk, as well as one of the key verses in all of the Bible. It’s safe to say that this was one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite verses, as well as the thought that spurred Martin Luther to begin the Reformation.

And what I’d like to do now is direct you to another New Testament quotation of this verse. This time, one of Paul’s. In the book of Romans. Romans 1:16-17:

16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

And then, skip ahead a couple chapters. It’s not a direct quote of Habakkuk, but Paul is still following Habakkuk’s line of thought. Romans 3:22:

22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

Paul is saying that Habakkuk 2:4 can be read in a couple of ways. On the one hand, the righteous person will live because of his or her faith. The proud are going to disappear. They won’t endure. But the righteous who are living by faith—those who go on trusting God even when they don’t understand what he’s doing—they will live forever. Through faith, eternal life is theirs. “The righteous will live by faith.”

But more than that: “Those who live by faith are righteous.” It is the willingness to believe in God when there is little else to go by that makes us acceptable to God. God chooses to count us righteous when we choose to trust in him. Whether we understand what is happening or not. Whether our circumstances are great or poor. When we choose to put our faith in God He is pleased to count us as His.

This is the core of the Christian gospel. This is how we are saved. This is what we mean by “justification by faith.”

And, of course, in this sense the content of our faith is vital. As Romans 3:22 says, it must be faith in Jesus Christ. It is faith that in Jesus God has created a way for our Black Hats to truly become White Hats by fairly dealing with the consequences and penalties of our wickedness in Jesus. (see Rom. 3:23-26)

Because of what Jesus did in becoming an atoning sacrifice for our sin He takes His White Hat—because of all the people who have ever walked the face of the earth, Jesus alone was worthy to wear a White Hat—and He exchanges it for our Black Hats. He who had no sin became sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. (see 2 Cor. 5:21)

And, incidentally, that also points us to the most important answer concerning the question of whether or not God is fair. I’ll make one more observation on fairness, and I’ll phrase it like this: God enters into our world of unfairness.

Whenever you struggle with the issue of evil and suffering and God’s fairness in this broken world, this one thing must be kept in mind: God sent His Son to suffer cruelly on our behalf. Jesus Christ, God’s own Son who is to be worshiped as God, suffered an excruciatingly odious and shameful death. As D.A. Carson writes: “The God on whom we rely knows what suffering is all about, not merely in the way that God knows everything, but by experience.” (How Long, O Lord? p. 159)

Greg Boyd is a seminary professor and church pastor up in the Twin Cities. Some years ago he wrote a book called Letters from a Skeptic. It’s a series of actual letters (before the days of e-mail) between Greg and his father, who at the beginning of the book is not a Christian. Essentially, what Greg did was invite his dad to ask any questions he wanted about Christianity, and he’d do his best to try to answer them.

And one of the main questions that keeps coming up is the question of suffering. Greg’s mother, Arlyle, had died of cancer, and she had suffered a great deal. So how could a good God allow so much pain? How was that fair?

Here’s part of Greg’s answer:

You may remember that my first year in college I went through a long period of acute doubt over the truth of Christianity. This problem we’ve been discussing—the problem of evil—was at the heart of it. I was torn between two opposing convictions. The world, with all of its beauty, design, intricacy, and personal characteristics, demands that there must be a God. But, I thought at the time, the suffering of the world says that there can’t be a God. It all came to head for me one cold February night as I was walking back from an astronomy class at the University of Minnesota. Thinking of the grandeur of the stars we had just been looking at, I was saying to myself “there must be a God.” But thinking of the nightmarish suffering of Auschwitz, I was saying to myself “there can’t be a God.” The two thoughts were battling with each other at hyperspeed. I was tormented.

Finally, just as I approached my car, I looked up to the sky and cried out with a loud, angry voice—“the only God I can believe in is one who knows firsthand what it’s like to be a Jewish child buried alive, and knows that it’s like to be a Jewish mother watching her child be buried!” And just then it occurred to me (or was it revealed?): that is exactly the kind of God Christianity proclaims. There is no other belief which does this. Only the Gospel dares to proclaim that God enters smack-dab into the middle of the hell we create. Only the Gospel dares to proclaim that God was born a baby in bloody, [smelly] stable, that He lived a life befriending the prostitutes and lepers no one else would befriend, and that He suffered, firsthand, the hellish depth of all that is nightmarish in human existence. Only the gospel portrait of God makes sense of the contradictory fact that the world is at once so beautiful and ugly.

I guess what I’m saying, Dad, is this. I don’t know exactly why God didn’t answer our prayers for Arlyle. I know that if it wasn’t for human sin, and if we weren’t involved in this spiritual war, this painful situation never would have arisen. But more important than this explanation is this understanding: God was suffering with you, and me, and Arlyle, throughout the whole affair. He cries too. And through His participation in our pain, He wants to redeem it. (p. 61-62)

For me, this point is so important. We can talk about Black Hats and how we all deserve nothing but immediate judgment as much as we want; but if God is just some distant deity who is impassively watching the events of our lives unfold, it would still be pretty hard to take. There are just too many times when life doesn’t make sense, too many events that seem so unfair.

But knowing that God got off His throne and entered into the very midst of all this unfairness helps me to have faith that God does understand. He’s been here. He’s suffered. And He has a plan for our pain.