The Loyalty of Dogs, Dudes, and the Divine
AS I lay spooning my beagle in the afternoon sun, I basked in the canine’s unconditional loyalty. I thought, no matter how foolish I act, no matter how much of my blighted character I set before this dog, he’ll still come when I call, sit when I say, kiss when I cajole, and shake when I shoot out my hand. Dogs aren’t like people; bestowing loyalty carefully or conditionally. Certainly, if my only interaction with my dog, Dane, consisted of physical beatings or verbal beratings, I would never command his loyalty. But human loyalty always submits a much taller order than the absence of abuse or the occasional pat and doggie biscuit. The fact is, canine loyalty is a low-risk, high-return investment every time. When I do something to let down a friend, I always run the risk that he will, at some point, decide that I’m no longer worthy of his trust. But, unless I go to great lengths to alienate my dog (in Dane’s case, I’d probably have to just kill him), I know that he’ll always run to meet me when I get home and happily pester me whenever I’m outside. Enjoying this reality, I scratched Dane’s ear and took comfort in a loyalty whose expiration was nowhere in sight.
And then, crestfallen, I realized I was grievously mistaken. To prefer the security of my pet’s loyalty to the selective fidelity of a friend is a profound perversity. There are few sentiments more pathetic than the preference for the cheap and unearned over the costly and conditional. Prizing something for its easy acquisition rather than for its inherent merit is cowardly, for it is only done by those who fear to put up risk for more precious rewards. The very fact that my choices may enhance or undermine the loyalty of a friend should mean that any loyalty another person extends to me will command my reverence, respect, and labor. It is ironic, then, that loyalty is a quality whose value is contingent upon its conditionality while also being a quality whose meaning connotes longsuffering. The loyal person will bear with many abuses. Yet, the extent of the loyalty is always dependent upon the value the person places upon the object of their loyalty. Thus, a costly loyalty will have steep conditions while also having a tremendous tolerance. The greatest loyalty can be both earned and lost, but only through proportionately great actions of commitment or betrayal. The nigh-indelible loyalty of a dog is nice, but to imagine, even for an instant, that I am better off with unconditional loyalty than conditional loyalty is both small and selfish.
Now, those of you who are of a Christian persuasion may wonder at my position. For, I seem to have suggested that the value of loyalty rests in the nature of the conditions upon which it is predicated. Thus, since a dog’s loyalty is, once earned, almost without condition, it is almost without value in comparison to a human loyalty which I must labor to maintain. If my thesis is correct, then the divine faithfulness, which is seemingly of greater intensity and lower conditionality than that of the dog, ought to be at the very bottom of my scheme. Thus while I may escape cowardice by preferring conditional loyalty, I must apparently also embrace blasphemy by devaluing divine loyalty.
But, dear Christian, fear not. For, while it is true that the faithfulness of God is not conditional with respect to my actions, that by no means proves the conclusion that God’s faithfulness is unconditional. In fact, it rests upon conditions which are even more demanding than the most judgmental of friends. God is faithful to me, not because I always hold up my end of the bargain, but because He is totally concerned with His own joy, glory, and holiness. God is thoroughly God-centered (as any holy being must be), and His commitment to the redemption of His creation is an outgrowth of his self-centeredness. In order to bring me back into a right creature-Creator relationship with Him for the purpose of His glory, God has to satisfy an incredibly high standard—making me righteous (again, for those of you who know me, you’ll know that this is just about the most difficult thing imaginable). It just so happens that God Himself fulfils the conditions of His faithfulness, in order that it may not be conditional with respect to my actions in particular. In this way, again, God’s loyalty to me is shown to be valuable by virtue of the extreme conditions that are laid upon it.
Since, however, I could more easily dispose of my dog’s loyalty than I could of God’s, despite its deeply conditional nature, I am in the precarious position of being able to repeatedly transgress a loyalty which I cannot abrogate but which is more valuable than any of which I could dispose. In this way, I enjoy the ease of a loyalty which will never dissolve while knowing it demands of me the respect of a loyalty which I could never earn. The safety of God’s faithfulness calls me to rest in the sacrifice of Christ, but the expense of His faithfulness impels me to strive in a manner worthy of the conditions that demanded that sacrifice. I can only pray that my efforts are genuine enough that I do not turn the divine loyalty into a parody of my dog’s.