The true worship of the living God frees us from pride and bestiality.
Animal trainer Ivan Tors has been quoted as saying that the more he sees of animals, the less he thinks of man. To prove that a peaceable kingdom is a possibility—at least on his 260-acre preserve near Los Angeles—he has combined such unlikely pen-mates as a python and a chimpanzee, a lion and an elephant, and, most unlikely of all, a tiger and a fawn. “We humans live a phony existence,” he has said. “We have fallen out of rhythm with nature” (Time, June 16, 1967).
Earlier this year a United Press International writer captured the bestiality involved in the death of a child in Waco, Texas:
Little Ronald Curry got his prayers all wrong, so his father beat him and had him say them over again, police said. Ronnie, 4, ended his second attempt at prayer with: “God bless Mommy and Daddy.” They were his last words. Ronnie died the next day from the beating his father gave him with an auto fan belt and a stick.… Dr. Walter Krohn, a pathologist who testified at the trial, said the boy’s bruises and cuts were too numerous to count. He said the only body he had seen in worse condition was that of the victim of an airplane crash.
Our Apparent Bestiality
The relation between human behavior and animal behavior has been much debated. Men can, it seems, stoop to the animal level. We might say of a man who beats his wife and children in a drunken stupor, breathing ugly threats of even greater violence, “What a dirty rat!” But an important distinction must be drawn between human and animal behavior.
C.S. Lewis begins chapter three of his book The Four Loves with a discussion of “the love in which our experience seems to differ least from that of the animals”:
Let me add at once that I do not on that account give it a lower value. Nothing in man is either worse or better for being shared with the beasts. When we blame a man for being “a mere animal” we mean not that he displays animal characteristics (we all do) but that he displays these, and only these, on occasions where the specifically human was demanded. (When we call him “brutal” we usually mean that he commits cruelties impossible to most real brutes; they’re not clever enough.)
The cruelties an animal does, he does by nature; the cruelties a man does, he does by a perversion of his true nature. The difference between brutality from a beast and brutality from a man is that the beast doesn’t know any better and a man does—or should. There is an “oughtness” built into us by the Almighty God that is utterly foreign to a beast. This “oughtness” is now denied by many, especially among the college-age youth of our land. People are deceiving themselves into thinking either that there is no ultimate, knowable standard of behavior expected of us human beings, or that it is up to the individual or group to set up the standards by which a person will live his life. In this way we think we can slip out from under the demands of God upon our lives, and the high destiny that marks our creation.
G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “If I wish to dissuade a man from drinking his tenth whisky and soda, I slap him on the back and say, ‘Be a man!’ No one who wished to dissuade a crocodile from eating its tenth explorer would slap it on the back and say, ‘Be a crocodile!’ ” (Foundations). Man was created to live on a level far above that of the brutes. When he stoops to animal behavior, then he really becomes much worse than an animal. “Man posing as an animal becomes a more cruel animal, for no self-respecting wolf would have planned Dachau; man posing as an angel or Atlas is a feckless and muddle-headed sham, tragicomic at last in his inflated pride” (George Buttrick in Biblical Thought and the Secular University, p. 15). A few summers ago I watched a mother woodpecker trying to show her baby how to climb a tree, and I thought: people can be worse than animals—some of us parents do not care for our children as well as birds provide for theirs.
“A Bulgarian I met lately in Moscow,” says one of Dostoevsky’s characters in The Brothers Karamazov, “told me about the crimes committed by Turks and Circassians in Bulgaria through fear of a general rising of the Slavs”:
They burn villages, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by the ear to the fences, leave them there until morning, and in the morning they hang them—all sorts of things you can’t imagine. People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but this is a great injustice and insult to the beasts. A beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws; that is all he can do. But he would never think of nailing people by the ears, even were he able to do it [Pt. II, Bk. V, Chap. 55].
What a terribly mistaken notion it is to link sin with the brutality of our supposed animal ancestry.
When we stoop to a supposed animal level, God says, “I created you to be more than that.” “… Become mature men, reaching to the very height of Christ’s full stature” (Eph. 4:13, Today’s English Version). When we try to rise to the pinnacle of absolute power, God says, “I made you a little less than God.” The true worship of the living God frees us from deceitful pride and the wretchedness of a worse than animal existence. Jesus Christ is God’s revelation of the true human being into whose likeness we need to be remade. When we do not know who God is and try to climb to godlikeness ourselves, we are enjoined to look above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. When we do not know who we are and stoop to a level below that of animals, we are again encouraged to look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
A Biblical Example
King Nebuchadnezzar is an example to us of the heights and depths to which a man can go. Daniel 4 recounts for us how the king was lifted up in pride at his earthly achievements. “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” For truly feeling this way he was struck down, “driven from among men” and made to eat grass like an ox, dwelling among the beasts of the field. So too for us today. A person who thinks he is or can be master of all he surveys is on a direct road to loss of reason. G.K. Chesterton says somewhere that the person who thinks he can get heaven into his head will have his head explode. It would be better, he said, to get your head into heaven. In his Pensées the great Jansenist mathematician Blaise Pascal reflects: “Man is neither angel nor brute, and the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute” (358). Anyone who saw the Hollywood film production of Lawrence of Arabia could not but be struck with the truth of that statement. The “great” Lawrence started out as a god whom no one could resist, one to whom the fates bowed down; in the end, he killed and plundered as no mere animal. He died a senseless death, as neither a god, a man, nor a beast, but as an ink blot on the page of history.
Only after King Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged God’s sovereignty did his “reason,” his sanity, return. “At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives for ever.… At the same time my reason returned to me.… Now I … honor the King of heaven; for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to abase” (Dan. 4:34–37).
This insight is as applicable to the nation proud of its space exploits and imperial sway as it is to the drunken father or the hippie cut-up. The true worship of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ frees a person from both vaunted pride and black despair. Pascal again has a word for this generation:
It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the brutes without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly, apart from his vileness. Man must not think that he is on a level either with the brutes or with the angels, nor must he be ignorant of both sides of his nature; but he must know both [Pensées, 418].
It is to his lasting credit that John Calvin treated this same subject with characteristic clarity. He writes in his Institutes:
If all men are born and live to the end that they may know God, and yet if knowledge of God is unstable and fleeting unless it progresses to this degree, it is clear that all those who do not direct every thought and action in their lives to this goal degenerate from the law of their creation. This was not unknown to the philosophers. Plato meant nothing but this when he often taught that the highest good of the soul is likeness to God, where, when the soul has grasped the knowledge of God, it is wholly transformed into his likeness. In the same manner also Gryllus, in the writings of Plutarch, reasons very skillfully, affirming that, if once religion is absent from their life, men are in no wise superior to brute beasts, but are in many respects far more miserable. Subject, then, to so many forms of wickedness, they drag out their lives in ceaseless tumult and disquiet. Therefore, it is worship of God alone that renders men higher than the brutes, and through it alone they aspire to immortality [I, 3, 3].
The greatness of man is so evident, says Pascal, that “it is even proved by his wretchedness. For what in animals is nature we call in man wretchedness; by which we recognize that, his nature being now like that of animals, he has fallen from a better nature which once was his” (Pensées, 409). The essence of our sanity—that is, our true humanity—is to experience pride abased and express the true worship of the Almighty Father in heaven.
Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom includes the righteous rule of the ideal king of David’s line (Isa. 11:1–9). This “shoot from the stump of Jesse” will be filled with the Spirit of the Lord, and he will rule “with righteousness.” That is why “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid … for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The peaceable kingdom is the sphere of right relationships, with God our Father and his Son seen and acknowledged as the final authority, and with us as humble children, no better or worse than our brother man.
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