Prayer and Puppies
In preparation for the Olympics held in Greece in 2004, thousands of possibly dangerous stray dogs were poisoned. But the stray dog problem continues to this day. A few years ago during a religious pilgrimage to Greece, our tour bus was confronted with a pack of wild canines emerging from the brush at a mountain overlook.
Actually, the dog pack was a litter of puppies, tails wagging, charming almost everyone with their heart-melting cuteness. I alone was horrified—on their account. Do puppies know what evil lurks in the hearts of men? After all, puppy stew could well be a delicacy in many parts of the world. These poor animals are way too trusting of humans and could be at grave risk.
But before we hold up puppies to ridicule for their lack of intelligence and impulsiveness, we may observe that we often behave like puppies as well, blithely misplacing our trust when reasonable fear would be the better part. A circus performer places his head under the foot of an elephant and the “greatest show on earth” ends very badly. Tigers said to be domesticated as kittens, grow up and maul their masters when least expected. An entertainer makes his living poking wild and dangerous critters until his luck finally runs out and he his fatally attacked. There is even a children’s movie in which a mountain man traverses the wilderness with a pet grizzly bear. Note to the kids: Grizzly bears do not make safe pets. We puppy dogs can be way too naïve and trusting.
So it’s not difficult to explain why we become the Devil’s puppy dogs so easily. The Devil can be very appealing when he wants to be. When Satan tempts Jesus during His forty days of fasting in the desert, he is a true gentleman with the Lord. He’s reasonable, scholarly (he knows his Scriptures) and he’s trying to be helpful. Hungry? “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” Need an entertaining way to pass the time? No worry: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” The temptations at first glance may not seem to rise to a soul-threatening level.
The Devil doesn’t ask for much in return, or so it seems. And he has so much to offer. In showing the Lord “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence” he promises, “All these I shall give to you….” The price of world rule—or a good deal of worldly success—doesn’t seem to be too burdensome. All you need to do “prostrate yourself and worship” the Devil. Think of all the good you can do by serving humanity as a benign and thoughtful dictator, protected from harm in this life and never missing a meal. All this may be yours for the price of a bent knee in the direction of a demon. With puppy dog excitement, our tails may wag at the prospect. Indeed, there has been no shortage of puppies bending a knee to Satan in world history.
But there is one small scruple. In succumbing to the wiles of the Devil—even for the greater good as we see it—we reinvent the sin of Adam. The ancient temptation reverberates throughout all of history, taking many forms with subtle twists. One fad has us playing God by “clarifying our values” in psychological and sociological workshops where we settle on highly personalized and “relevant” tenets of our private codes of conduct. Is there room for the Ten Commandments in our self-devised “value system”? That’s not important, say the facilitators, as long as we “believe in ourselves.” In short, “Ye shall be as God.”
In our day, satanic pride is often draped in the false humility of deeply “sensitive” and “non-judgmental” attitudes—code words that mean moral indifference and a refusal to distinguish between good and evil. Humility is easy to claim when we portray ourselves as lovable, tolerant and “non-judgmental” puppies. But the sloth of our moral indifference quickly gives way to strident demands for instant gratification when the trials of life nudge us from our comfort zones.
Suffering easily becomes the occasion of the irreverent and even diabolical taunting of God. It is praiseworthy, of course, to pray for good health; success; even a pain-free existence—when these requests are properly framed and humbly dispatched with the obedience of faith. The Psalms provide the template. The same prayers are ruined, however, when they become demands, effectively putting Jesus to the test: “If you are the son of God….”
What a difference a phrase makes. An innocent prayer of pleading can easily become an unholy demand. “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn’.…” (Mt 11:16-17)
On the contrary, God wants us to be mature Christians always attentive to his will and, when manifest, recalibrating our will to his. He gives us intelligence and a free will to know Him, to love Him and freely choose to serve Him and others—to be happy in this life and the life to come. “I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time—waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God—it changes me” (C.S. Lewis).
But Christian maturity does not exclude the serene and playful puppy dog exuberance of Christian joy.
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