In the town where I live, a little girl is dying. Her name is Kaitlyn. My daughter Sarah attended preschool with Kaitlyn, and on the days when I picked Sarah up, I would often find her and Kaitlyn playing together at the swing set, pushing one another in great stomach-fluttering arcs, or in the sandbox, piling pail upon pail of crumbly sand into a kind of replica of a ruined acropolis. They were two vigorous, joyful 4-year-olds, prankish, coltish, giddy, quick to laugh, dance, cry, sing.

Kaitlyn's mother, Bonnie, came to pick her up one day, and something was terribly awry. Bonnie wrote this to me:

Have you ever had a day that you know has changed your life forever, a day that you would do anything to black out, just fast-forward past?

February 28, 1997. I arrived at the preschool. Kaitlyn was standing in the playground, looking down at the grass. One of her playmates said several times, "Kaitlyn, your mommy is here." I spoke to her, and there was no reaction, so I approached her and lifted her chin up with my finger. When I did this, I realized something was wrong. Her eyes were vacant, and she had no recognition of me. I immediately called for the preschool teacher. Kaitlyn began to waver. I knelt down beside her and laid her across my lap. The teacher called her name and did other things to get her to respond. Her eyes were open but not focused; they rolled to the right. She remained limp. The ambulance was called. I carried her inside and started to lay her on her side. When I did this, she began to cry and call for mommy. When the paramedics arrived, I was holding her and kissing her and weeping. We were taken to the hospital by ambulance. … I was told she had a seizure but she would be fine. Tests were ordered.

The tests agreed with the initial diagnosis: Kaitlyn would be fine.

But Kaitlyn wasn't fine. She grew increasingly pale. Her speech started to slur, and she began to fumble things, stumble often. She got more and more clumsy. She couldn't hold things. She walked into walls and doorjambs, and she fell down a lot. Her speech worsened—words started coming out in guttural chunks, in sharp jagged howls, in throaty grunts, in mournful groans. The other 4-year-olds grew afraid of her. Some made fun of her.

The doctor kept ordering tests.

Then one day, Kaitlyn's mother and father got the news that they dreaded and expected: Kaitlyn is dying. She has Batten's disease, a rare and incurable congenital degenerative neural disorder. Her muscles are petrifying. They are now hard like wood; they will soon be hard like stone. They will harden until one day she can no longer swallow or breathe. Kaitlyn's parents, her brother, her grandparents, her aunts and uncles and cousins, her friends, her church family—all watch beautiful little Kaitlyn die a slow death, and they can do nothing.

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Kaitlyn's mother is a Christian and has drenched her bed with tears. She has beaten her fists bloody on heaven's door, trying to get the owner to open it and give her bread. She attends a church full of godly, caring people. They pray. Other people at other churches pray. They pray for many things—strength for the parents, wisdom for the doctors, comfort for Kaitlyn. But mostly they pray that God will heal Kaitlyn.

God hasn't answered that prayer yet. In truth, few now think he will.

The people who live beside Kaitlyn won the lottery. More than $600,000. I know almost nothing about these people, except that they have a lovely house. The house, I am told, is already paid for. It has been for a long time. These people, I understand, had a good, abundant life even before their jackpot win. I'm not sure why they buy lottery tickets or, if they don't, why others buy lottery tickets for them. I'm not sure if they ever prayed to win the lottery or if they ever pray at all.

But they won the lottery. More than $600,000.

And, in the house next door, Kaitlyn is dying.

Lopsided Life

Life isn't fair. There is a lopsidedness and randomness to its distribution of windfalls and pitfalls and pratfalls. Who will get sick? Who will get rich? Who will be beautiful? Who will be disfigured? Is there any sovereign logic to this? And sometimes—and this is more puzzling, more troubling—the lopsidedness doesn't seem random: it seems calculated, a cosmic booby-trapping of someone's life.

I know a man who loves God and serves him with deep and heartfelt dedication. He soaks himself in the Word of God and then pours it out. He lives far beyond borderland, deep in the holy wild. Yet nothing seems to go right for him. He is a self-employed tradesman. He has honed skill, wide expertise, years of experience. He works hard. The problem isn't getting work. The problem isn't people not liking the work he does. The problem is that many of the people who hire him don't pay him, or pay him much less than they had agreed they would. There is always some reason or another. But after a few years of this, it begins to look like a cosmic conspiracy, like a Jobian wager God made with the Devil to see if a good man would curse him. To see if a man living in the holy wild, with a heart burning within, could be tempted back to borderland, slow-hearted, defeated.

