Some years ago my husband was driving through our small town’s business district early in the morning and happened to observe a hawk catch a rabbit. After nabbing the cute little bunny, the hawk alighted on a nearby light post and began ripping into the little thing’s soft belly. What struck my husband was that the rabbit was still alive and struggling when the hawk ripped into its flesh. Yet the hawk was completely unperturbed by the fact that its prey was still alive and struggling. He just sat there nonchalantly looking around, enjoying his breakfast.
When my husband shared this story with me, I wondered for the umpteenth time what exactly it says about God that we live in a world of predator and prey. Because scripture says that the creation is a reflection of God. In the Book of Acts, Paul says that creation testifies so strongly to the reality of God and his character that even those who have never heard of God know enough about him to be judged.
So for many years, I would occasionally meditate on the relationship between God’s character and the fact that we live in a world which actually depends on the relationship between predator and prey to function properly. What I came to is that there’s a certain ruthlessness about God.
Ruthless isn’t a word which we usually associate with God. It seems awfully negative. It’s hardly something we go out and proclaim to the world; “praise God all you people for he is ruthless!” Sure there are those people who are really excited about God’s wrath who might do it, but mostly we tell people that God is loving, powerful, merciful, etc.
Perhaps ruthless isn’t quite the right word. The dictionary definition of ruthless is “pitiless, without mercy, cruel”. And certainly God is not any of those things. When I say there’s a ruthlessness to God, I mean to describe a lack of sentimentality combined with unwavering determination.
God is ruthless in the same way a surgeon who cuts into flesh to operate is ruthless. He’s ruthless like a demanding coach who won’t settle for anything less than near perfection from his team is ruthless. He’s ruthless the way chemotherapy is ruthless.
What I mean to say is that God most certainly has pity on us, is merciful and abounding in love. And yet he will not allow any of those things keep him from doing what needs to be done in order to bring us to salvation. He would rather walk us through the suffering of redemption than allow us to remain broken and enslaved to sin in blissful comfort.
Consider Jesus; despite being King and God incarnate, he wasn’t spared the suffering of mankind. Everything we suffer, he suffered. There was no point at which God said, “it’s too much.” Instead, he walked with grim determination to his bloody death so that the work he set out to do could be completed. He would rather suffer the worst that life had to offer than leave our redemption for another day when it would be easier and less painful.
I’ve written a few times about the work of John of the Cross. His writing on the dark night of the soul has been a comfort and companion to me for the last few years. And yet when I read his story, it terrifies me. He suffered awfully. Same thing with many biblical characters. Abraham, Joseph, Hosea, Jeremiah and others all suffered through terrible trials and anguish which went on for far longer than seems reasonable.
When I first heard of Mother Theresa’s long night of spiritual darkness, it made me wonder what sort of God this is we follow who would hide his face from a faithful servant for so long and inflict so much suffering on her. Truly, there is a reason scripture says, “it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.”
This is something we Christians don’t talk about much. We flock to teachers who explain how if we are faithful, God will bless us with prosperity, ease and a good name. For many people a good life is evidence of Godly character.
Apparently it works for some people. I have heard many stories of people who practically had wealth and good fortune fall from the sky when they put their trust in God. He got them good parking spots even! And yet, I know many more people who have done their best to follow God whose lives are a mess. They keep waiting for him to show up and set everything right for them. (Sometimes to the point of not doing for themselves what they need to do!)
So many people suffer and wonder if perhaps God is angry with them. Maybe they don’t have enough faith or haven’t submitted enough. The suffering which comes when we expect God to bless us and he doesn’t is sometimes far worse than the circumstances we are struggling with to begin with.
The truth which isn’t spoken of nearly enough is that the Christian life is practically by definition a suffering life. It’s not that God doesn’t love us and doesn’t want good things for us – far from it! It’s just that he loves us too much to settle for less than the best for us. And, unfortunately, the process by which humanity finds redemption is a painful one.
Jesus didn’t tell his followers that if they followed him, they would live in comfort and ease like some prosperity gospel preacher. Rather, he told them that to follow him, they’d have to carry a cross. At the time, the word cross was actually a common Roman curse word. People would tell someone, “go to the cross” the same way we say, “go to hell.” When was the last time you heard a Christian teacher tell you that to join their church, you’d have to agree to “go to hell”? (If they were following truth in advertising rules, a lot of them would have to. But that’s another topic for another day!)
Some time ago, I said what has got to be the dumbest, most idiotic prayer I’ve ever said. (And I’ve prayed some dumb prayers before!) I asked God to do what he needs to do in order to redeem me. I asked him to be ruthless. That I wanted as much of him as I was capable of receiving. That he knows my limits and abilities better than I do, so to do as he saw fit – even if I begged him to make it stop. I’ve talked with other Christians who have said similar things and we all agree that it was an idiotic thing to have done.
And yet, even on my worst day, I wouldn’t really take it back. You see, Jesus said that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. We tend to think this means we will enjoy the good things of life abundantly. But he’s really promising that we will experience all of life abundantly – including the hard things. How hard life is and how much I suffer on the way is simply a measure of how good the life God has waiting for me is and how much joy I will have in him.
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? –Kahlil Gibran
It’s hard not to look at people whose lives are comfortable and relatively easy and be jealous and bitter. But don’t be fooled. This process of redemption is something God is determined to bring ALL of us through. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.” God’s ruthlessness is that he will not spare his children the suffering of correction and leave them dead in their sins.
Those people who have refused the way of the cross and enjoyed the easy path will one day experience the consuming fire of God which purges all that is not of him – only with great regret at having invested their lives in things that didn’t last or matter. A wailing and gnashing of teeth, as scriptures say.
Those of us who walk through the process of redemption willingly – who have said idiotic prayers and picked up our cross of our own free will – will be spared that bitter regret. As we grow and are refined into the likeness of God, we will see God’s Kingdom emerging within and among us. We will surely see the Lord in the land of the living and when the times comes, walk right into the house of the Lord to join in the feast which is being prepared for us.
The way of the cross is hard and full of suffering. And yet, it is for good reason that the bible tells us over and over to endure to the end. Father John Hardon said, “we love only to the degree that we are willing to suffer.” We know that this is true. When we love someone, we stay with them through sickness and death – even though this means we will suffer alongside them. Parents go without food and suffer hunger pangs so their kids can eat if that’s what it takes. If we are not willing to suffer, we are also not willing to love.
In the end that’s what this is all about. Suffering isn’t the point any more than the point of surgery is the cutting. It’s about Love. It’s about becoming an image of Love. And when we reach the point that there is nothing in us which is not love, we will be grateful that God is so ruthless.