A dog up the street frightens me. Thankfully, most of the time she is inside. But I have often wondered, walking past that house. She has barked and bared her fangs when I walked past, then she would slink along behind me after I passed showing her fangs when we looked back at her.
One evening my wife and I walked past the house, relieved that the dogs were not in sight. Another neighbor coming toward us, gave words to our sense of relief. “How nice to walk dog-free.”
Tales of animal attacks are big on cable TV. Shark attacks, crocodile attacks, bear attacks, and others. The victim shows his or her scars and retells the story of near death at the fangs of a creature “seeking what it might devour.”
Scripture does have a bear attack story (2 Kings 2:24) and Matthew 7:6 ends with the image of savage dogs or pigs tearing people to pieces.
But Scripture seems more concerned with the thorn than the fang. The curse on Adam was that the ground would bring forth thorns and thistles instead of food. God warns the Israelites that the other nations in the land will be thorns in their sides (Numbers 33:55, Joshua 23:13, Judges 2:3). Laziness leads to thorns in your vineyard (Proverbs 24:31). Isaiah uses thorns as a symbol of a land under judgment abandoned by its people (Isa 5:6, 34:13). Jesus says the cares of this world are thorns crowding out the seedlings of the Word. Paul describes his great trial or affliction as a thorn in the flesh (amplifying the image used by God for the enemy nations).
Yet isn’t the fang more frightening? I’ve never worried about any of our neighbor’s plants, nor have I ever wondered if the neighbors might be afraid of our rosebushes. So why does Scripture worry about thorns so much? It can be argued that thorns are more dangerous. The curse in Genesis 3 is that our agriculture will not always succeed. We will work to grow food, but food won’t always come. History shows us that thousands, at times millions die in famines, when the vegetable kingdom has not produced for us.
Paul’s image of the thorn in his flesh is dramatic because of its implied avoidability. A literal thorn in your flesh ought to be easy to deal with. Just take it out. Yet the spiritual thorn in the flesh Paul cannot take out. He prays to God three times to take it out, but God chooses not to. Is that not part of the unseen drama?
“God, I know you see how much this hurts. And it is not at all hard for you to pluck it out. Why aren’t you helping me?”
“My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness. Paul, I could change the circumstances that give you so much pain. But I can also give you peace in the midst of your pain. Which is the greater display of my power?
That dog has been an encouragement to pray. I've thought of David's words: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Now I shouldn't exaggerate; that dog is not the shadow of death. (She isn’t a pit bull). But I could call her house the shadow of punctured skin. And if God is able to sustain in the fear of death, how much more can He sustain in the fear of a flesh wound? So I began to commit my epidermal integrity to God as I walk past.
A couple months ago I thought about Jesus’ words to pray for our enemies. Can I pray for that dog? I don’t believe dogs have souls, but I’m sure they have emotions. What lies behind their aggressive behavior must be a mixture of fear and anger. So I’ve prayed for those emotions to be stilled. While my prayer is driven by the desire not to be bitten, I don’t think this is a purely selfish prayer. If the dog feels less fear and anger, my prayer would increase her happiness as well as my own.
I’ve also included in my prayers the dogs’ owners. I’ve never met them, but I pray now as I pass that house, that they would be abundantly blessed. May their table be so laden with the riches of God’s mercy and love, that even the dog is transformed by the crumbs of blessing that fall from her master’s table.
In the last few weeks I've noticed a difference. I've seen the dog outside a few times, and she hasn't threatened me, she hasn't even barked at me.