So I was dwelling in the House of the Lord, and I (mentally) stumbled across a good description of what it means for God to be “fair”.
Thought Experiment: The Two Math Students
Imagine a night before a math class. Two students are faced with a dilemma: they both have not started the homework, and there is also a quiz in class as well. They have time only for either the homework or studying, but not both. One decides to do study for the quiz, and one decides to do the homework
The next day, the teacher announces that the quiz has been canceled, but the homework is due. The one who did the homework is relieved, and the one who studied but has no homework to turn in is upset. In this situation it can said only humorously that one is being “punished” or that it is “unfair.” What is fair is that both students get a 50% for the day. One simply got “lucky” and the other “unlucky.” Our time and space constraints don’t allow our language to describe things otherwise.
Unfair? Not really
So why can we not say that the student is being “punished?” Because both students were at fault. Had they been “perfect students” they would have done both the homework and studied for the quiz and not feared any kind of circumstance. Though the one student who got a 0% has gotten that instead of the 50% he was hoping, the teacher is not any more “singling him out” or “punishing” him than if one were to stick his hand into the fire and get burned more than he expected. Perhaps he misjudged the time spent in the fire or assumed in an inaccurate temperature distribution of the flame. But in no way is the fire, nor the teacher, at fault for being “unfair.”
God’s Justice can Coexist with what can seem to be “Unfair Outcomes”
How Then Can We Fault God?
If we do not fault the teacher for being “unfair”, and we cannot say that the teacher is “punishing” us, why do we apply such accusations toward a God who is perfectly fair, who is perfectly wise?
God’s Grace & Justice
In the same way, God applies a more complicated but fundamentally the same sort of things to our lives. We, in our failed perfection deserve punishment. Maybe some get less punishment or get it later but all  will. Who are we to judge God the way, amount, time and method of punishment? Are we not all the same in his eyes in our unrighteousness? Rest assured. Either God’s perfect grace  or God’s perfect justice (and wrath) will find  you. There’s nothing in between.
For those who are more precise in their language, read more.
In Christian terms the student who got a 100% though he didn’t deserve it has received what is often referred to as “grace.” Encompassed in here is also the concept of free will and also providence, but that is a huge topic that was not the focus of this post.
 [update: 04.16.08] For Christians, it’s necessary for us to divide consequence with punishment. Because through Christ we have been “justified” (and being “sanctified”), we suffer consequences of our actions. What do I mean by this? Lets take the fire example again. If I stick my hand in the fire and get burned, that’s my consequence. If my mother scolds me later for being so stupid, and forbids me from touching the stove until I’m older, that’s discipline (punishment with correction purpose; the kind that God gives us) but if my mother simply beats me, that Punishment We often have a lot of trouble separating the two when we talk to God. The Bible, though, is very clear as to what the Lord’s purpose for bringing trials into our lives as Christians.
References: God’s Discipline, Not Punishment, for Those He Loves
Note, I’m not talking about God loving us his creation (in that sense, he loves all of us) but the loving relationship between Him and Christians. That’s not to say that it’s limited to just Christians. It’s to say that as Christians, we can expect and depend on it.