Warning: God Can Be Ruthless

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 screaming. 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.

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13 thoughts on “Warning: God Can Be Ruthless

  1. LOL. I hear you on the idiotic prayer thing. Mine usually go like this: “God, I want you to change me and make me more like you. I want you to use me for your glory…..but please don’t let it hurt too much. Amen. 🙂

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  2. There’s much more I want to say about this than I’m able to, so far.

    Considerations (designing a world, how-to): We have various human ways of designing model universes where we can live, in imagination. Games are one example. Even “realistic” fiction is an example, but fantasy, science-fiction etc writers sometimes write openly about ‘world-building.’

    Games… The best ones seem to involve pieces being ‘captured’ (taken off-board) or even ‘killed’ (in a go game: not yet removed from board but (baring some unexpected development) ‘doomed.’) It doesn’t seem to hurt all that much when a bunch of my stones get picked off the board & put in a bowl, even less so when they’re only virtual stones. (It’s only my ego that suffers, ow ow ow!)

    Practically all our fiction is about suffering, about challenges at least — and (more than half the time?) about actual violence. Hmmmm! What kind of fiction do you like?

    In fantasy, where the possibilities are wide open — what kind of worlds do people imagine? Isn’t there always some sort of struggle for power — usually for actual survival — built into the situations? Do we have worlds without predator/prey relationships? Pretty hard to do an interesting one: “It doesn’t take much intelligence to sneak up on a cabbage,” (as one of Larry Niven’s intelligent carnivores put it.)

    Ecologies: Energy flows from some basic source to life forms that just soak it up — into forms that break these down, etc. _Greener Than You Think_ ended up covering the whole Earth with mutant crabgrass… and I suppose a world like that could exist in a conflict-free state, but hardly an interesting one.

    Some people like their games ruthless… but we mostly prefer that our ping-pong matches not be to the death! I suspect that the level of violence in contemporary human imaginings — has to do with a high level of fear among us. People want stories that let them imagine emerging triumphant (or at least safe) from threats. Even if the hero dies, the reader… gets to finish the book. Or walks out of the movie; you see what I mean….

    We live in a world where some people can imagine God doesn’t intervene. Why? What is the advantage to us; what is the appeal? Is this akin to ‘peek-a-boo’ on a cosmic scale? (And why do babies like that game? Something to do with the fact that Mommie does reappear from behind the chair? With learning that Mommie will continue to reappear? How much relief is it to have the presence of God return from an ‘absence’?)

    Suffering? Overrated. We really don’t like it or we wouldn’t call it that. Being willing/able to endure what comes, yeah. But it’s never going to be popular.

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    • I’ve thought for a while now that there’s whole idea of pain and suffering being absent before there’s fall is rubbish. Where did our ability to experience pain and suffering come from if we were created to live in a world without it? And how can we have there’s ability to suffer if God does not? Can we know of and experience things which are beyond God? Can there be a beyond God?

      I’m sure that part of why there’s Christian message as it’s usually presented isn’t particularly compelling to many people. As you say a story or game with no challenge, no struggle, etc is awfully boring.

      I figure my message and this post can be like Shakleton’s infamous help wanted ad; thousands of people applied for a handful of spots on the promise of lousy pay, miserable conditions, possible death and adventure. 😉

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      • In Thai (Indian, Vietnamese, etc) restaurants there’s sometimes a note on the menu advising round-eyes to specify how much hot stuff we want with our hot dishes.

        On the pain-and-suffering selections, make mine ‘wimpy’!

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  3. “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.”

    I like those comparisons because they speak to motive and method. Each is designed to help and not hurt. Each are a solution and not the problem. Even so, some religious folks blame God for the problems and have a hard time seeing Him differently.

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  4. Before I read this, I prayed this: “Lord, teach me more about your redemption – how deep it is, how broad, how wide, and what it really means for the world.” I’m in deep poop, aren’t I?

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  5. Pingback: Not So Red of Tooth and Claw « The Upside Down World

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  7. Reblogged this on WITHOPENFACE and commented:
    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.

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