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The money problems are only part of the difficulty. Disaster seems to lay ambush for this man. In any given week, he can be served with an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent, have the utility company threaten to cut off his heat and light if he doesn't pay his bill in 24 hours, have one of his children do something to break his heart, have no food to put on the table, and in the middle of all that have the car break down, the water heater explode, another client fail to pay him, or any number of niggling mishaps occur. It's like the plagues of Exodus—gnats, flies, locusts, frogs—one after the next, swarming, attacking, pestering, devouring.

And he's one of the good guys.

Recently I asked him how he was doing. "Things have been better," he said. "But I'm trying not to get my hopes up."

Life isn't fair.

The psalmist knew the experience and wrote about it with refreshing and disarming frankness:

As for me, my foot had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from the burdens common
to man;
They are not plagued by human ills . …
Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been plagued;
I have been punished every morning.
(Psalm 73:2-5, 13-14)

My friend could have written this.

A More Bitter Story Still

Yet there is another story that is maybe more perplexing, more embittering still. It begins, "A father had two sons." You can call them the older and the younger, the prodigal and the frugal, Esau and Jacob, Cain and Abel. Let's make them daughters and call them Jane and Becky. The dilemma, the source of perplexity, is this: the father, from all appearances, likes Jane and not Becky. He seems to pamper and dote on Jane, scorn and scold Becky. Everything Jane does meets with applause and leads to greater recognition and approval. Everything Becky does somehow crumbles. If Jane touches something, it turns to gold. If Becky touches something, it turns to dust. Is this not the father's doing? Is this not the classic case of the parent playing favorites?

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Look closer. Both Jane and Becky are faithful. They both tithe. They both serve in ministry in some way. They both love the Lord, though neither one perfectly. In fact, if it was up to you to decide which one appeared more devout, more faithful, more prayerful, more sincere, and to dispense favor accordingly, you would pick Becky.

Jane is … well, Jane. She can be manipulative and meddlesome. She can be downright gossipy. She has a sly, shifty way of getting what she wants. She has an uncanny ability to flaunt, beneath a suitable cloak of humility, her accomplishments. She can manage to take credit (without appearing to connive at it) for good things she's hardly had anything to do with. She can manage to slip blame (without seeming to contrive it) for bad things she's mostly caused.

As Jane grows older, everything just gets better and better for her. Her children are intelligent, attractive, or popular. They get good grades in school and are both confident and yet respectful among adults. Her husband just got another promotion, and with it a bonus—his company's paying for the whole family to go to Disney World. Jane's decided to have a new sunroom added onto the house while they're away.

"I wanted to do the addition last year," she says, "but we just couldn't afford it after we got the new van. But Robert's promotion comes with [her voice lowers to a mock conspiratorial whisper] a very substantial financial incentive, so we're better positioned this year for a little indulgence. Not that it is an indulgence. We're finding that as the kids get older, we could really use the extra space. And my plants in that one corner just don't do that well, so they'll appreciate a sunroom. Do you know what the real blessing is? Because the work will all be done while we're in Florida, we don't have to live with all that dust and noise and mess, not to mention all those workers tramping in and out. Isn't God good?"

Becky has to wonder. Becky's children are not particularly intelligent, attractive, popular. Becky's children have crooked teeth. Her husband, who works as a hardware salesman and hasn't seen a raise in his meager salary for five years, can't afford to get those teeth straightened. Their oldest son just got suspended from school for a week because he started a fire in the cafeteria garbage can. Their daughter is overweight and has a bad complexion and, at 12, is already so depressed that every morning mother and daughter have a screaming match just to get the girl dressed and out the door. Today Becky's husband came home and said his company issued a memo announcing that, because of another year of losses, eight workers will be laid off after Christmas. Becky has a queasy feeling inside, a dark intuition about who one of them will be.

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Sometimes Becky wonders if she's done something wrong, something to offend God, to anger him, to place herself outside the circle of his blessing. She frets about her past. Was it that time in the seventh grade when she wished Gilbert Jones dead? Or the time as a teenager when she and her three friends played with a Ouija board? Or the time, two years ago, when she lied to the pastor about why the family had missed six weeks of church? Was that it? She worries that she is not praying right or praying enough, repenting properly, serving with entirely good motives. Then she feels anger at the idea of a God who would punish her for such trivial lapses. Then she feels guilty for getting angry at God. Then she thinks of Jane and feels bitter. Then she feels guilty again for feeling that way toward Jane and wonders if God is punishing her for her envy.

"Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." (Genesis 4:6-7)

That is God's brusque response to Cain's sulking. Cain sulks because, by all appearances, God likes his brother Abel and not him. In fact, God's apparent proclivity to favor one family member over another is almost a leitmotif in Scripture: Jacob over Esau; Joseph over his brothers; David over his brothers and over Saul; the prodigal son over the frugal one; the Jews over everyone else; then the Gentiles over the Jews. And that's an embittering thing for those who are on the downside of it, the brunt end of it.

A man from my church, a teacher at the local Christian high school, called me one morning in early September and asked if I had any insight to pass on to him about the Cain and Abel story. The senior class that year was using "I am my brother's keeper" as its motto—the reverse of Cain's angry rebuttal, after he killed Abel, to God's question about where his brother is. I confessed to this man that I had not read that passage in a long time. I asked him to give me a few hours; I would read and ponder the story, then call him back.

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So I did. I read it, and read it again. I thought about it. And then I read it once more. The man who called me had put no particular pressure on me, but I felt pressure nonetheless, and the pressure was this: to distill out of this story some tight and tidy moral bromide. I strained to unearth a clean, glinting nugget of truth, a timeless ethical principle. But the more I read it, the more I started to feel Cain's anger, his downcast face. I started to feel the rightness of his feelings, the wrongness of his situation. I started to sulk with him.

I phoned the man back. "Listen," I said, "I'm a bit embarrassed here, but the best I've come up with is this: Life isn't fair. Get over it."

The man thanked me and hung up. I don't think he was impressed.

But Cain haunted me. He dogged my steps, shadowed my moves, hovered over my thoughts.

The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

And well he should be. What is this favor of the Lord—the seeming fickleness, the arbitrariness of it, its inscrutability? The Book of Hebrews, of course, puts an interpretive twist on this episode: Abel made his offering with faith, Cain without it. But the writer of Hebrews probably knew that from some other source: it's difficult to exegete out of the story itself. Other than the hint that God rejected Cain because he had failed to do what is right, the story is devoid of clear reasons for God's choice. It is stark in its details, plain in its telling. All we know is that Cain worked the soil, Abel kept flocks, and they both brought an offering from their work. God liked Abel's—and liked Abel. He liked neither Cain nor his offering.

Don't Give Sin an Inch

Not long after I began to live deeply with this story, I had a moment of epiphany. I don't remember what exactly triggered it, if anything. It might have been hearing about the missionary who returned from a lifetime of self-giving work in a Chinese orphanage to enjoy a modest retirement, only to be diagnosed with cancer and swiftly die. Or it might have been the incident of a pastor I knew who had served God and God's people in faithfulness, with fruitfulness, for 40 years and who, a year away from his retirement, was hit by a car while riding his bike on a sunny spring morning and died of massive internal bleeding. Or it might have been Kaitlyn.

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I don't remember. But the epiphany was vivid. The epiphany was that Cain and Abel's experience—one enjoys God's favor while the other doesn't—is one of the deepest realities about life. This is the way the world comes to us. This is the way many of us experience life. I'm cursed or I'm blessed; I'm chosen or I'm rejected; I'm favored or I'm scorned. And though we would like some solid sense that life fits an obvious ethical pattern that is cosmic in scope—in which bad people have bad things happen to them and good people reap good things—we're at a loss to find that pattern.

God breaks in on all this with a word so unconsoling, so unsympathetic, so curt and cold and cut-and-dried that it stings worse than the blow that incited Cain to bitterness: "Do the right thing. Sin would take you down in a minute. Quit your sulking. Stop this self-pity. Do rightly and justly, and don't give sin an inch." We look for tender empathy, some therapeutic soothing and wooing, and instead get this brusqueness, this sternness, this drill-sergeant bark.

You know the story. Cain doesn't do the right thing. His sulking gives way to grudge, and that to vindictiveness, and that to rage. And then Cain kills his brother in the very fields that he's grown his food in, the very fields from which he gathered his spurned offering to God. He spills Abel's bright, hot blood in that earth. If God doesn't want the fruits of my soil, if he won't open his mouth to receive them, then let the soil open its mouth to receive Abel's blood (see verse 11). And then Cain refuses responsibility for what he has done.

