One of life’s hardest lessons, and a mark of maturity, is the realization that life is profoundly unfair. Your father was right when, objecting to his decisions, he calmly told you, “Well, life ain’t fair, deal with it!” And the same injustice we felt then, when dad pronounced his verdict on life, is only magnified in adulthood. You can do everything right, everything you are “supposed” to do, you can be a good person, you can help the poor, you can make great sacrifices. And you can lose.
Life has no guarantees. Every month as a pastor I am reminded of injustice and unfairness. There is the wife who desperately tried to make the relationship work, but her husband walked out on her. There is the time I got the phone call that my friend, who had just begun to turn his life around, was killed in an accident. I’ve seen good people waste away from cancer, their bodies eerily reminiscent of Holocaust victims. I’ve seen industrious people passed for promotions because of nepotism and hard work rewarded with layoffs. Then there are systemic issues like racism, violence, legal injustice, trafficking, poverty, bullying, robbery and mistreatment of the elderly. It’s all unfair.
And what do we make of the God who presides over such a world? It may be all well and good to say that God temporarily tolerates injustice for the sake of some greater good, and that may even be technically true at times. But it is of little comfort to those who must bear within themselves wounds unfairly struck, wounds fresh and unclotted, hemophilic wounds that bleed but do not easily bind-up.
There is Another whose wounds do not bind-up. His lesions were the result of the human devotion to power. They remain eternal signs of human culpability in the historic attempt to eradicate God. They are wounds of injustice inflicted on an Innocent, and from them has flowed a holy blood, an incarnate body giving way to its piercings in a profound emptying; a slow leakage, a hollowing out of Life itself by those perpetrators whose own lives are always frailly close to death. Such violence is the human attempt to unmake the Source that has made all sources. It is the final consummation of the original attempt to “be like God.”
And what did Jesus do to deserve such devastation? Did He not come in love? Did He not come with Kingly glory that He bore with a quiet dignity? Did He not wield the power of the Divine sword, which He used not, but kept firmly within its sheaf? He did. But it mattered not. His crime, if it can be called such, was to come at all. His crime, which is only a crime from the warped logic of human reason, was a crime of appropriation.
Christ was treated unjustly and unfairly, but so were we, by He. Divine unfairness makes possible the sovereign means of grace. For He who knew no sin was made sin, He who had no limitations took on flesh, He who deserved all glory was mocked and teased, He who clothed the lilies was stripped in shame. The King became servant, the Master a great slave. The Rescuer was enchained, the Faithful One was betrayed, the Mighty was splayed and the Eternal was killed. And it was all unjust and unfair.
But so was the result. For He who was made sin, impoverished sin. He who limited Himself opened up new possibilities of eternal life. He who was mocked, now laughs at death’s sting, He who was stripped in shame now clothes the shameful in righteousness. The Slave has mastered hell, the Shackled One has freed the captives, the Betrayed has proven most loyal, the Defeated One has claimed the victory. And to us who receive such benefits, it is all so utterly and completely unfair. We do not deserve it.
Good Friday is good because it is unfair. The wounds of our Lord received on that day remain forever, because they are both a sharing-in human injustice and a mark of God’s unfair grace. There are no platitudes or reasoned answers to the unfairness of life and its struggles. We are not able to understand God’s apparent permission of the things that give us our wounds. But we are neither neutral actors. To God and neighbor we also have wielded a knife. But somehow, appropriating the unfairness and injustice of human experience, God has justified me through Christ. I am wounded, but He is too. And in the shared experience of human injustice and poverty, God and man together thrust their own unfairness at each other. But Divine unfairness proves justifying. It is a strange and mysterious paradox, the justice that comes through injustice.
Life is certainly unfair. But in Christ, at least in part, we rejoice at such a notion. Grace, that great descriptor of God’s devotion, is a word that only finds its purpose, only exists at all, because it exists as a response to guilt. Grace is unfair because we don’t get what we deserve. Grace is the Divine choice, a wind of loving mercy, which comes into our sin and guilt and saves us. Grace acquits the guilty, clothes the unrighteous and reveals the heart of God. Grace is Divine unfairness because it breaks the verdict of the Law and puts upon Christ the sins of the world. The Incorruptible One takes on corruption so that the fraudulent and unscrupulous can be released and exalted. In Divine wisdom, the guilty are innocent, the last are first, the losers are winners, the least is the greatest, and the dead become alive. It is an economy of unfairness, but the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.
Because of this day, this Good Friday, the wounded can claim the Wounded King as their own. In the midst of life’s inevitable struggles we have an Advocate who knows our pain and has trod our frightful paths. He has never shed his flesh, and forever remains one of us, while still ever-God. A God whose eternal flesh, for all time, bears the marks of human hate and Divine love. Unforgotten, holy wounds, for us.
Now that is gloriously unfair. But it is also, by grace, truly good.
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.