Sometimes life seems really unfair. Some are born with beauty; others are not. Some have strong, athletic bodies; others weak and uncoordinated. Some enjoy good health all their lives; others live with chronic illness. Some seem to get all the breaks; others just can’t seem to catch one.
No matter who you are, at some point you will face this perplexing and often deeply discouraging dilemma: Some people get what they don’t deserve, while others don’t get what they do deserve. In those moments we are tempted to believe that God is either uncaring, unloving, or unjust.
1600 years ago, St. Augustine faced the very same dilemma. Here are five biblical truths from his writings to help you when life doesn’t seem fair.
1. Remember that all things happen within the grand story of God’s eternal purpose.
“Surely it pleased divine providence to prepare future goods for the just which the unjust will not enjoy, and future evils for the impious which will not torment the good.”City of God, Chapter 8
Remember Jesus’ words: “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
We must continually look at the present in the light of eternity. Failing to do so can result in our feeling robbed or cheated when hardship comes as if we aren’t getting something life owes us. Don’t forget, this world isn’t the place of God’s final reward; it is the place where God is preparing you for it.
2. Remember, that the righteous and the wicked are both recipients of God’s goodness.
Jesus instructs us to “love our enemies” and “pray for those who persecute us.” Why? Because our Father “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”(Matt 5:45) This fact instructs us in two ways.
First, it models how we as Christians should treat unbelievers. After all, if our heavenly Father shows them daily kindness, how can we do any less?
Second, it serves as a tool for witness. The unbelieving skeptic often asks, “How can a loving God exist with all the evil in the world?” That’s a fair question, and it deserves a thoughtful response. But it’s worth reminding them that evil isn’t the only thing we experience in this world. There’s a lot of good too. So, if God doesn’t exist, who do we credit for all the good things in life?
3. Remember, receiving God’s goodness serves a purpose now for both the believer and the unbeliever.
It isn’t just kindness that motivates God to extend his goodness to all. Scripture tells us that God has a purpose in blessing both the righteous and the unrighteous.
For the believer, it is one way that God expresses his love for us. The Father loves to bless his children as an expression of his love. (cf. Matt 7:11, John 17:26) Of course, the greatest gift he gave was Christ through whom we can become children of God in the first place. (John 1:12) And like a good parent, the Father loves to give good gifts to his kids.
But God’s goodness serves a purpose for the unbeliever also. Augustine points to Paul in Romans 2:4-6:
“Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.”
In other words, God’s goodness bears witness of his love to the unbeliever too. He lovingly showers them with good gifts in the hope that they will turn to him as the giver. Tragically, so many do not. As Paul says: “Although they knew God, they neither glorified him nor gave thanks to him.” (Romans 1:21) Consequently, one day, these good gifts will serve to condemn the unbeliever who all their lives enjoyed God’s goodness while ignoring him as the giver of it.
4. Remember that experiencing evil also serves a purpose now for both the believer and unbeliever.
This truth is perhaps the most challenging one to accept, but through the eyes of faith produces awe, wonder, and worship toward God for his eternal wisdom and providence.
The typical objection to evil and suffering goes something like this: “If a perfectly good God exists, then he would prevent all evil?” And this is true unless a perfectly good God has a perfectly good reason for not doing so.”
Admittedly his reasons must be embraced through the eyes of faith. After all, no one can grasp the mind of God. (cf. Romans 11:33, 34) Even so, God doesn’t leave us entirely in the dark. Augustine points out that even in this life we get glimpses into God’s wisdom in allowing suffering and reward to occur on a seemingly inconsistent basis.
“God often plainly shows his working even in the distributing of goods and evils, for if every sin were punished by an obvious penalty now, nothing would be thought to be reserved for the last judgment; on the other hand, if no sin were punished clearly by the divine nature now, no one would believe in the existence of divine providence.”