God punishes Cain—sets him adrift, makes him a wanderer, an outlaw. But God also shows grace to Cain—he promises Cain protection and marks him with a sign of it. Cain heads east of Eden, a marked man, scarred with wandering and warning, bearing stigma, and yet also marked with the insignia of God's guardianship. He is a cursed man and a blessed man. He is rejected, banished, cast out, but also protected, kept, watched over.

If my years of pastoral experience guide me in any way here, I would venture that God's protection of Cain is as embittering to those who loved Abel as God's favoring of Abel was embittering to Cain. Why doesn't God let Cain suffer the full crushing brunt of his actions? Why let him off so lightly? He's a killer—a cold-blooded, premeditated, first-degree murderer. Yet there's no real justice rendered here, no capital punishment, no eye for an eye, no life for a life. No jail term. Not even bail. Just a perpetual exile. And God steps in to ensure that no vigilante action or frontier justice is ever exacted against Cain. The killer gets to go free, on the loose. He might be your neighbor. Your kid might go to school with his kid. And you can't do a thing about it, and those who loved Abel can't do a thing about it. Bitter news, this.

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Life isn't fair. And in the thick, swarming midst of life's unfairness, our options often narrow down to something so simple it seems clichéd: Do the right thing. Have the right attitude.

Bitter news, this. And that is the main danger in a world of unfairness: bitterness. The danger is to indulge our bitterness, to feel justified in it, to feel justified in the deeds that spring from it. The danger is that we will, on principle, refuse do the right thing. After all, we reason, has God done the right thing? Isn't God a hard man, reaping where he has not sown, gathering what he has not scattered?

It Will Go Well With You

I have never been involved in a church discipline action that has come out well. When it is all said and done, everyone—including me—seemed soured by the business. Those who received the discipline felt they were misunderstood, mistreated, that the church acted without grace or love. Those who had been hurt by the offender felt the church had tiptoed, kid-gloved, pampered the wrongdoer, and had insufficiently upheld their cause. Many watching from the sidelines thought that we either soft-pedaled righteousness or trampled grace. We have acted too harshly, or too cautiously; we have been legalistic, or we have failed to take sin and holiness with biblical seriousness. We're Pharisees, arrogant and accusing and rigid—or we're Saduccees, arrogant and accommodating and slippery-soft. We're crusaders or we're kowtowers. Almost everyone is angry about the outcome. Some, in their anger, withdraw their services. Some stop giving. Some stop coming. I have yet to lead the church through a disciplinary action in which all of these things, in some measure, did not happen.

For years I put this down to my own inadequacy—my callow youth and shallow experience, my sometimes patched-together knowledge of Scripture or makeshift interpretations of it, my fumbling grasp of original languages, my half-baked wisdom, my thinly mustered courage and thinly veiled frustration, my slipshod ability. All of that may be true. But in recent years, I have been less inclined to think the problem lies in these things—in me.

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The problem is that life is unfair. Unfairness is genetically coded into it. And so sometimes the innocent are murdered, and the murderer is protected.

So what is right? If that is the stark command to Cain—"Do what is right"—what is right? What is right in a world where little girls get sick and die and genocidal despots live in luxury? Where hard-working men go bankrupt and swindlers go on swindling? Where slumlords and warlords get rich off the spoils and good people are left to scavenge? Where all the wrong people, it seems, suffer?

What is the right thing?

The writer of Hebrews mentions Cain and Abel. He says the difference between them distilled to one thing: faith. Abel had it, Cain didn't. "Without faith," the writer of Hebrews warns, "it is impossible to please God." Then he builds his case with example after example of those who lived by faith. What is curious about the list is how many people are mentioned who must have carried within them a keen sense of life's unfairness. "Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned. They were sawed in two. They were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, mistreated. … They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground." And then this: "None of them received what they had been promised" (Hebrews 11:36-39).

Yet all of them lived by faith. Without faith, it is impossible to please God.

Faith is the right thing.

This seems altogether too simple. But, of course, the simplest ideas—thankfulness, kindness, generosity, faith—are the most difficult to live out. To continue to trust God—to give ourselves into his keeping, to entrust our riches, our first fruits, our children, our homes, to him—well, what if we did that already and got stricken with multiple sclerosis, or went bankrupt, or got robbed, or had a child go astray, or lost our home to fire? What if life isn't fair?

The right thing is still, is always, faith.

