Life Isn’t Fair

Why are we all made so uneven? Some are born into affluence and some into poverty. Some are born into health some into misery. Some are born in America, with all its advantages, some into primitive tribes.

Well you get the idea. Some people believe this unevenness can be blamed on some evil thing the infant does. This doesn’t seem right to me. Some believe this can be blamed on what some ancestor did. This doesn’t seem right either. How can all this be the result of a benevolent and omnipotent Creator?

William D.

Dear William,

Your questions plagues most thinking people at one point or another as they mature and recognize that, “Life isn’t fair.” It is not a new question, yet each era brings its own challenges, and one of the trials of our particular time is the difficulty we have in acknowledging that we cannot understand God’s ways. Humility comes hard to us.

It is difficult for our human minds to reconcile, “Life isn’t fair,” with the idea of a benevolent and omnipotent Creator. That is one of the challenges of faith. From our limited perspective, life certainly isn’t fair, but there actually isn’t a word for ‘fair’ in Hebrew, which implies that the concept doesn’t exist. The word ‘just’ however, can be frequently found – TSeDeK. God is a God of justice and one of our tasks is to work on bringing justice to His world.

According to ancient Jewish wisdom, babies are born with pure souls and we can only sin once we are capable of making choices. A baby cannot, by definition, sin. Nonetheless, the reality is that some babies are born ill or into awful families or situations. It needs to be enough for us that God understands the reasons for this even when we do not.

One analogy related in Jewish tradition is the way that the underside of a needlepoint tapestry looks. It is a messy mixture of colored threads with no discernible pattern. Yet, when you turn the needlepoint over, a beautiful picture emerges. Our perspective comes from the vantage of the underside. God sees the magnificent final picture.

We are not enormous fans of John Rawls, a famous American political philosopher, but he did come up with an interesting idea: Suppose a genie came to you twenty four hours before you were born and offered you the opportunity to design the political, cultural, and economic system into which you would be born. The only snag is that you have no idea whether you’ll be born to a rich family or a poor one, or whether you’ll be born male or female, black or white, super smart or below average. Now you would want to choose some system that would give the best shot to the most people for the longest time.

What is helpful about this little thought experiment is the context of your question—how lucky to be born in America rather than to a primitive tribe in New Guinea. However, God’s point is that nobody, yes, nobody needed to be born to primitive tribes or into repressive and horrible regimes. He gave us a blueprint for the best societal living called the Bible. Those countries that came closest to following it developed medicine, science, extended life, travel and exploration, and affluence. As some of those cultures traveled the world promoting a Biblical vision, the standard of living in many countries rose. However, so called ‘colonization’ became politically demonized, and so many countries were plunged back into barbarism. Many other countries have yet to see the light and make it out.

Ample evidence already exists to make the case that what separates successful countries from dismal failures is not geography, race, or weather. It is nothing but culture—another word for the transcendent idea people gain for their existence from whomever they worship.

God is saying, “Look, I have given you proof and proof again that the Bible guides everyone to a better life. It is horrible that anyone has to be born into a cruel tribal life but it doesn’t have to be that way. I just need you all, Jews and Christians, to show the way to the light.”

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

(This is a reprint of one of our most popular questions found in the Dear Rabbi and Susan book)

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10 thoughts on “Life Isn’t Fair”

  1. Hope R.
    The whole world was primitive centuries ago. Most countries have progressed to electricity and running water. In addition, access to modern classroom education.

    1. Natanael S. Ndilenga

      To add to your good point Hope R:
      Which means some cultures and countries became better by implementing godly principles and mastering God’s provided way of living.
      The more we give birth to, adopt and promote ungodly cultural practices, the more many babies are still going to be born under conditions perceived as “unfair”.
      Back to the Bible and the picture will change.
      For example if the instruction is 2 tsp of salt for a better taste, and you exceed or put less, the results should be obvious, and shouldn’t be labelled “unfair”. God has a standard for life, and the more we divert from it, the worse we become, the more we incline to it, the more we become better.
      The driving force of these undesirable conditions is rebellion against following the Blueprint, either through ignorance or unawareness (thus important to spread the gospel).
      Good question William – great answer Rabbi and Susan!

  2. Jason’s comment on Job reminds me of a time when a dear friend had died after many prayers went up for her healing. Her teen-aged son could not understand why God would do this. The verse from Job was read at her graveside service. What struck me most then was not the same view of “the Lord gives and the Lord takes” but we have to bless His name anyway because we’ll never understand it. No. I suddenly realized that the very fact that that the Lord gives and takes away is a reason to bless and praise Him: He is in total control, regardless of what happens. HE is the One who gives. HE is the one who takes. It is not life, nor fairness, nor unfairness, nor illness, poverty, race, nationality, or anything else. Once we realize Who is in charge, we can bless the Lord in any circumstance – even if everything seems out of control.

  3. This is a very good explanation of why ?
    So many whys can be explained this way and the answer is clear. I enjoyed this insight as I do Your others.
    Thank You

  4. I feel that life may be unfair at times but we can change our attitudes and make it better through work and prayer. Many people are born into wealth and are physically healthy but not truly happy. They may always feel like they never have enough money and material possessions. There are people born into poor countries that are happy for their food, clothing, shelter and feel blessed. There are the children you see on the tv commercial for a certain hospital with birth defects that are always happy. We must stay grounded in faith and not allow the main stream media and politics change our views.

  5. It seems that blaming others, including our Creator, for any of our ills is incorrect. The attitude of, “life isn’t fair” appears to find root in blame. The number one person who holds the most blame for what is wrong in my world is me. Life was filled with anger, despair and disappointment when everything was someone else’s fault. I probably wasn’t much of a joy to be around either.
    Thank you, Rabbi and Susan!

  6. Wow is this a fabulous exposition of a topic that has plagued probably all of us at one time or another. I need to bookmark this and refer to it often. Thanks so much for your wisdom and courage to put yourself out there with it!

  7. Amen Rabbi.
    When life seems unfair, I find it useful to remind myself of the story of Job. The Lord gives and takes away, but blessed is the name of the Lord! We are all blessed to be included in God’s ongoing story of this life. We only exist because of Him. We must remind ourselves of that, because it could be much worse – we could not exist at all! Give thanks to him in the bad as well as the good. Anyone born in America is especially blessed! Best country this side of heaven! I like how you include Christians in with Jews to be good examples to the world. I have always felt our groups should be close allies not rivals! God bless.

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