To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Saturday, May 23, 2009

An Answered Prayer

My family lives so far out in the country that the closest thing resembling a town is a collection of buildings five or six miles down the road. We typically pass through town several times a week, more often than not on our way to one of the larger towns up or down the highway. What you might call downtown consists of a volunteer fire station, convenience center, community building, ball park, two church buildings, and a few houses and trailers. A couple of the houses have burned nearly down, and some of the nearby yards combine the casual mess of rural life—rusted car bodies; shabby outbuildings; discarded stoves and refrigerators—with cramped, in-town lots. As an unincorporated town, there’s no local codes enforcement, so houses and yards run the spectrum from well-kept to thoroughly shabby.

Lately I’d been noticing a dog tied up just off the side of the road: a big yellow dog on a very short leash—too short to reach beyond the bare spot he’d worn in front of the trailer. The last couple of times I’d been in town I couldn’t help but notice the dog’s eyes: sad, hopeless, even. Sometimes when I passed he was pulling against his chain, apparently trying to find a more comfortable position in the dirt. Most of the time he was simply lying there, chin on his front paws, eyes nearly closed. Always he was listless, sad-looking, alone. Driving through town last week I found myself whispering a prayer that God wouldn’t allow the poor fellow to keep on suffering.

This week, on the way through town I noticed the dog had gotten loose and was galloping, with obvious relish, around a neighbor’s yard. For a moment I thought he might gallop right into the middle of the road, but he stayed in the grass, clearly glad to be free. I went on to the highway and took care of some business nearby.

On my way back through town I came upon a rather unusual sight for this road: a traffic jam. More precisely it was a slow-moving line consisting of two cars and a pickup truck with a lawnmower trailer. It didn’t take long to find the slowdown’s source: the big yellow dog. He was bouncing along the side of the road, and the drivers were trying to give him room. Just as I came around a curve and up to the line of cars, the dog galloped across our lane of traffic and right into the path of a Buick coming the other way. The car’s front bumper caught the dog solidly on the head and sent him spinning backwards into the path of the pickup truck, which didn’t have time to swerve. The car directly in front of me blocked my view of the dog. I held my head and prayed he was still alive.

The Buick pulled up beside me and the driver opened her window. She was an older woman with an even older-looking man beside her and a poodle-sized dog in the seat behind. The woman’s hand was over her mouth, and tears had begun welling up in her eyes.

“The dog ran right out in front of you.” I told her. “There was nothing you could have done.” The car in front of me had driven on so that I could now see what kind of shape the poor animal was in.

The dog was struggling to rise up off the ground. The flesh of his lower jaw hung from the bone, and both his front paws were already covered with blood. He wagged his tail over and over as he struggled without success to stand. “It doesn’t look like he’s going to make it,” I said. “It wasn’t your fault.” The woman closed the window, and the Buick slowly drove on down the road.

I moved my car up closer and parked it to shield the dog from oncoming traffic. The driver of the pickup truck had parked up ahead, and he and a couple of neighbors were coming over to see about the dog. One man walked quickly, ahead of the others, and called the dog by name, “Biscuit!” No response. It wasn’t particularly hot, but the dog was panting in the sunlight. His eyes were open wide with emotion as unmistakable in a dog as in a human: terror.

“Somebody ought to put him down,” the man said. He said he had a gun back in his trailer, but nobody there wanted to shoot someone else’s dog. The dog’s owner, someone explained, had gone out and wasn’t answering her cell phone. “Her husband’s on oxygen and can’t leave the house,” another neighbor said.

A truck passed in the other lane and Biscuit struggled again to stand up. He had managed by now to pull himself into a sitting position but still wasn’t able to stand. He sat there now without a sound. The skin was torn away on one back leg, apparently from when the pickup truck’s trailer had run over him.

“He’s going to have to go to the vet if he’s going to make it,” someone said.

“I could take him,” I said, “but I’d have to put him in the trunk of my car. Does anybody have a truck?” The man who knew the dog by name went back up the road to see what he could do.

I stood between the wounded dog and the sun, rubbed his back and talked to him as soothingly as I could. After a few minutes a couple of men came and used an old sheet to load Biscuit into the back of a pickup truck and carry him a hundred yards or so to a shady spot in front of his owner’s trailer. I got back into my car and drove up behind. The owner’s husband was already at the door, in his wheelchair, talking with the men about what to do. I drove on, praying softly for Biscuit’s healing and that those taking care of him would show wisdom and compassion.

