Freedom-Giving Boundaries

Sometimes it takes a dog to show us that the fruit of discipline is liberty.

Everybody at the apartment complex where I’ve lived for two years knows my Chloe.

They know her as the happy Golden Retriever who can often be seen trotting through the grounds, a tennis ball held tightly in her smiling mouth, trailing a non-descript fellow behind her. Chloe has an uncanny charming effect on every person who lays eyes on her. Walking alone I rarely seem to have a magnetic effect on anybody, but when I’m being towed behind my giddy Golden, social barriers come tumbling down.

Retrievers are naturally happy, socially-oriented canines, but when Chloe’s out with her ball she’s got an extra helping of joy added to her aura. Chasing that thing back and forth in the wide grassy field at the center of our complex is like a half-hour field trip to Heaven for her.

And from the way the other dogs watch from the windows surrounding, I’m sure it would be for them, too.

Freedom and Bondage

You can see it in their eyes: Dozens of Collies and Chihuahuas, Pugs and Terriers — and one temperamental Beagle who seems the most offended by the whole affair — staring out of their windows, sometimes howling, always longingly watching my Chloe as she stretches her legs and runs unfettered after her beloved tennis ball.

I feel sorry for those dogs when I see their longing eyes behind the glass. They won’t know the kind of freedom Chloe enjoys, mostly because, I suspect, they’d probably abuse it. There’s nothing fundamentally different about Chloe that makes her better than them (well, Goldens do have a more amiable temperament). I place primary blame on the owners for these dogs’ undisciplined temperament, and consequently their necessary captivity.

Most people, when they get a dog, are thinking mostly about the two months of puppy they want to enjoy rather than the 10 years of dog they don’t plan on preparing for. When they come to those long adult years, they find themselves with an undisciplined, full-grown creature that has outgrown its charm and they don’t know what to do with it.

When I was a kid, my parents hired a professional trainer to help them domesticate Lucy, the German Shepherd my sister had picked out to be our family dog. My dad took us along to Lucy’s obedience classes so we could observe the process and be able to train dogs ourselves from then on.

That’s what I did with Chloe almost a decade later.

But even when you know what to do and why it’s important, it still isn’t easy to sternly rebuke a little ball of fuzz when she’s done something naughty but still so darn cute. Or to deny her the pleasure of people food when she’s got the original Puppy-Dog eyes trained on you. I think the worst was listening to the simultaneously adorable and pathetic whimpers coming from her kennel in the morning. But all of these things were measures that prevented numerous challenges and hardships later on.

The benefit of all this has made an immeasurable difference in my relationship with Chloe. She was potty-trained at 10 weeks old, which was awesome. Today I can leave to run errands, hit the gym or whatever, and know that she will not chew anything she isn’t supposed to or bark incessantly and bother the neighbors. And best of all for her, I can take her off-leash in the park and watch her bound joyfully after the tennis ball again and again, unafraid that she will run off anywhere or do anything to get either of us in trouble.

It hit me the other morning, as Chloe was fetching freely and the angry Beagle was yipping at her whenever she passed his window, that this what God wants for me — this is why He’s looked after and disciplined me the way He has.

You see, Chloe doesn’t use her freedom to do the things the undisciplined dogs do. No doubt, given a leash-less opportunity most of them would wreak as much havoc as their size allowed. I wonder if, as they are watching her they aren’t thinking, “Why don’t you ditch that guy!? Go get that mail lady! Bite her good! Wait! Why are you going back? He’s going to put the leash on you! What a sucker!” Her obedience must not look like freedom at all to them.

Then again, she’s the one enjoying a romp in the open air while they press their wet noses to the window.

Likewise, the world looks at some of the costs involved with our pursuit of Christ and thinks we’re crazy. They mock those who opt for purity in the face of internal conflict and external pressure. I know as I have struggled to leave behind my own self-indulgences, and even the homosexual tendencies that come so naturally to me, people (many of whom have never met me, mind you) will describe my life as loveless, pointless, hopeless. Christians throughout history have received similar (and worse) criticisms from an incredulous and unbelieving world, who ironically are ensconced in the ever-tightening tendrils of sin they are convinced is the best they have to hope for.