In other words, the sometimes “withholding” of punishment for sin allows for the hope of ultimate justice reserved for God’s final judgment. Indeed, God is withholding his full wrath, “bearing with great patience the objects of his wrath”(cf. Rom. 9:22) so that he will be seen as righteous for his judgment in the end. But also so the objects of his wrath may still have time to repent and be saved. In his mercy, God does not yet fully treat sinners as their sin deserves…thank God!
However, at the same time, God does bring punishment for sin in the here-and-now. As Paul says: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people…” (Romans 1:18)
Ultimately, all evil is a consequence of sin. And it awakens us to the fact that something is horribly wrong in the world. The revelation of God’s wrath in the here-and-now therefore, is both judgment and grace. Judgment in that we are bearing the consequences of sin for our rejection of God. And grace because, while certainly unpleasant, these consequences are not yet meted out in their full and final measure. Instead, they serve to awaken us to our need for deliverance while leaving time and room for repentance. As C.S. Lewis put it, “suffering is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Conversely, Augustine notes:
“It is similar with favourable things. If God did not grant them to some petitioners through a most evident generosity, we would say that such things do not belong to him. Likewise, if he granted them to all petitioners, we would think that, except for the sake of such rewards, we were not required to serve him. Nor would such service make us pious, but rather greedy and avaricious.”
Have you ever noticed that sometimes when we pray, God grants our requests, while other times not? We can’t fully know God’s reasons, but even as human parents, we don’t always give our kids what they ask for. Sometimes what they ask for isn’t what they need. Sometimes what they ask for isn’t good for them. And sometimes we want them to learn that we don’t exist just to give them what they want. Whatever our reasons, sometimes we give our kids what they want and sometimes we don’t. It all depends upon what lesson we feel they need to learn most at any given moment. Is it so surprising that our heavenly Father, whose knowledge is perfect, would treat us any different?
5. A Christian accepts that God’s ultimate concern is not with the quality of life we enjoy, but with the kind of person we become.
Perhaps nothing characterizes the uniqueness of the Christian worldview more than this final point. “Why,” we might ask, “has God left us here to live at all?” Why not just transport us to heaven the moment we profess faith in Christ? Especially when, for some, it means enduring extended periods of illness or pain? We may say it’s so we can witness to unbelievers. But if that were the only reason, surely God could find a less painful way for that to happen. No, we must accept that God’s purpose in allowing us to remain and endure suffering is again rooted in his love for us. Augustine shows us how by making a distinction between suffering endured by the ‘wicked’ and suffering endured by the ‘righteous’. Again, I will quote in length:
“These things being so, whenever the good and the bad are afflicted equally, it is not the case that there is no distinction between them, for the distinction is not based on what they both endure…Subjected to the same fire, gold glows with a reddish gleam but chaff smolders. Subjected to the same threshing sled, the straw breaks into small pieces, but the grain is freed from the husk…So one and the same onrushing force tries, purifies, and refines the good, but condemns, devastates, and exterminates the evil. Thus, visited by the same affliction, the evil curse and blaspheme God, but the good beseech and praise him. It is not the kind of suffering but the kind of person who suffers that is so important.”
The fact is that as children in Christ, God is lovingly working for our ultimate good (cf. Rom. 8:28). But we must allow scripture and scripture alone to identify what that good is. Don’t get caught in the trap of defining “good” as the world defines it. In this life, there is only one “ultimate good” God is leading us toward, and if we are wise we will cooperate with him no matter what it takes. What is it that suffering produces in us in a way that nothing else can? We get our answer from the example of Christ himself.
“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9)
Perfect obedience to the will of God is our greatest good, because only in perfect obedience do we become the kind of person God made us
What a gift to have the wisdom of those like Augustine who have wrestled with the same faith questions we face. We are wise to listen to their voices from the past. Centuries and culture may separate us, but the condition of the human heart remains the same, and God’s work in Christ to redeem a people for himself has not altered. I hope that you will apply this to your mind so that God may do his necessary work in your heart.