It’s been a long time since I played on a schoolyard during recess and heard someone involved in a game accuse another person of not being fair in their scoring. The other person was giving themselves an advantage by changing the rules. Psychologist Melanie Greenberg tells us that humans are inherently social beings. We don’t only care about material and financial rewards, but also about social status, belonging, and respect. Research studies show that our brains automatically evaluate the fairness of how rewards are distributed. We seem to have a happiness response to fair treatment and a disgust or protest response to unfairness. This brain wiring has implications for life, happiness, relationship satisfaction, raising kids, and family or social leadership. We must look at how our brain processes experiences of fairness and unfairness and how to cope with life’s unfair moments.

Psychologist Jennifer Verdolin notes that in relationships, in families, and at work, fairness seems to have a bad name. When someone shouts, “That’s not fair!” we are quick to respond with, “Too bad! Sometimes life isn’t fair.” And that’s the message, isn’t it? Don’t expect life to be fair. You’ve got to take what you can get, and if it’s unjust to another, so be it. If life gives you a lemon, make lemonade out of it.

The paradox is that we are capable of detecting inequality instantly and are extremely sensitive to it. In relationships, we call it keeping score. Usually people dislike score-keeping, and strangely it is the people that are ahead of the game who resent it. Why? Because keeping score is a way to balance the scales and restore equality.

Psychologist E. Paul Zehr explains that we all want fairness, whether it’s in daily life or sporting competition. The term “level playing field” is used in regular conversation to capture this idea of equity and fairness. Central to the idea of fairness is the idea of catching out and preventing folks who want to cheat or seek an advantage against others. Those are all great motivations for trying to use technology and support to make sure that the correct calls or decisions are made.

But we also know that sometimes equality of outcome isn’t the right measure. If every party to a deal is satisfied, regardless of any objective measure of equality, then there is no unfairness. But this isn’t the only measure of fairness — we’re also offended by cheating, i.e. breaking rules to gain an advantage. Taking a broader view, the emotions around unfairness perhaps hold society together by calling greed and cheating to account.

Psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter shares her experience in dealing with unfairness. She recounts that while in college she received a call from a family member telling her that her mother was in the hospital. It was a surprise to hear because her mom was young and healthy as far as anyone knew, but she was told that she needed to come home. Although she lived less than two hours away, when she got to the hospital, her mother was unconsciousness and she passed away soon after she arrived. She had suffered a severe brain aneurysm and doctors told her there really was never any chance that she would survive.

Dr. Carter said it was hard to understand and she had a difficult time getting past the unfairness of it all. Although it’s natural for people feel this way when they lose something very important to them, as the days, weeks, and months passed, she was unconsciously letting herself become preoccupied by the unfairness of life. It seemed like everything even marginally negative that happened was interpreted by her as unfair. If she got a parking ticket on campus, it was unfair (even though she parked in a zone where she wasn’t supposed to park). If it was raining on a day she had to walk to class, it was unfair (even though she was living in a city where rain was common). If she accidentally stubbed her toe, it was unfair. Having that kind of negative mindset, of course, was adding considerably more stress to her life, but at the time, she couldn’t see it.

Fortunately, a few months after her mother’s death, she found the strength to go through some of the things her grandmother left behind, and among them she found a small card with the Serenity Prayer written on it: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” The message struck her and stayed with her. Instead of immediately going to “that’s unfair” in her head whenever something negative happened, she found herself thinking about whether she had control over it, and if she did, what she could have done to change the outcome. In fact, finding that card led to a series of changes to her mindset that not only changed her mental direction, but she also suspects it was the impetus underlying many of the personal and professional choices she had made and continue to make on her journey through life.

I found some suggestions on how to deal with unfairness, and one of them is, “Stop jabbering about how unfair things are and start listening to sound advice.” Another tip was, “Don’t always give a long explanation of why you are right.” Also, “Take steps to deal with the unfairness privately, not publicly.” Also, “Apologize and make the necessary change needed to get beyond the unfairness, don’t pretend.” And finally, “Keep a positive attitude even though being treated unfairly is a hard thing to handle.”

If you are to put the unfairness in the past and move on, you must take time to find out the root of the problem. Then, determine what control you have over the situation. Furthermore, take responsibility for your behavior. Don’t keep blaming yourself for circumstances beyond your control. Don’t be indecisive, make up your mind that you are internally focused on what you need to do. Then put aside any conclusions you jumped to at the beginning. Take the moral high ground instead of letting it become a street fight. Look for what is still good, fair, and right. Forgive whoever may be responsible for being unfair, even though they were wrong. To forgive means, giving up on any punishment that might be appropriate.

So, what does God’s Word have to say about fairness? Initially, you begin with yourself. Don’t be unfair with someone who you know cannot fight back.[1] Also, keep things balanced so that you own your part of the circumstance.[2] In His prayer, Jesus said to forgive others of their wrong doing so that you will be forgiven of yours.[3] The Apostle James warns us that when we know the right thing to do but fail to do it, we become unfair and that is a sin.[4] And the Apostle Paul tells us to be fair with those over which he have influence so that our heavenly Master will be fair with us.[5] Keep in mind the lesson that the Apostle Peter learned, that God shows no partiality but is fair in all things.[6]

Once we know how to deal fairly with others, we will be able to handle any unfairness done to us. It wasn’t fair that they beat, tortured, and hung Jesus on the cross for doing everything that was right. But He dealt with it by asking His Father in heaven to forgive them because they did not realize how unfair they being with the Son of God. In other words, he took their unfairness and covered it with His own blood so that it would not continue to be a hindrance to the purpose for which He came into the world. So instead of lecturing, scolding, or plan to punish someone who treats you unfairly, do what Jesus did, neutralize it with Love. – Dr. Robert R Seyda

[1] Exodus 23:6

[2] Proverbs 11:1

[3] Matthew 6:14-15

[4] James 4:17

[5] Colossians 4:1

[6] Acts of the Apostles 10:34

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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