When I was a youngster, one my most frequent complaints was, "That's not fair!" Everything had to be fair, and if it wasn't—well—it just wasn't fair!
When I complained about a perceived family injustice, my father would remind me of his often-used phrase, "Life isn't fair." He would explain that if I expected fairness throughout life, I would be sadly disappointed because it just wasn't going to happen.
Of course, I didn't like hearing that—but as I matured, I came to see that inequitable, troublesome and undeserved events occur in everyone's life.
Even so, unfair treatment still bothers me—especially when I see it deliberately perpetrated against innocent, unsuspecting people. Perhaps you share a similar reaction when you learn that an unscrupulous person has taken advantage of someone or a criminal has gone unpunished.
Furthermore, how do you feel when you are personally cheated, lied about, improperly reprimanded or deeply betrayed, or your reputation is carelessly tarnished?
Realizing such actions are inherently wrong, our natural human reaction is to feel distressed and offended. We may then respond by turning angry and bitter or seeking revenge. Alternatively, we may retreat into sadness or depression and withdraw from those who emotionally harmed us.
Are those effective ways to handle unfairness, or are there more constructive and productive methods? When life's events hand us significant troubles or when people treat us unfairly and unjustly, what should we do? How can we weather the upset and disappointment we will predictably feel?
A difficult start in life
Consider the story of Anne Mansfield Sullivan. Born on April 14, 1866, in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, Anne's youth was filled with hardship and adversity. Not only was she raised in deep poverty, but she was physically abused by her alcoholic father. At age five she contracted trachoma, a bacterial infection of the eye. This virulent disease was left untreated, causing her to nearly go blind.
When Anne turned eight years old, her mother, Alice Sullivan, died of tuberculosis. Two years later her father abandoned both Anne and her brother James to the state infirmary in Tewksbury, Mass., after finding it difficult to raise the children alone.
Conditions at the institution were deplorable since it was chronically underfunded, in disrepair and severely overcrowded. If that wasn't bad enough, after just three months James died from tuberculosis.
During her four-year stay at Tewksbury, Anne received two operations that failed to significantly correct her vision. However, in October 1880, as Anne turned 14 years old, she was accepted into the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston (founded in 1832 and operating to this day).
Overcoming the obstacles
At the Perkins School her situation began to improve. Anne received additional treatment for her eyes that enhanced her sight enough so she could read for short periods. As a result, she diligently concentrated on her academic education. Anne also learned sign language so as to communicate with a friend who was both deaf and blind. Anne studied so meticulously that she graduated as class valedictorian on June 1, 1886.
In her valedictory address she challenged her classmates and herself by stating: "Fellow graduates, duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it; for every obstacle we overcome, every success we achieve tends to bring man closer to God and make life more as He would have it."
Several teachers and staff members at the Perkins School were impressed with Anne's positive attitude, talents, intelligence and persistence. This included school director Michael Anagnos, who personally recommended Anne be accepted by the Keller family in Tuscumbia, Alabama, as tutor and mentor to their blind, deaf and mute daughter Helen.
Anne Sullivan became the instructor to whom Helen Keller, one of the most admired women of the 20th century, acclaimed as making an extraordinary impact on her life. In chapter four of Helen Keller's autobiography, The Story of My Life, she wrote, "The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me."
We choose how to react
What does Anne Sullivan's story illustrate? Considering the significant troubles she encountered in her youth, she could have turned frustrated, morose and resentful. She could have ceaselessly complained about the unfairness of her upbringing and the hardships she experienced.
But she didn't. Instead, Anne chose to rise above her circumstances and use every opportunity to discover, develop and expand her talents and abilities. In doing so, she grew in emotional maturity and character.
Just as Anne Sullivan consciously resolved to handle her disadvantages in a constructive manner, you and I have choices when we are afflicted by inequity and injustice. Whether we face a recent difficult setback or a long-term situation as profound as what Anne encountered, we can choose how we will react and what we will do.
The Bible offers examples of such choices from both a positive and negative perspective.
The story of Joseph and his brothers
To illustrate, let's briefly examine the account of Joseph and his brothers from Genesis 37. The story begins when Joseph brought a negative report to his father Jacob on how his brothers were tending their flocks (verses 1-2). Joseph's account upset and irritated them. Furthermore, the brothers could see that their father overwhelmingly favored Joseph above them (verse 3). This perceived unfairness greatly annoyed and angered them and led to intense feelings of envy and resentment—even hatred.
