“That’s not fair.”
That’s the typical human response to passages like Joshua 7. In verse 1, we read, “But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things, for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things. And the anger of the LORD burned against the people of Israel.” One man, Achan, took some of the devoted things, and yet, all Israel was said to have broken faith and become the object of God’s anger. That just doesn’t seem fair, does it?
The feeling doesn’t go away as you read the rest of the chapter. In fact, it gets worse, as the climax of the passage shows that Achan and his entire family were stoned and burned for the offense. We might be able to understand Achan being judged in this way…but his family, too?
So how are we to deal with this? There are a few basic things to keep in mind, and then perhaps a not so basic thing to consider regarding the concept of fairness. So let’s take those things in order.
Basic Thing #1 – God is Creator and Lord
God created all things, therefore He owns all things, therefore He is Lord of all things, therefore He has the absolute right to do whatever He wishes with all things. In other words, God owes us no explanation. The Creator is not beholden to the creation. We know from the final chapters of Job that God does not approve of created beings feeling a sense of entitlement to all the answers. God is God and He has all the authority necessary to do whatever He wills AND leave us completely in the dark about it. He is under no obligation to explain anything.
You know, God didn’t owe us the Bible. His revelation of Himself was a gracious act, something we did not deserve. Therefore, if God were to explain to us how to deal with the issue of fairness that we struggle with regarding Joshua 7, it would be grace upon grace, not payment given where payment is due. As we seek to probe this kind of issue, we must do so in a spirit of humility rather than entitlement. We stand on very precarious ground when with chin held high we stand before God and say, “explain Yourself.” So that’s where we need to start.
Basic Thing #2 – All Are Deserving of Death
Part of our problem is that in our fallen-ness, we start with a wrong premise. We would say that it is unfair that God punished innocent people. He killed 36 warriors and who knows how many members of Achan’s family. Innocent people. We get off track right there. “Innocent people” is an oxymoron. It’s a contradiction in terms. You can’t be a human being and be innocent, and you can’t be innocent and be a human being.
You’ve heard me say it a dozen times – Paul writes in Romans 3:10-18 there are none who are good, none righteous, none seeking for God. None. All have sinned. All are deserving of death. ALL. It is good for us to remind ourselves that ALL people not in hell right now are enjoying God’s grace this very minute. That you and I were not immediately banished to hell the first time we sinned, is God’s grace.
That Achan’s family and the Israelite warriors ever took a single breath outside of hell is grace upon grace. That they were killed after this particular sin of Achan’s is not a denial of God’s grace, but a demonstration of it in that God waited so long to judge them. There is a very real sense in which all of us are living on borrowed time. (For those of us who are in Christ, we could say “purchased time.”) None of us should be here still, yet God by His grace continues to sustain us. So for those killed in Joshua 7, God was not killing the innocent, but removing His grace from the already justly condemned.
And you might say, “well, I know, I know that we all deserve God’s punishment, but its just not fair that they were judged for Achan’s sin.” And that leads us to a not so basic thing.
Not So Basic Thing – Fairness is the Antithesis of Grace
I’ve mentioned before that my children are not allowed to say, “that’s not fair.” After meditating on this passage and studying for last week’s message, I’ve decided that if they ever do say that again, I’m going to tell them, “the absolute worst thing that could happen to you would be for life to be fair.”
We are so offended by this idea of guilt by association in Joshua 7 – the Israelites were guilty because of their ties to Achan. There is a concept called corporate solidarity, which sees a group of people as one body, one corporate identity. And this is the typical way of viewing family in the Ancient Near East and in some parts of the world today. There is no strong sense of the individual. There is a strong sense of family or clan or tribe or nation, and a person’s identity is tied to that corporate body.
But today in our culture, we have a much stronger sense of individuality than could be found in the days of Joshua. It’s hard for us to even think in terms of corporate solidarity. So it’s partially our individualistic worldview that causes us to recoil at the concept of guilt by association. But I really don’t think that most of us have stopped to consider the ramifications of our desire for fairness. Consider this: if we are going to reject the concept of guilt by association, then to be “fair”, we also must reject righteousness by association, which is the very basis of our salvation.
If it is not fair for someone to take on the guilt of another, it is also not fair for someone to take on the righteousness of another. If I shouldn’t be punished for someone else’s sins, I also shouldn’t be rewarded for someone else’s righteousness. And there goes our salvation.
This is a crucial truth. A world governed by fairness is a world where the grace of God cannot be experienced, because the act of holding one person responsible for the sins of another and the act of rewarding someone for the righteousness of another are both functions of God’s grace. In our redemption, God took our guilt and punishment and placed it upon Christ, and God took the righteousness of Christ and placed it on those who believe. And one thing is certain – it wasn’t fair.
Fairness is the opposite of grace and if we would cling to one, we must give up the other. It could be said that God loved us so much that rather than being fair with us, He acted according to grace.
So I intend to tell my children – what a nightmare it would be for us if life was fair. Christ’s righteousness would never have left heaven, and I would still be dead in my sins and guilty before God. Praise God, life isn’t fair.
So when we look at Joshua 7 and say, “that’s not fair,” we turn the grace of God on its head, not realizing that fairness would call for our own immediate and eternal damnation. I don’t know about you, but when I view the issue in those terms, my heart is settled. You can keep the fairness – I want the grace of God.
Posted by Greg Birdwell