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"If you do what is right, will it not go well with you?" That's what God says to Cain. Much depends here on how we understand the phrase "It will go well with you." Is God promising that if he does the right thing, he'll prosper in health, in finances, in relationships, in intellectual pursuit and physical achievement? Surely not. Abel did the right thing; he was killed. God loved Abel. God accepted Abel. God showed favor to Abel. But that favor was expressed only in accepting Abel's gift—opening his mouth to receive it. It was not expressed in protection. In fact, God provides far more protection to Cain than he ever did to Abel. He marks Cain to keep at bay the ruffians, the avengers. Why didn't God mark Abel that way and stay his own brother's hand of death?

Life isn't fair.

"If you do what is right, it will go well with you." What will go well? I would like this to mean God will stay the hand of death, of disease, of accident and injury and illness, always, everywhere, right to the sweet gentle end, for me and those I love, and then that he will whisk us Enoch-like to heaven. I would like it to mean that the rapists and serial killers and genocidal despots are brought to swift, unswerving justice. I would like it to mean Kaitlyn lives a long and healthy life, marrying at 23, bearing three children, burying her parents when they are in their 80s, retiring after a productive and fulfilling life of teaching or stone-sculpting or genetic research, dying in her sleep in her early 90s, still mobile, her own children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathering to mourn her and celebrate her and sing hymns over her.

"It will go well with you."

But of course, it doesn't mean that—the idyllic, undisturbed life. That might happen. It might not. That is not important to whether it goes well with you.

God's definition of it going well is unique, distinct, almost eccentric. His definition of wellness is not about health, finances, or job security. It's not about unfailing protection from the vagaries and dangers of a broken world.

It's not about life being fair.

It's about acceptance. It's about God accepting us as his own, the one he loves. It's not about being spared from untimely or difficult death. It's about being spared the "second death"—the death of unbridgeable separation, the death that is at once coldness and burning, oblivion and torment, a writhing crowd of teeth-gnashers and the desolation of unending aloneness.

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Because of Jesus Christ, we have received God's unmerited favor. And, actually, that favor has always been unmerited. If we do what is right, it will go well with us. The right thing is faith—to have faith in the one who doesn't always remedy life's unfairness but who does far better: He redeems it—its unfairness, its brokenness, its disease and death—and he gives us back sevenfold all the years the locusts have eaten. "Today," he says to repentant thieves, to trusting Abels, to dying little girls, "Today you will be with me in paradise."

Ultimately, we are citizens of heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there. But meanwhile, in the shadowlands, we walk by faith and not by sight. Meanwhile (ambiguous word, that: meanwhile: in the mean place, the between place, the unfair place), those who walk by faith discover that life rarely gets easier. It often gets harder. Safe? Who said God was safe? Fair? Who said God was fair?

The holy wild is wilderness. But if you walk and don't faint, you find what Job did—though he slay me, yet will I trust him. You find that the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death is infinitely better than the dull, safe god who lulls us on borderland, seducing us with false comforts, spinning a cocoon around us that doesn't protect, only entraps, and from which we emerge wingless.

Bonnie, Kaitlyn's mother, again:

God is doing a mighty work through this little girl. Why she has to be sick for it to happen is not for me to understand. All I know is that out of her life Jesus Christ shines. And those that dare to get close to her can't help but see it. "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it" (John 11:4).

Life isn't fair. But for those who live by faith—Abel and Abraham, Kaitlyn and Bonnie—it is well, it is well with their souls.

Mark Buchanan is pastor of New Life Community Baptist Church in Duncan, British Columbia. This article is excerpted from Your God is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can't Control (2001) and is used by permission of Multnomah Publishers Inc.

Related Elsewhere

Buchanan's Your God Is Too Safe, from which this article is excerpted, can be ordered at and other book retailers.

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Commentaries on these verses from John Calvin, Matthew Henry, and others are available at the World Wide Study Bible, part of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Earlier Christianity Today articles by Mark Buchanan include:

Jesus Wept | God's love, mercy, passion, grief, and anger are chiseled down to two words. (Mar. 6, 2001)

Benefit of the Doubt | The disciple Thomas reveals an important truth about faith. (Apr. 7, 2000)

Running with Jonah | Do we really want to be closer to God? (Nov. 3, 1999)

Stuck on the Road to Emmaus | The secret to why we are not fulfilled. (July 12, 1999)

Trapped in the Cult of the Next Thing | If ever there was a cult that gave us stones when we asked for bread, this is it. (Sept. 6, 1999)

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