“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33
When Life is Unfair
It was a Thursday evening in Athens, Greece, during the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. All eyes were on the much-anticipated swimming races that night, one of them being the 200-meter men’s backstroke event. American backstroker, Aaron Peirsol, was highly favored to win the race — which he did in Olympic-record fashion. The finish wasn’t even close. An Austrian came in second. A Romanian, third.
Chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” echoed from the stands as fellow teammates and American swimming fans celebrated Peirsol’s dominant victory. But the party was short-lived. Suddenly, he looked up at the scoreboard to see his name had gone from first place to last, with the letters “DSQ” next to it. He had been disqualified.
Aaron and the entire U.S. team were shocked. What could’ve possibly warranted a disqualification?! It turned out that the lane judge who watched Peirsol’s turn at 150 meters had ruled the move was illegal. USA Swimming filed a protest; the Austrian swimmer said he wouldn’t accept the gold medal because he knew Peirsol had done nothing wrong. Peirsol was befuddled, but there was nothing he could do.
After several minutes of reviewing tape of the race, officials determined the turn was legal, and Peirsol’s gold medal was reinstated. A few hours later, he stepped onto the podium and heard his national anthem.
While this incident ended up being overshadowed by other headlines that Olympics, including the rise of a young swimming star named Michael Phelps, it ended up staying with me because the thing I recall being most impressed by was how Peirsol handled the situation. When many would’ve completely gone berserk over such a mishap, he never lost his cool. When the media later asked him about the situation, he told them he was able to remain calm because he knew he did nothing wrong and there was nothing he could do about the issue. His fate was in the hands of others, and getting upset over circumstances he couldn’t control wasn’t going to do any good.
In a recent talk, Peirsol opened up about how this set of circumstances became a defining moment for him personally. He recalled that, as a kid, he remembers seeing a certain American swimmer going for his third try at Olympic gold and how the moment was so huge for him he almost couldn’t function. Years later, Peirsol said that as he was stepping to the blocks prior to this race, he realized that other kids were now watching him and how he would handle the moment. In the tense 30 minutes of controversy that followed the race, he reflected on the fact that he was so grateful for the journey it took to get to that point that. Even if he wasn’t reinstated, he was still a fulfilled individual. It didn’t take a gold medal to indicate a good life. His poise stemmed from a deep level of personal peace knowing that he’d competed with integrity, regardless of the outcome.
Life just isn’t fair sometimes. Most of us admit this, but human nature fights the reality because we don’t want to face the pain that accompanies unfortunate situations. We all desire to be treated right and to excel. And it’s hard when your success is looked down upon by others, or when others attempt to sabotage your achievement for their own benefit. It’s hard to deal with unfair criticism from others or to handle unforeseen failure that befalls you. In a culture that wants to numb the sting of disappointment, it can sometimes be hard to figure out how to handle situations that just don’t seem to be right.
But, when you contrast this idea with that of the Scriptures, you find out that God’s not after our comfort or happiness at all, but rather our holiness. For the believer, He has not promised us ease but rather testing. He has not promised us fairness but rather sanctification. In fact, He guaranteed that we’d be treated unfairly for following Him — because He was treated unfairly too (John 15:18-25). In His parting words to His disciples before ascending back to His Father in Heaven, Jesus left them with the promise that they would experience great trials and trouble. But He also left them with the comfort of His peace, telling them to take heart because He was in control (John 16:33).
Perhaps you’ve been treated unfairly by someone else, or you find yourself in circumstances which simply don’t seem right. In your mind, you’ve followed the path of integrity and you really don’t think you’re in the wrong. If this has happened to you, take comfort in the fact that God understands and that He’s promised you His unfailing love and blessing for doing the right thing. If you’re doing all things “as for the Lord and not for men,” you can take heart in the fact that even the unfair situations in life will be redeemed for your growth and God’s glory if you let them.
So as the popular saying goes, “Keep calm, and carry on.” God’s got your back.
— Katherine Singer
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