4 Lessons that I Learned from a Donkey (Jul-Aug 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

Anne-Geri’ Fann
July – August, 2003

I heard the most foolish sound in the world several years ago from a mud hut in Amacuapa, Honduras: the donkey’s bray.

If you have ever heard a donkey bray, you will know what I mean. Unless burdened with a pack and a destination, a donkey will typically stand in one place all day, completely silent. But bi-hourly, these quiet creatures will wail a tune that leaves most visitors throwing a pillow over their heads. It starts with a wheeze, then a choke, then a hee-haw so terrible that you swear a horse has hyperventilated and is screaming for assistance. Then, all of a sudden, it is gone. The beast of burden is again silent.

Several years ago I was sitting at a rustic table in Juana Romero’s adobe Honduran home, reading 1 Corinthians by candlelight with a friend of mine, when a light rain began. I was reveling in the romance of the moment when my peace was interrupted by Alejandro’s screaming donkey across the street. Hearing the donkey begin with the wheeze, I rolled my eyes and sighed. But as the burro bawled, I realized what I had been reading and suddenly laughed out loud. My friend said, “You’ve heard that sound a thousand times, why are you laughing tonight?” I read the passage: “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25).

I heard Juana giggle from the kitchen; maybe she “got it” before I did. I looked up at my friend and said, “I just realized that even in my most brilliant moments, compared to God, I sound a lot more like Alejandro’s jackass.”

This is not the first time a donkey has shared the wisdom of God. And I’m learning the principle Balaam learned: even donkeys can teach valuable lessons. Here are four lessons of Spirituality I learned from a donkey.

Lesson 1: God is God, and I am not Him.

Years before Balaam’s escapades, disobedience in the garden was the first in a torrent of selfishness that fatally streams everywhere in history. From the catastrophe of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-6), to the flood narrative (6-8) and the episode of the Tower of Babel (11), selfishness had become quite an epidemic. The Babel experience, a significant disaster, was due to a presumptuous appetite to dare the Almighty. But it seems that each of these stories in their own way cast light on what this cryptic break between God and humanity means and God’s response to it.

I have often been disgraced because of foolhardiness in my spiritual life. In attempts to look exemplary, to appear competent and persuasive, I have ignored the fruits of the Spirit and let my flesh perform. As a result I have been the emptiest when people were patting me on the back.

“God Himself could not sink this ship” is repeated in almost every story of the Titanic. What a challenge that ignorant man was making. Yet, I find Satan slinking that thought into my life all the time even though most of us report the words as being the most foolish thing to come out of someone’s mouth in recorded history. Many have built towers and ships and then offered them to the altar of ego. But what icebergs lay ahead for me if I build with my own blueprints? How many times am I going to learn “the hard way,” that anything on the drawing board without God’s instruction and guidance is a pipe dream, daring Him to undo it?

Lesson 2: He will let me know when I am trying to BE Him.

Self-deprecation and pride are closely related. I want to be humble, yet I am so frustrated when I don’t get my due. When I struggle with low self-esteem, I want someone to tell me I’m wonderful. When I ask the Lord to help me be humble, I hope it is after I am getting patted on the back. I know God honors the humble, so I want to be the most humble of all! The truth of the matter is that it does not matter who I am or what I do. I may publish articles and books, speak to the masses about the grace of God, or have brilliant moments in teaching that confound even me. But “the voice of the Lord strips the forests bare” (Psalm 29:6). At the end of the day, my musings are no more than the hyperventilating whinnies of a donkey compared to the sound of His voice.

While the Israelites wandered in the desert, the king of Moab was afraid that they would attack his country. The king sent some messengers to talk to a prophet named Balaam. The messengers told Balaam that the king would give him a lot of money if he would put a curse on the Israelites. God simply told Balaam not to put a curse on His people. And even though Balaam had previously said, “I could not do anything contrary to the command of the Lord,” the next day he got on his donkey and started traveling to Moab.

As Balaam traveled, he may have been contemplating the loot he would get if he did curse the Israelites when suddenly his donkey jerked and turned off the road. Balaam commenced to beat the animal three times before God surprised him by making the donkey turn her head and actually speak. “Hey! You’ve been riding me all of your life, have I ever led you astray?” (slightly paraphrased) At that moment, Balaam saw what the donkey saw — an angel of God with a sword who had been ready to knock him dead because of his disobedience. Balaam changed his mind and decided not to put a curse on the Israelites. I wonder if he also thanked the donkey for saving his life.

Lesson 3: I may doubt myself, but God does not.

Even some of today’s writers find didactic humor in the dialogue of donkeys. Animated movie hero, Shrek, is amazed that the talking donkey will not stop following him around. Shrek finally yells, “Take a look at me! What AM I?” Donkey thinks deep and answers, “Uh…really tall?” “Nooo!” Shrek exasperates, “I’m an Ogre! You know, grab your torch and pitchforks?! Doesn’t that bother you?” “No,” Donkey replies, “I really like you Shrek.”

I think that what impressed me most about “Donkey” was that he, well-aware of his shortcomings, spoke a simple wisdom. Shrek had to allow himself to be an ogre even though it was not all he thought it was. Being an ogre meant he was very different. Yet, being an ogre also meant that he bled, he hurt and he laughed.

“His power is made perfect in my weakness.” And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me (II Corinthians 2:9).

God loves the defeated and the flawed. And we must eventually recognize the fallenness that is embossed on all of us (not an automatic exemption; a fact of life). As Mother Teresa put it, “I am simply a pencil in His hand.” Her simple statement challenges a believer to be less concerned with presentation than with passion and to let God do the writing. Yes, I need to recognize my humanity, but I also should stop to listen when I hear God say, “I really like you.” I may not be able to get my mind around the greatness of God, but I can definitely grasp that He loves me as is and believes in me, too. Regardless of my foolish nature, He uses me, and I don’t have to prove anything to Him. There is one other donkey that taught me this lesson…

Lesson 4: He must become greater, I must become less (John 3:30).

In one of the most poignant events in all of the Holy Writ, Jesus suggests himself as king (Luke 19:30-31). In 1 Samuel 6:7 we find that animals, such as this donkey, which had “never been used,” were more appropriate for sacred purposes, perhaps for a king to ride into a city. Hence the king, our Lord Jesus, came through the city to great adulation, though riding on a common creature.

“Go into the village opposite you, in which as you enter you will find a donkey tied, on which no one yet has ever sat; untie it, and bring it here. And if anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” thus shall you speak, “The Lord has need of it” (Luke 19:30-31).

God is going to use us because we are willing. Otherwise, he will raise someone else to do it and we will miss the blessing of carrying on His glory. I certainly believe that if God could use even a donkey for His own glory then we might have a good chance of being useful “pencils” in God’s hand. When I struggle with my place in the kingdom, I have to realize that I was never meant to have one, save for the task of strapping the Lord Jesus to my back and carrying him wherever I go so that he may be seen and glorified. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling job.

So no, I am not trying to make a point that we are all foolish donkey-idiots compared to God. However true that may be, I am actually posing that we simply accept our foolishness and be happy with it, ecstatic in fact! Is it “too far” to say that we are merely donkeys, waiting to be ridden up by our Lord? I may still have to live with a struggle to be noticed and a propensity to pontificate. And, if God puts me in places where being up front and sharing is appropriate, I hope I can speak His words over my own. But I also have to realize that there are moments when the most foolish and annoying sound in the world is my own voice and sometimes it is an enormous compliment to Him when I shut up and let Him ride.New Wineskins

Anne-Geri’ Fann has served in various capacities in Honduras, short and long term, for fifteen years. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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