FOR THE LOVE OF DOG
Written by Doug Ponder on October 30, 2015
The Order of Love
I love my wife and kids. I love The Lord of the Rings. I love Jesus. And I love food, whether its chocolate croissants from Sub Rosa or Bo-berry Biscuits from Bojangles. I love all those, but not in the same way and not in that order.
Almost everyone understands that it would be wrong to love Bojangles more than your own children, that it would also be wrong to love Bojangles the same as you love your children, and that it would even be wrong to love Bojangles “only slightly less” than you love your children—no matter how fresh and well-iced the Bo-berry Biscuits might be on that particular day. These conclusions are so universally held that they might be called common sense. But beneath our intuitions lies an important idea that grounds that common sense, namely, the principle of “ordered loves.”
The principle of ordered loves tells us that we ought to love different things in differing ways and differing amounts according to what the thing is. In other words, the value of something is not found in how we feel about it but in the nature of the thing itself. That’s just another way of saying that no matter how much love you Bo-berry Biscuits, they will never be worth anything close to the life of a human being (and therefore should not be loved in the same way or to the same degree). Although this conclusion feels obvious at some level, the mind- and heart-altering effects of sin tend to make blurry what should be plain to all. Thus we all find ourselves loving some things more than we should, while we love other things far less than we should.
The only way to avoid the sin of ‘disordered loves’ and its many undesirable consequences is to recognize that this is God’s world. It belongs to him, and he has set the value of all things in his world. Humans have one value; fish have another. Pinecones have a kind of value, while mosquitos have another. All things matter in God’s world, but not all things matter in the same way or to the same degree. It is idolatry to treat something with more love and respect than it deserves; it is cruelty to treat something with less love and respect than it deserves. But in all of this—we must remember—it is God who sets the limits. All things derive their value in relationship to God and his purposes in the world. We cannot pick and choose what we think is worthy of love and respect, and we cannot even choose how much we think something is worthy of being shown love and respect. It is God’s world.
For the Love of Dog
All this is why I’m troubled by what I see on an increasingly regular basis, an observation corroborated by stats in popular polls and academic studies alike. We are witnessing a society that is exchanging the love of God for the love of dog. This is not a new problem (Rom. 1:23), but it is a dangerous one. It reflects a tectonic shift in how we understand what has value in the world, for we begin to assess the value of a thing in relation to ourselves instead of in relation to God. We think, “If I love something, it has value. If I don’t, then it doesn’t.” And now you know why abortion is so strongly defended by so many.
No one has captured the irony of our disordered love better than the TV show Portlandia in its sketch, “Whose Dog Is This?” (Go watch it. It’s like 3 minutes long. Seriously, I’ll wait.)
Tragically, the absurdity that forms the substance of the clip’s comedy is gradually becoming less absurd. I’ve witnessed a scene so similar, in fact, that I thought the man was doing an impersonation. Background: On a partially-cloudy, 72-degree day, a dog was chained to a post outside a local coffee shop. The sidewalk was wide and shady, safe from cars and from direct sunlight. There was a water bowl next to the dog. With water in it. All of sudden a frantic man bolts in, asking everyone in the coffee shop if it’s their dog, his exasperation growing with each negative answer. Finally (a few minutes later), the dog’s owner emerges from the restroom. The frantic man makes his move. The dog owner is embarrassed at having to justify his bowel movements before the coffee shop. The frantic man lets out a sigh of relief. Crisis averted. Kind of. The real crisis is that we have become the punch line of a Portlandia sketch.
And I wish this were an isolated event, but another friend recently shared with me a similar story. She was at a neighborhood yard sale with her two kids and with two dogs she was watching for a friend. Over the course of three hours, countless people approached her to talk about the dogs. Are they OK on such a hot day? Do they need some water? Should they really be chained up like that? Not one question about her toddler and her newborn strapped to her back. No checking in on them. No “Your kids are cute” (and they both are). Just lots and lots of concern for man’s best friend without a bit of love for man himself.
We have to see the problem clearly here. It isn’t the dog’s fault. No dog ever asked his owner to enter him into a canine costume party. And they didn’t ask to be set up on dates through doggy dating services. Dogs haven’t requested pet TV channels to watch while their owners are away. Dogs eat anything, including poop, so I doubt their palettes are what demanded the hyper-gourmet dog foods so expensive you need a second mortgage to buy them. And I think it’s safe to say that dogs didn’t invent doggy fashion shows and clothing lines. We are responsible for all of this, and these things represent a massive shift in what we value.
This shift in what we value affects more than the dog owners themselves; it begins to shape the wider culture, too. Now every coffee shop in Richmond has dog-safe treats, but not one of them has a baby-changing station (not even Starbucks). And it used to be that you got a dog “for the kids,” but now people are increasingly getting dogs instead of having children. As sociologists have noted, it’s no accident that today’s highest pet ownership levels on record are mirroring the nation’s lowest birthrate on record. Like the force with Luke, the correlation is strong with this one.
The Love of God
There is a level of righteous anger we should feel about all this. Americans spend more than 61 billion dollars annually on their pets. That’s enough money to feed, clothe, and educate almost 170 million children in Africa for a year. But even more than righteous anger, Christians should feel great compassion. All around are people longing to be known and loved, but they are settling for the love of dog instead of the love of their God and Savior.
Don’t misunderstand: I know that dogs genuinely love us, and they are worthy of appropriate love and respect. I remember many late nights staying up with one of my family’s puppies who was struggling to adapt to life away from her mother. She would whimper and whine until someone laid next to her, so more than once I slept on the floor all night to comfort her. Over many years she was the source of much joy, companionship, even solace. But the love I had for that dog and the love she had for me could never hold a candle to the love of a child or of a spouse, much less the love of God. He knows us better than our dogs. He sees our sins for what they truly are, and he loves us still. And while dogs will love almost anyone who feeds them and treats them well, God loves those who are his enemies (Rom. 5:8), and he loves them to death—literally (Phil. 2:8-9).
When we come to know the love of the God who died for us, we are given new hearts that beat to love whatever he loves in the same ways and to the same degree that he loves them—no more, no less. Thus we learn to steward all things entrusted to us, the earth, the sky, the sea, plants and animals (including dogs!) and especially our neighbors. Jesus is Lord of them all, and he calls us to love them with an ordered love that differs in ways according to the thing itself. We dare not love things less than they deserve (for they all belong to God), but to love things more than they deserve is to look for living water in shallow wells. None of this means that dog owners must drop their pets off at the SPCA if they want to honor God, but it almost certainly means reconsidering how much time and money and sacrificial service we give to our pets versus our fellow image-bearers. The divinely ordered structure of God’s world exists for a reason, and that reason is his own love, full of wisdom and power. It is folly to live against it.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder