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What Petsmart Taught Me About God
Recently I stopped by Petsmart and paid a visit to the cats that are waiting for adoption, something I periodically do in order to kill time. Iím definitely a cat person more than a dog person; I find dogs to be overbearing and obnoxious, while cats, although still more than capable of being obnoxious, are at least less loud and less needy most of the time. Be that as it may, I noticed something strange about these cats.
They reacted to my presence in one of two ways. Some of the cats, upon seeing someone who might be about to pet them, came flying over to the bars, mashing themselves against the cage so they could have a little bit of interaction. Others stayed where they were, looking at me with the apathetic expression that most non-caged cats wear on a regular basis, obviously not seeing the point in angling for my attention.
The funny thing is that people do the exact same things. If you look at people who donít have faith in Christ to anchor them, they tend to fall into one of those two groups. Either they totally lose interest in the boring routine of life, going day to day in a giant rut, or else they fling themselves on any person, idea, or religion that might make them happy for a minute.
The issue is that life, without the greater meaning that faith in Christ provides, is quite meaningless. If you look at the fact that you enter the world with nothing and leave the world with nothing, then what you do in between has no purpose and no value. Nothing that you accumulate will last beyond your death, and very little, if anything, that you produce or create will outlive you. Any attempt to argue otherwise is nothing more than a defense mechanism on the part of someone who, as the great philosopher Jack Nicholson once said, canít handle the truth.
This makes it even weirder that peopleís attempt to create meaning for their lives has such a sense of desperation about it. Thereís an absurd urgency in the way people try to weave themselves some significance, from pouring themselves into their jobs in the faint hope of a promotion to buying houses they canít afford and donít want to spend time taking care of. Thereís a running joke among men, actually not so much a joke as an observation, that women can smell desperation, and desperate men rarely get dates because they exude this aura of insecurity. When I look at the world, I smell desperation. If the end of your life is the end of everything, of course youíre going to be driving yourself crazy trying to get all your living done before your life is over.
You can see evidence of this in the way that so many people try to attach themselves to something greater than themselves, as a way of giving them meaning. Look how many people have connected their identity to that of a sports team. Thatís a desperate bid for significance, by associating oneís self with a bigger purpose. Have you ever seen a bumper sticker that says, ďAmerican by birth, Southern by the grace of GodĒ? Thatís a person using his geographic location as an attempt to give him an identity. Carried to its logical end, this leads to racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and war. Some people attach themselves to their job or company, their social status, or possessions. Without an authoritative source, which can tell them exactly the meaning of their lives, people will grab on to anything that might possibly indicate that their lives are something other than completely worthless.
What happens if your life ends prematurely? A few weeks ago, I was watching SportsCenter show highlights from a baseball game the night before. The pitcher, 22-year-old Nick Adenhart, had thrown fairly well, and won the game for his team; the video recap showed him striking out several batters. A few minutes later, the broadcast was interrupted with the announcement that Adenhart had been killed in an early-morning car accident. He was living the dream, a pro baseball player, but a drunk driver had hit the car he was riding in and killed him and two other people. The night before, he was throwing a baseball in front of 50,000 people, and a few hours he was dead. Why do so few people realize that their life could end as quickly as Nickís did? Again, itís that defense mechanism. If this life is all you have, then of course you canít handle the thought that it might end tomorrow. But it might. What if it does?
Iím typing this essay at a school where I substitute, Cornerstone Christian Academy in Melissa, Texas. The school currently meets in a church building, which is not quite large enough. Classrooms are cramped, hallways are narrow, people stumble over each other trying to get from place to place. The school is in the process of buying land and putting up its own building, so every time two people bump heads, someone will mention how much better things will be once they have the new building. It sounds a lot like the way some Christians talk about heaven, to be honest; it has that same vibe of ďone day everything will be better.Ē I mentioned this to the schoolís headmaster, Dr. Gulesarian, who did his doctoral dissertation on language. He said, ďIt makes sense. The future is not concrete, so we canít use concrete words to describe it. We can only talk about in terms of our expectation, which will either be hope or despair.Ē
Thatís exactly what Iím trying to say. If you have hope for the future, what is the basis for your hope? What gives you the idea that things will get better? See, true hope requires a source, and the source must be bigger than life itself. A person cannot say or believe that things will be better in the end, because no person knows for sure; that belief is completely unfounded. Hope is only true if it comes from someone who can see the end and can vouch for the fact that the end is good. That someone, of course, is God. A person who does not have God cannot have hope, because they have no authoritative source which can assure them of a good future.
This lack of assurance leads to Petsmart syndrome. Everyone on earth is in a cage, with no way to get out, until Someone comes along and adopts us, giving us a life that transcends the misery and monotony that we used to call home. Without faith in Christ, though, a person cannot have any expectation of ever leaving the cage. They were born into it and they will die in it, and what happens inside of it matters very little. But why do so many people go their entire lives in the cage without ever realizing it? Why are they so blind to the fact that their lives are pointless?
I think there are two reasons. The first is that itís hard to see outside of the cage. Many people arenít ever aware thereís a God out there who wants to love them and wants to give them hope and meaning. If they hear about God at all, they may not realize that this is his identity for them; they may hear about him in the context of moralism, wrath, or politics, which do not give people an accurate picture of what he is all about. The second reason is that people have remarkable powers of adaptation. Look at Eskimos, for instance, who are able to live their entire lives in conditions that you or I would not put up with for ten minutes. Look at the people who lived in the USSR from 1945 to 1993, deprived of individual choice and freedom, under a brutal government, monitored by secret police who could arrest people and sentence them without a trial to lifelong enslavement in gulags. Who can live under conditions like that? Yet hundreds of millions of people did, because people can adapt to basically anything. After a while, even a person in a cage, living a life they know is meaningless, can adapt to the tedium and the hopelessness. It becomes, if not a happy life, at least a comfortable and familiar one. If you could ask most people on earth honestly, they would probably admit that life is not everything they hoped it would be, but that theyíve just learned to live with the fact.
The point, for those of us who follow Christ, is that weíre not like that anymore. God has come into our lives, and he has given us the hope and the meaning that the rest of the world needs. We donít have to act the same way they do anymore, despairing of the mundane or desperately pursuing a little happiness. If we do, weíve told God that his adoption means nothing to us; we would rather act like weíre still in the cage. To me, the only thing worse than staying in the cage our whole lives would be to get adopted and then keep acting like we were still behind bars, like we had to desperately hunt for meaning or fling ourselves all over in pursuit of happiness. God has called us to be different as a result of his adoption; he has told us that our greatest meaning is to love him wholeheartedly, show unconditional love to the other people that he has created, and spread the word that God wants to adopt everyone. People should be able to look at us and know that we see the world in a vastly different way than they do. They shouldnít look at us and see the same anger, bitterness, moralism, and futility that they see in themselves.
For those who need Christ, the point is that the offer of adoption is open to you. God has made you a blanket offer: he will give you salvation, hope, and meaning for your life, if youíre willing to accept them. You can start being eager for the future rather than despairing of it. You can see the end of your life as the beginning of an even more glorious eternity, not as the final curtain. Donít you crave a greater purpose?
The worst part of those visits to Petsmart is turning around to leave and hearing the cats protest, knowing that they havenít gotten their fill of affection yet. I have to leave, because I have other things to do, but God never turns around and leaves. He always has what you need, and the offer is always open. When youíre done trying to do things your own way, when youíre ready to leave the cage and see everything else that life has to offer, he will be there, ready to take you home.
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