All Creatures Great and Small

Why the Believer's Treatment of Animals Matters

by Breanna Paniagua

I have been an animal lover for as long as I can remember. As a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to be a veterinarian and would regularly practice by nursing my stuffed animals back to health (I even had bright orange veterinary scrubs printed with dogs and cats). Eventually, I realized that being a vet involves more than getting to pet fluffy kittens and bunnies and bandage up their injured paws. My heart would never have been able to handle all the loss and suffering that I’m sure veterinarians—much like human doctors—deal with regularly. I greatly admire and appreciate veterinarians, but I am thankful I’m not one of them.  

I’m sure that one reason for my deep love of animals has to do with how I grew up. I spent my early childhood on an animal farm, complete with horses, cows, pigs, donkeys, chickens, rabbits, and even a llama! My family helped take care of the animals, and some of my fondest memories from early childhood include holding newly born lambs, gently brushing ponies after riding lessons, and helping feed the chickens. I remember watching with teary eyes one stormy night as my dad quite literally risked his life by moving the bunny pens away from the raging, flooded creek that ran through the front of the farm and into safety. Some may think that putting oneself in danger’s way to save the lives of some little bunnies isn’t worth it. To me, my dad was a hero that night, and he did his due diligence in protecting the lives of the animals on the farm over which God had given him stewardship.

Over the years, I’ve encountered all sorts of perspectives from believers on the topic of animals, but overall it seems that this topic is largely neglected in the evangelical world. As believers, what should our relationship with animals look like? What does it mean when Scripture says that we should exercise dominion over animals (Ps 50:10-11; Gen 1:28)? Does it even matter how we treat animals? Does God even care?

There’s actually a large number of references to animals in Scripture, and there’s a lot that could be said on this topic. For the sake of this article, we’ll take a look at some of the basics.

God Created Animals, and He Called Them “Good”
In the very beginning of God’s Word, we learn some important facts about animals that should lay the groundwork for how we think about them—and how we treat them. We know that God created animals and was pleased with his creation (Gen 1:20-25). In Genesis 2, we see that God wanted Adam to exercise stewardship over the birds of the air and beasts of the field by naming each one (Gen 2:19-20). From the very beginning, we see a beauty and a distinctiveness in this part of God’s creation, as well as a unique relationship that God has given to humans and animals that is marked by responsible stewardship.

God Cares About Animals
Throughout Scripture, we see that God does not just passively appreciate the animals he created—he cares about them! Many times, God’s care for even the lowliest of creatures is highlighted to reflect his great love for us: “Look at the birds of the sky, that they do not sow, nor reap, nor gather crops into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more important than they?” (Matt 6:26).

But there are also examples that reflect a Heavenly Father who has a love and compassion for animals simply because they are part of his creation and he is a loving and compassionate God. In the book of Jonah, God ends his speech to the prophet with this striking statement: “Should I not also have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 people, who do not know the difference between their right hand and their left, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). Evidently, God saw many animals perishing as one of the reasons for Jonah’s heart to be softened and for the city to be spared.

In the book of 2 Samuel, God sends the prophet Nathan to rebuke King David for his grave sins of adultery and murder, using the story of the bond between a poor man and his little lamb as a means of moving David to compassion:

[T]he poor man had nothing at all except one little ewe lamb which he bought and nurtured; and it grew up together with him and his children. It would eat scraps from him and drink from his cup and lie in his lap, and was like a daughter to him. Now a visitor came to the wealthy man, and he could not bring himself to take any animal from his own flock or his own herd, to prepare for the traveler who had come to him; so he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.

2 Sam 12:3-4

And it worked. Scripture tells us that King David was immediately filled with rage against the rich man in the story, exclaiming, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this certainly deserves to die! So he must make restitution for the lamb four times over, since he did this thing and had no compassion” (2 Sam 12:5-6). This was clearly the response Nathan expected. Regardless of the fact that he was a king, the bond between a beloved pet and its master was a sentiment well understood by David, and it had a poignant effect in this case.  

Believers Should Be Excellent Stewards Over Animals
In the beginning of creation, God told Adam to exercise dominion over the creatures of the earth (Gen 1:28). We know from Scripture that humans, who are image-bearers of the Creator, hold more value than all of non-human creation in our Father’s eyes. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of creation—particularly animals—don’t hold great value in God’s eyes. Aside from Adam’s initial task of naming and knowing the animals, there are plenty of other verses in Scripture that should direct us in how we view our responsibility of exercising dominion over them. We should care about the life of our pet and treat it well (Prov 12:10). We should care for our neighbor’s pet if we see that it needs help (Deut 22:4). We should even care for our enemy’s pet (Exod 23:4-5). In addition, Scripture explicitly tells us that even working animals have the right to rest (Deut 5:14) and to eat their portion of the harvest (Deut 25:4).

Animal abuse is a result of the Fall and a cruel distortion of what God intended for the relationship between man and beast.

Believers Should Hate Animal Abuse
Animal abuse is something that doesn’t seem to be addressed all that much in the evangelical world, but it should be. Proverbs 12:10 says, “A righteous person has regard for the life of his animal, but even the compassion of the wicked is cruel.” Animal abuse is a result of the Fall and a cruel distortion of what God intended for the relationship between man and beast. To abuse animals—whether they are our pet, an animal we intend to eat, an animal we happen upon in the wild, or any other living creature—is to spit on the very creation that God called “very good” and entrusted to our care. I tend to agree with Charles Spurgeon on this point:

It is not only for the sake of the creature subject to cruelty that we would, plead for kindness, but with a view to the good of the person causing the pain; for cruelty hardens the heart, deadens the conscience, and destroys the finer sensibilities of the soul…The man of dead heart towards God has a heart of stone towards the Lord’s creatures, and cares for them only so far as he can make them minister to his own wealth or pleasure.

Charles Spurgeon, “A Word for Brutes Against Brutes.” The Sword and the Trowel, 1873.

In reality, because believers know where animals came from and who created them, we should treat them with the most care and have the least tolerance for any amount of abuse towards them. Animal abuse is a sin, and we should hate it.

Animals Are a Good Gift From a Loving Father
When was the last time you watched dogs playing in a dog park? Or examined a ladybug that landed on your arm? Or listened to the hoot of an owl, or the gentle melody of crickets and toads in the night? And when was the last time you thanked God for these wonderful aspects of his creation that we have the privilege to enjoy?

As I write this, my little floppy-eared cocker spaniel is curled up next to me, keeping me company and occasionally nestling his chin on my leg while looking up at me with his gentle brown eyes. I often thank God for him and marvel at the fact that the God of the universe is also the One who created this little furry friend of mine who brings me so much joy! The God who sent his Son for us is the same God who made all creatures—in all their beauty, diversity, and intricacies—to declare his glory and to bring us joy. What a wonderful and good gift from a loving and creative Father who cares for us.

Related Articles