Later, Joseph experienced two vivid dreams in which it appeared he was greatly honored by his father and brothers. In relating the dreams to his brothers, they imagined he was pretentiously exalting himself, which infuriated them even more (verse 5-11).
Afterward Jacob again sent Joseph to visit his brothers as they were tending their flocks and report back to him. By this time their hatred toward Joseph had grown so great that they began contemplating his murder (verses 18-20).
Realizing the dire nature of their antagonism, the eldest brother Reuben succeeded in calming the others down for a short time (verses 21-24). But later, without Reuben's knowledge, they threw Joseph into a pit and sold him to passing Ishmaelite traders for 20 shekels of silver.
To hide their treachery, the brothers killed a goat and dipped Joseph's tunic in its blood. Then they took the bloodstained garment to Jacob and told him that a wild animal must have killed Joseph. On hearing this, Jacob wept bitterly and refused to be comforted over losing his son (verse 33).
Joseph's reaction to unfair treatment
There is much more to the remarkable story of Joseph as a slave and later as a ruler in Egypt (Genesis 39–50). But suffice it to say that, considering the unfair actions he endured, Joseph could have turned bitter and spent endless hours wallowing in his troubles and nursing his emotional wounds. But he didn't.
Instead, he decided to concentrate his talents and energies on becoming the best person he could be while trusting God for help in every situation. In fact, when his brothers later came to Egypt where Joseph was now a high official, he chose to treat them with kindness, generosity and forgiveness—even explaining to them that God used the bad thing they had done to ultimately save their and others' lives (Genesis 50:15-21).
His example demonstrates that what happens within a person is significantly more important than what happens to him!
As this example makes plain, God is fully capable of eventually equalizing unfair circumstances. Also, as the apostle Peter explained, God carefully watches over those who, while suffering unjustly, remain faithfully obedient to Him. "God will bless you, even if others treat you unfairly for being loyal to him" (1 Peter 2:19, Good News Bible).
God allows unfair circumstances and events
Certainly, God can make things right in this physical life—but He doesn't always choose to do so. In His wisdom, He sometimes allows unfair and even disgraceful treatment to afflict His faithful followers (Psalm 119:75).
The Bible's "Faith chapter," Hebrews 11, describes how this was true of a number of God's servants: "Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy.
"They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us" (verses 36-40).
Also, consider Jesus Christ. Having lived a totally sinless life, He was undeserving of the merciless treatment He received (Matthew 16:21). What was His response to such dreadful unfairness? He willingly and faithfully placed His circumstance in His Father's just and mighty hands. "When He was reviled, [He] did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously" (1 Peter 2:23). Indeed, He prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34).
Looking beyond today's world
What is God's message to His people today? It is to react in the same manner Christ did when we suffer unjustly. We are to "pursue peace with all people" (Hebrews 12:14), and Jesus Christ admonished His followers to handle unfairness and iniquity with love and forgiveness (Matthew 5:44-45).
Of course there may be certain instances where we can respectfully defend ourselves against unfair actions. For example, the apostle Paul used his rights as a Roman citizen to shield himself from the abusive treatment of military authorities (Acts 22:25).
Also, when handling an offense or disagreement with someone, the Bible counsels us to go directly to that individual to peacefully discuss the problem to determine if it can be resolved equitably
Paul also recognized, however, that complete justice will not always occur in this present age ruled by the devil (Galatians 1:4; Luke 4:6). Looking beyond today he wrote, "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18).
The ultimate answer to unfairness
The reality is that everyone experiences unfairness in life. It was certainly true for Anne Sullivan, for young Joseph and especially for Jesus Christ, who endured momentous injustice (Hebrews 12:2). The key principle to remember is that how we react to unfair treatment is more important than what has happened to us.
Responding to unjust situations or actions in anger, bitterness and revenge is not the answer (Ephesians 4:31-32). Rather, trusting God in faith and obedience brings true peace of mind and, in due course, entrance into eternal life (Philippians 4:6-7; Matthew 19:17).
The time is coming when Satan and his demons will be removed and Jesus Christ will reign on the earth (Revelation 11:15; 20:1-5; 5:10). When that day dawns, all inequities, including those we have personally experienced, will be fully corrected (Romans 8:35-39).
So the next time you feel you have been treated unfairly, you could be right. What should you do as a result? Carefully bring to mind that "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). Let us always reflect and act on this when life is unfair!