The free spirits, open relationships and progressive minds of our culture lead people into a bondage that only tastes good when you’re ignorant about what is good. Even if there were none of the “practical” consequences to sin that we seem to focus on the most (STIs, abortion, alimony), the soul-killing power of sin would still be there.

The “disease of self” — as dc Talk once put it — is what I’m talking about. It’s not just the way we steal and hurt others, but the self-focused ways we love and give and do things we think are good. It doesn’t take long for that self-living to trap you inside yourself, preventing any real connection to God or others. It’s an amazing grace that God interrupts our slow descent with discipline.

And you know, contrary to what a lot of preachers and authors will tell you, He doesn’t even look down on us for it.


Just the other day I rescued a little Yorkie wandering around the apartment complex late at night. Yorkshire Terriers are adorable and very valuable little dogs, yet this one’s owner had not even bothered to affix a mark of ownership. No collar, no tag; just a helpless little dog wandering alone in gator country.

I found out later that “Missy” escaped her home because of a door left open. She had only been “free” for a short while, but it didn’t take her long to get caked in poop and acquire a nasty scratch on her back. She kind of reminded me of me, in that way. I can’t think of a time I threw off the oppressive fetters of my faith to do what I wanted that I did not end up wounded and dirtied in some way.

As I gave the Yorkie a bath, at times fighting my gag reflex as chunks of filth came off, I kept seeing that adorable little face looking up at me, the cute canine smile nestled in her bushy whiskers, and it was worth it. Oh, it was not pleasant — and believe me, I disinfected everything after this rescue. But underneath all the nastiness I knew there was still a lovable creature of great value. And if I, being evil, can have a tender feeling for a wayward little creature — well, you know.

As I’ve enjoyed more walks and more games of fetch with Chloe, I’m gaining more peace about the disciplines the Father’s walking me through. I’ll admit sometimes it feels like I’m on a really short leash when what I really want is to burst forward. Sometimes I feel like I’m confined to a kennel while the whole world is waiting outside, rife with interesting garbage I know I’d love to muck through.

But through all that training, I never wanted to deny Chloe a chance to stretch her legs, to get out and really discover what they’re for. I just wanted to make sure that, when I allowed her that freedom, she didn’t end up covered in poop. She had to stay on the leash a long time before she could be trusted off it in public. I had to know her, to know what she would do. And she had to know me and what I wanted from her.

In the same way I don’t think God wants to deny me my sexuality, relationships or any good thing. He just wants me to experience those joys the freedom-giving way — without forgetting Him, without hurting anyone, without defiling myself. Left to my own devices, I’ll inevitably do all of those things.

The Dog Factor

Dogs, though, have a distinct advantage that we do not. One thing I remember that professional trainer teaching us is that your dog wants to obey you. A dog is not driven by a constant desire to be in charge; a dog only needs to know if he is in charge. Once the hierarchy of the pack is established, he accepts it. All you have to do is communicate clearly and consistently, and you’re in for a great relationship with an obedient canine.

If only we shared that nature. You see, the leash is not really enough for you or me. The rules enforced will only have an effect for so long — in the end, we revert to our old nature. There is a flaw in us that simply will not have His lordship encroach on our self-focus.

For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. (Galatians 5:17)

I need a heart that wants to obey, that desires to please my Master. I need a radical trust in His character that naturally generates joy in following His lead.

I still want to get married and have a family someday. But for the time being, I’ve stopped asking God to help me fall in love with a woman. Instead, I’m asking for help falling in love with Him. Obedience is great and I’m improving there, but I find that too much of it comes from “I have to” and not “I want to.”

It’s frustrating because this does not change by force of will. It is a grace I only know to beg for.

Chloe follows me wherever I go, room to room. When I’m away she will love on others, but she waits for me. At the Exodus office, we joke that she is a classic case of Emotional Dependency. And she is, but it’s a good thing, because she is my dog and I am the one who loves her, who will never stop taking care of her and making sure she has the best life a Golden Retriever could hope for.

Copyright 2008 Mike Ensley. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Mike Ensley

Mike Ensley writes from his home in Orlando.