On a recent Sunday morning drive, my seven-year-old piped up from the backseat: “Mom, do you think I could get a pet monkey?” Smiling at my fourth child, and now somewhat unphased by these types of questions, I responded: “Why do you want to get a pet monkey?” Ready to fire off his answer, my son responded, “Because I really, really, really love monkeys. I think I might ask God to give me a monkey as a pet.”
Such conversations can be precarious for a parent. On one hand, my son is simply a young animal lover who believes that our omnipotent God can do anything—both positive characteristics. But on the other hand, I know that even conversations about pets can be teachable moments, and God is not a genie to be called on with a list of our latest desires. What to do? I asked my son two questions: “Where do you think monkeys love to be the most? What kind of environment did God make them to thrive in?” His quick answer carried to the front of our van: “In jungle trees.” Then I asked, “If you really, really, really love monkeys, don’t you want them to be where they love to be, in the place where God knew they would thrive?” My little thinker paused for a moment, understanding my conclusion. “Yes,” he said, “but I’d still really, really, really love to have a monkey as a pet!”
Animals offer children (and all of us!) a ready opportunity to see a created being at its happiest when it exists as God made it to be. All of my children have witnessed this phenomenon by viewing different animals in the wild, but perhaps none has been more formative than my oldest son’s experience learning to train German Shorthaired Pointers (GSPs). GSPs are working dogs, members of the pointing dog group. Good ones exhibit instinctive abilities to track and point upland birds using their strong bodies and amazing sense of smell. My son recently took our 6-month-old puppy, “Zeke”, to a natural ability test to assess his capabilities in the field and in the water. He had to show swimming confidence by jumping into the water after a training bumper, tracking the scent of a bird without seeing it run, and demonstrating the ability to find and point birds in a field. In the weeks and months leading up to this test, we often took Zeke to some local farmland, offering him plentiful opportunities to use his nose and feed his natural curiosity. His unhindered inclinations were on display for all of us to see.
Watching a working dog do what it was made for is a thing of beauty. Regardless of how happy a pointing dog may be snuggling with his owner on a couch or lounging by the fireplace hearth, it is in the field that he comes to life. Our German Shorthaired Pointers have a deep, intense desire to run through the wind, search out every thicket, and point anything with wings. Neither rain nor sleet nor snow seems to interfere with this drive; they find satisfaction in the hunt, no matter the season. A GSP’s body structure, the thickness of its coat, the number of olfactory receptors in its nose, and the webbed skin between its toes all bear testimony that these animals were purposefully designed—and when they are doing what they are made for, they find great joy.
I can’t help but think that watching these amazing animals at work is shaping my son’s understanding of God’s purpose in creation and increasing his awareness of spiritual truth. At the most basic level, he is experiencing wonder—and when properly aimed, that wonder turns into worship of the Designer of such a marvel. The Creator-God who so artfully made the German Shorthaired Pointer also delights in its beauty and ability. Enjoying the dog, then, glorifies the One who both made it and delights in it.
In addition to prompting us to worship the Lord of Creation, learning to train pointing dogs offers my son a portrait of a universal truth: we are most deeply satisfied—we experience the most joy—when we live as we were made to be. Contrary to the steady message of post-modern culture, happiness is grounded in ontology. We can try on whatever identity we choose, but happiness will remain elusive for those who reject their Creator’s design. This truth—which some find to be restrictive—is not oppressive; in fact, it is liberating. Just as my son tells his dog, “Okay!” to release him to take in a field and perform with passion the thing he loves the most, God has given us his Spirit to supply us with everything we need for life and godliness. As St. Augustine said, “[He] has made us for [Himself]”, and we find our deepest, truest joy in right relationship with Him, as He has created us to be.
We still visit monkeys in zoos, and our pointing dogs sleep indoors at night, but we will continue to look for ways to engage God’s creation on display as it was made to be. My hope is that my children will grow in wonder, soon learn to offer that wonder up as worship to our Creator-God, and be reminded of the deep, lasting joy that is to be found in living according to our design.