Life isn’t fair.
It’s something I was pondering today as I thought about my last two posts about divorce and Mother’s Day , and as I spoke with some people about their experiences with uncharitable life situations.
That’s the entirety of the book of Job (Iyov), isn’t it? That life isn’t fair, even for righteous people. If you haven’t read Job, the story goes like this:
Job is a great guy who lives a great life. He is an “upright” person who always does the right thing. He has many children, a large farm and flock, and is materially blessed.
One day, Ha Satan (“the adversary”) goes up to God and says, “Hey, this guy down here is only a good person because he has been blessed. His life is easy – surely it’s easy to be good when life is easy. I don’t think he’ll be a good person when his life is hard.” God, seeing that it’s a good test, says, “Sure, let’s see what happens. Take everything but his life.” So, HaSatan tests Job with God’s permission. He has all ten of Job’s children killed, and destroys his entire livestock and his servants. His wife leaves, too. Job contracts some sort of painful skin disease and no one helps.
His three friends come along and do everything but help – they say Job must have done something wrong (God is just therefore punishment is the result of bad behavior), that Job should repent, turn to God, change his ways, stop being proud, etc.. Job pretty much says that he did nothing wrong and that God is unknowing.
It’s interesting, and my rabbi pointed this out, that God pretty much says that Job’s friends were wrong about Gd and that Job was right. (Job 42:7). What did Job say? That God was unknowing. God never says, “I am just.” or “Yes, Job did something wrong.” No, he just said that He was all powerful and that Job’s friends were foolish.
Not really what you learned in Sunday school, is it?
What I’ve been thinking about lately is changing my own responses to frustrating circumstances. If life is anything, it’s a bit arbitrary and sometimes unjust. Good things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to good people. Life often, it seems, throws us lemons. We can either wallow in the sourness of it, or we can, as they say, make lemonade. We can neither prevent bad things from happening much of the time, nor can we make them disappear. The only factor we can affect is our response.
I’m still reading a book that millions have found helpful- and maybe you will too. It’s called When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner. A book about bad events happening (in Kushner’s case, the loss of a child) would not be complete without a chapter or two on Job. Chapter Two is just that: “The Story of a Man Named Job”. Kushner writes,
“God may choose to be fair and give a person what he deserves, punishing the wicket and rewarding the righteous. But can we say logically that an all-powerful God must be fair? Would He still be all-powerful if we, by living virtuous lives, could compel Him to protect and reward us? Or would H e then be reduced to a kind of cosmic vending machine, into which we insert the right number of tokens and from which we get what we want [...]?” (p.55)
Kushner describes Job in three propositions, one that God is all-powerful and everything is done by His will, two that God is just and always fair and everyone gets what they deserve, and three that Job is a good person. We are told that Job is a good person, and Job clings to the third point. Job’s friends deny Job’s goodness and cling to the first point. Kushner has another suggestion.
Maybe God is just, but just not all-powerful. He writes,
“If God is a God of justice and not of power, then He can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. He can know that we are good and honest people who deserve better. Our misfortunes are none of His doing, and so we can turn to Him for help. Our question will not be Job’s question, ‘God, why are You doing this to me?’ but rather, ‘God, see what is happening to me. Can You help me?’ We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, not to be rewarded or punished, but to be strengthened and comforted.”
The laws of nature apply whether God exists or not. If my diet consists of McDonald’s french fries, it doesn’t really matter how good of a person I am – I will probably die of coronary heart disease in some form or another. Life happens, and pain is a part of it.
So what does that mean? Is it still worthwhile to be a “moral” person even if there is no divine reward or favor for my actions? Yes, there is still value, because the world is a better place when we treat the world and everything/everyone in it better. It means that instead of wallowing over why bad things happen – and praying to change a situation that can’t be reversed – I can change my reaction to the situation and move forward. Our faith can bring us together, but it shouldn’t be the crutch that stops us from moving or that turns us into bitter people. Sometimes we bring ill on ourselves through poor choices and sometimes the bad situation is just bad luck. It happens. What we do with the lemons in life is what ultimately matters most.
Yes, life is unfair. How can we help each other through it?
Discussion Questions: Do you think God is fair? Is He just? Does God exist at all? (And if not, does it matter in Judaism…or at all?)