Then, just outside of town it hit me: Maybe God had already answered my prayer. Last week I had asked God not to allow the dog to keep suffering; could this be his answer?

I came into town again a few hours later. Nobody answered the door at Biscuit’s house. A woman across the road told me his owner had taken him to the veterinarian to be put down. The owners, she went on to say, had been trying to give him away—he needed a family with children and lots of room to run around—but nobody would take him.

Was Biscuit’s death God’s answer to my prayer for ending his suffering? Yes, I believe it was—at least as far as I’m able to understand God’s will. That’s not to say God caused the dog to be wounded and die for my benefit. We humans are on shaky ground whenever we assign specific motives to the intricacies of God’s workings. An individual Christian, for example, may have prayed for opportunities to serve others and later found the events of 9-11 provided a direct answer. Does that mean God destroyed the World Trade Center so a Christian in New York City could hand out bottled water to firefighters? Of course not. But God does use painful events, from the trivial to the most enormous, for answering prayers and serving his purposes.

And not only do I believe God answered my prayer that day, but I think my seeing Biscuit’s injury as it happened was God’s way of reminding me that he had. As I drove through the countryside toward home, I thanked the Lord through tears for both. And in the quiet of driving down a country road, alone with God, I was reminded of a few other truths as well.

First, God hears and answers the prayers of his children—including me. I understand this fact doctrinally, of course, but sometimes it’s a blessing to be reminded deep down. God’s attention to his children is something I now know not only in my head, but in my heart.

Second, sometimes answered prayers hurt more than the unanswered ones do. Biscuit’s sadness while tied up was painful to see on those occasions when I drove past, but most of the time I gave no though to his situation; his suffering and death however, have been a painful memory ever since. Needless to say, those same events were far more difficult for Biscuit himself. In the short term, at least, the end of Biscuit’s suffering was much more painful than his earlier plight. But one day’s intense suffering may have saved him from years of unremitting hopelessness. It’s not the outcome I would have chosen—I prefer happily ever afters. But there’s a reason we love happy endings in our stories: we don’t always get them in a world full of sin and death.

Thus it is that in a fallen world blessings sometimes come only at the cost of pain and suffering. Often the best outcome involves blood and tears. On a small scale, God’s answer to a prayer for healing may come through the suffering of surgery or other painful treatment. On a grand scale, prayers for the downfall of an oppressive regime may be answered through warfare, as when Nazism and Japanese imperialism were broken through the horrors of World War II. At its extreme, redemption in a fallen world comes at the highest imaginable price: the perfect Lamb of God’s bloody death for the sins of the world.

And so we live in a world where the beauty of creation is stained with sickness and death. The greatest triumph grows up from a seedbed of pain, and every life is sustained only through taking the lives of other creatures. Even God’s most merciful answers to prayer often involve pain and suffering. Biscuit no longer experiences the despair of being tethered and alone—thanks to being slammed in the head by a Buick. A young woman no longer suffers with liver disease—thanks to the death of a transplant donor. Are these the results of answered prayers? Yes, they are. Does God enjoy answering prayers through the suffering of others? No, I don’t believe he does. These kinds of situations are by no means a function of God’s callousness or some perverse, cosmic sense of humor. Rather they are a result of our own sin. Death and suffering came into the world through the sin of human beings long ago, and we’ve been living with the consequences ever since.

But praise God that one day those consequences will be destroyed through the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of Man. The Word of God promises that a new heaven and new earth are coming; in that new creation will be no tears, no pain, no death, but only the glorious reality of God and his Kingdom (Rev. 21). Despite all our sin and suffering, the beauty of God’s creation still shines through in this world. And sometimes God answers our prayers in a way that reminds us how much more beautiful and complete that one will be.

© Copyright 2009, A. Milton Stanley

Update: One of my sons points out that he's seen the son of Biscuit's owner visiting with the dog and that, although he was tied up at the time, Biscuit looked pretty happy. Also, the owner's son has been in school most of the days I've been driving through town. Those are good points. I certainly don't want to suggest that Biscuit's owners mistreated him in any way or that they did anything less than their very best in taking care of him. The thoughts here are my own reflections and not an evaluation of anyone else's character or performance.