Several years ago my family and I were driving in southern West Virginia near the college campus on which I worked. As we turned with the road in one of its many curves, my wife suddenly grabbed my arm and exclaimed, “Did you see that buffalo?”
“No,” I replied. “I didn’t see any buffalo. Are you sure you saw a buffalo? There aren’t any buffalo around here.” And while I waxed eloquently on and on about buffalo not living in the area, she sat quietly and looked ahead, smiling. The road curved back again and by the road we came upon a huge wooden gate and above it a big sign that read, “Grandfather’s Hill. Horseback riding and petting zoo. Come and see our friendly bears and buffalo.” *Grandfather’s Hill was not its real name.
They should have mentioned crow, too, since that was what I was eating. Anyway, I pulled our car into their parking lot and we got out. After we had walked around a bit, looking at the various animal exhibits, we finally went into the main building which housed a gift shop.
While my wife and son looked around, I was irresistibly drawn to a large cage that stood in an open area towards the back. Inside the cage was a small black bear, probably in its adolescence. It sat on its rear haunches looking forlorn and I found myself feeling sorry for it. “Oh, it’s lonely,” I thought as I approached it. “How ya doin’, buddy?” I gently said to it as I neared it. “Are you feeling forgotten? Are you lonely?” I began to reach out to pat its leg which was just inside the bar of the cage. When my hand was inches from the bars, the bear shot its two front paws out like lightning between the bars and smacked my hands hard between them!
I was extremely startled and jerked my hand backward out of its reach, smarting from its unexpected assault. “Oka-a-y!” I thought. “That was interesting. But maybe it didn’t mean to hurt me. I must have surprised it. Besides, surely the people here wouldn’t have an animal sitting here in the middle of their gift store if it was aggressive.” Famous last words. In my own defense, I was younger then and a bit more naïve than I am now. I moved slowly towards it again, this time a wee bit more cautious. “It’s okay, fella,” I said soothingly. “I’m not going to hurt you.” As I watched for any sign of sudden movement, I reached out again. I thought that if it knew I didn’t mean it any harm, it would let me touch it. My hand got as far as it had before and I held it there, waiting to see if the animal would react. It sat quietly and just looked at me as if it didn’t mind in the least that I was entering its space. Feeling encouraged, my hand started to reach through the bars and was almost touching its leg.
As quick as a snake, it lunged forward and reached both its paws through the bars, slamming them together hard around my forearm. Higher up my arm and with better aim than before, its paws grasped at me even as I pulled back away from it, its claws raking long lines of skin from my forearm. Well, enough is enough, even for me. I quickly joined my wife and young son and said simply that we needed to stay away from the bear on the other side of the room. I mentioned my little misadventure to the owner/manager before we left (noting that the animal could be very dangerous especially to children who might wander into its reach) and we then left, with me on a quest for the antiseptic in the first aid kit that we keep in our vehicle.
As foolhardy as approaching the bear may have been, Christians frequently do the same thing on a spiritual level. We flirt with things that we know are spiritually dangerous and potentially corrupting. We reach out thinking foolishly that such things are not really so dangerous (whether they’re things we watch, things we indulge in, or kinds of attitudes we permit ourselves to have). Unfortunately, we find out sooner or later that some things really are beset with pain and sorrow, and are best left alone.
Still, the good news is that God has truly caged our spiritual enemy and limited its ability to daunt and control us. It is caged and we are free. “… There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1-4 NIV).
One of the great truths of God is that His love and power are relevant to every day life. It is His love that moved His God-sized heart to bear the Cross in our place. It is His power that binds the universal law of sin (which is that sin in all men and women will be judged) to its being satisfied by the laying down of Jesus’ sinless life for our sakes, securing for us a beautiful certainty that through faith in Christ, we are forgiven and set free from its power.
Not only so, but it works to tame the “wild beast” within each of us though our selfishness sometimes shows its fangs and clicks its claws when it gets an opportunity. Let us be careful then to not “wander” into the reach of our less-than-heavenly impulses. Let us steer clear of actions, words, and attitudes within ourselves that will rend and tear our spiritual growth and hamper our joy and peace as God’s children. And although such things cannot shake us loose from God’s grace and are truly caged by God’s authority, let us take care that we avoid the snares and pitfalls that can injure our fruitfulness as messengers of the hope of the Gospel.
“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry…. Rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator…. As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:5, 8-14 NIV).