Every animal that God made is reflective of God’s thinking and can be a pointer to who God is.
Over the past month, we learned that a honeybee’s non-verbal waggle-dance is a form of communication that echoes a Spirit who speaks with wordless groans, and that the wolverine’s fierce wildness is a pointer to God’s wildness (a God who is good but not necessarily safe). Last weekend, the Giant Squid’s camouflaging capacities brought new light to God’s mysterious decision to hide in plain sight via the very human incarnation of Jesus Christ.
In a very real sense, each of these animals is a zoological parable—a means through which we can know the Maker more. While it’s good to come to church and have these parables unpacked for you, the process of discerning the parabolic nature of animals is also something you can learn to do for yourself.
If you want to go there, three things need to happen:
- “Name the is-ness” of the creature you are considering
- “Wait for God-connections”
- “Enter into the co-illumination moment”
NAME THE ‘IS-NESS’
In order to engage God’s wisdom in an animal, you need to name the ‘is-ness’ of the creature. What is it that makes the animal that you’re considering different, unique, itself? In its essence, what is a cat, horse, hummingbird, or squirrel?
There are many animals that make for good companions, but a dog’s capacity to be a good companion is unique. How so? What did God build into dogs that enable them to be our best friends? To answer this question, you might begin by looking for a good book, article, or video on the nature of dogs; on how they came to be domesticated and bred, on what their unique aptitudes and gifts are, or on how they think. Or you might just want to spend some time contemplating your own dog (if you have one). “What is it about how you respond to me, interact with me, and are a companion to me?”
As you engage the creature-discernment process, it’s best to carry these questions with you for a period of several days or a week—and write down your observations as you go.
As you do this, it’s important to know that you’re doing it in the presence of God. The God who made that animal you’re trying to understand, is with you.
Even as you look at your dog, God is with you—looking at your dog. Even as you consider the nature of your dog, God considered its nature long before the first dog was ever created. The idea is that you want to see the animal you’re considering with God’s eyes, think about its nature with God’s mind, and love it like God does.
And as you enter into this contemplative place (in a way that might even feel a bit like how you enter into the scriptures) expect to meet God there, expect an ‘aha’ moment, and expect that God wants to meet you there.
WAIT FOR GOD-CONNECTIONS
Then wait for the connections. Wait for the moment where an attribute or characteristic of the animal that you are considering echoes, reflects, or rhymes with an attribute or characteristic of God.
Of course, for connections to happen, you’ll need to tap into your knowledge of God through both the bible and life experience.
One kind of connection is when the bible literally mentions the animal you’re looking at—like Jesus’ words on birds:
“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink;
or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the
body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap
or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
Matthew 6:25-27, NIV
Clearly Jesus had zoological parables figured out.
Our lives are as surrounded by birds as they are prone to chronic worry. So, Jesus put the two together. And perhaps the idea came to Jesus as he was simply watching birds one day. Watching them with the sure knowledge that God, who made them, and faithfully feeds them, was with him.
How do birds find food? A quick online search reveals that while a handful of birds use smell, most use sight… and memory! Of course, the bible is filled with stories where God calls his people to remember. We’re called to remember those times and places where God provided for us—like a bird remembers the location of a good food source.
“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says. “Right now, just outside your door, as they chirp, sing, and source God’s providential goodness.”
ENTER INTO THE CO-ILLUMINATION MOMENT
As the God-connections come together, sit with them for a while—listen deeply, let biblical truth shine a light on creation’s truth, and let creation’s truths add colour, sound, and depth to the biblical text.
Continuing with birds, this process could like this…
Right now, there are an estimated 50 billion individual birds on our planet, six for each of us. Clearly God’s providence is ubiquitous, and God is faithfully present everywhere.
Every bird is an affirmation of God’s nearness, and that you’re never alone. So, what if you tried stepping into this truth literally?
What if you went for a walk and listened for God’s avian call? Taking note of all the different tunes, shapes, and sizes of birds.
Walking with Jesus’ spoken words in mind, “Look at the birds of the air…”
What if you went for a walk, and really looked at the birds with Jesus?
This question was so good I had to try it myself.
Here’s what happened:
The first thing I noticed was how birds were finding their food. Delighting in how they foraged, I realized that Jesus would take delight in this too. When I heard a variety of unique calls, I was stuck by the fact that Jesus understood them all. Noticing the shadows of overhead birds on the sidewalk in front of me, I was reminded of how God hovers over me like an eagle (Deuteronomy 32:11) and shelters me beneath the shadow of his wings (Psalm 57:1, 63:7). Hearing all kinds of birds from multiple directions all at the same time made me thank Jesus for a sense of hearing that could take in all this aural glory. And he heard me. Does he who created the ear not hear? (Psalm 94:9).
Noticing flight, I felt him whisper, “You’re made to soar too… on wings like an eagle.” (Isaiah 40:31) Watching a Northern Flicker searching for food in a big empty field (just the two of us in this wide-open place) I wondered if he was there for me, or if I was there for him. As I pondered this question, staring at the bird, I could sense it sensing me. Some people think that human beings are like God to animals when we love, appreciate, and steward them well. I could feel God’s presence with and within me in that moment. Moments later I was laughing (with God?) as another Flicker was jack-hammering a neighbour’s chimney flue. And then in one of those strange moments where every bird goes quiet, I wondered what they were listening to; who’s voice were they attending to; what were they hearing that I wasn’t?
On an hour-long walk near my home, a dozen God-connections were made. I was surrounded by God’s love. I could feel it and hear it and sense it with my whole being. Creation co-illumining the scriptures, and vice versa. A glimpse of life as it’s meant to be—heaven on earth.
“Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, LORD Almighty, my King and my God.”
Psalm 84:3, NIV
And that’s how it can work—engaging God through the creatures he’s made. While it may not always lead to a huge epiphany, it can lead to a deeper understanding of God. So why not try this for yourself? Pick an animal that you already love, or that’s endangered, or that you simply find amazing… and listen to it. This is what creation is for. This is what God’s creatures are for.
“God made the wild animals according to their kinds…
And God saw that it was good.”
Genesis 1:25, NIV
“Ask the animals what they think—let them teach you;
let the birds tell you what’s going on.
Put your ear to the earth—learn the basics.
Listen—the fish in the ocean will tell you their stories.
Isn’t it clear that they all know and agree that God is sovereign,
that he holds all things in his hand—
Every living soul, yes, every breathing creature?”
Job 12:7-10, MSG