God shows us in the natural world all kinds of things that are an analogy of our own condition.
One of these is the natural protective covering of seabirds and similar species.
Animals, too, benefit from a special covering. For instance the wool of sheep is an insulation layer. Sheep wool keeps the body at an even temperature because it does not trap heat, meaning that in hot weather it keeps the animals cool and in cold weather it keeps them warm.
Without their covering, creatures quickly die from cold and wet. Seabirds and sea-dwelling creatures are doomed if they cannot maintain it. Cold-climate creatures have a full-body layer of blubber to keep away the cold; other species have thick fur. It’s no coincidence that many of these coverings are based upon or consist of OIL. (Whale oil from their blubber was once used in oil lamps.)
To maintain their covering and protection, birds preen themselves several times a day. Second only to feeding, preening is the most common bird behaviour.
While preening, birds will remove dust, dirt and parasites from their feathers and align each feather in the optimum position for use. They use a special gland near the base of the tail, which produces an oily substance that helps waterproof feathers and keep them flexible.
What is outside, stays outside
God has been determined to protect creation from the outside environment. Heat, cold, sunstroke, dirt, water – anything that could harm – is kept at bay. These things are essential in themselves, for who could live without water, sun and earth, but only in their proper places.
Predators also are often deterred by what God has provided for the natural world by spines, shells, poisonous skins, odour sprays or even bright colours.
By many means God keeps the outside world where it belongs. What can we learn from these things?
We, too, live in a hostile and toxic environment, but our main concern as Christians is to maintain our spiritual life and protect it from harm.
“If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” James 1:26,27
We cannot avoid living on this earth with all its tribulation and demonic oppression. Jesus said, in the world you WILL have tribulation – but He also went on to tell us the answer “cheer up, I have overcome the world.”
“These things I have spoken unto you, that in me you might have peace. In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” Jn 16:33
So we also have a very effective and permanent protective covering, also “made of oil” which is a bible symbol of the Holy Spirit. We are both covered by and filled with His OIL.
The True Anointing
Only certain types of Old Testament people were anointed with oil – priests, prophets and kings. It is no surprise to learn that Jesus was all three. Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:14-22 ), Priest (Psalm 110:1-4 ), and King (Psalm 2).
Therefore “God has anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38) for our benefit. The ONLY anointing that we know is the one we receive from and share with Jesus the Messiah – we do not possess it by ourselves and certainly cannot “pass on the anointing” to others. It doesn’t belong to us!
“Now he who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, is God; who has also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.” 2 Cor 1:21,22
What we learn from the natural world is two-fold: we have been given a protection from all that is “outside” so that we come to no harm; and we have to be diligent to maintain that covering and keep it pristine.
Lazy Christians assume that once they receive the Lord, that’s it. There is nothing else to do but sit back and enjoy the benefits of salvation. The bible frequently says the opposite!
We are urged to “preen” daily to keep ourselves in the love of God, to prevent any erosion or damage to our relationship with God.
If we neglect our spiritual lives, ignore our God-given conscience, and especially if we grieve the Holy Spirit, we see at first little vulnerable gaps open up in our covering, that eventually turn into breaches in our spiritual lives – sometimes leading to a complete shipwreck. (1Tim 1:19)
Why? Allowing the world, the flesh and the devil into your life, just like the cold seawater overwhelming a vulnerable damaged bird floating on the sea, puts us in danger of sinking.
How We Preen
What must we do to make sure our spiritual covering remains effective? Remember what a bird does:
- it straightens its feathers
- it removes dirt and dust
- it casts out parasites
- it replenishes the oily covering
We must do the same. And not just once in a while when the mood takes us, but daily, continually and seriously, realising the dangers.
The devil is “prowling around” like a ravenous lion seeking whom to devour and when he spots a weakened and vulnerable believer he starts to stalk, waiting for an opportunity to pounce. In the wrong environment that believer can be open to suggestions, temptations, fears or anything else that will throw him off God’s path.
It’s then that the outside gets inside, where God never designed it to be. To avoid it, preen daily.
(1) We straighten our feathers by noticing anything that is out of God’s will and bringing it back into alignment. If anything has been knocked sideways, we can pray for help, or seek his word to get things set straight again.
Feathers get ruffled all the time in this world: has somebody upset you? Are you bearing a grudge? Are you angry with the way life is treating you? Are you frustrated and confused because things aren’t going right? PRAY and seek God’s guidance! Get his comfort and advice. Practise forgiveness and humility. Make sure everything is set straight again before you go on.
(2) We remove dirt and dust (this is pretty obvious) by noticing anything outside of God’s commands and repenting of all that offends him.
Daily life in this world makes us all grubby and stained. As long as the world is kept outside of our covering, it won’t be able to change us. It’s only when we don’t attend to “preening” that eventually the world’s standard makes inroads into our thinking and behaviour. Don’t let anything become an ingrained habit that is against the will of God. Pull it out of your feathers as soon as possible.
As often said, you can’t stop a bird landing on your head, but you can prevent it building a nest there!
(3) Next, we cast out the parasites. The natural world shows us spiritual realities, and the demonic kingdom of the devil works in the same way as diseases in nature. Parasites pretend to do no harm to the body, and if possible they take up residence in a supposedly benign or even “helpful” manner. But all the while they are draining resources, feeding on the body, and benefiting only themselves.
Of course, demonic influences do this and we should be on guard – using all the weaponry provided by God – to defend ourselves against attack.
But sometimes it’s people who act like parasites and we have to be bold enough eventually to banish them also.
Some people seem benign and helpful but if they latch on, they drain and use us for no good reason, never changing or growing, but only feeding themselves selfishly.
God wants us to be loving, but not to be USED. Jesus himself had to withdraw to the mountains or the lakes to avoid being swamped by hangers-on sometimes. It is said that he “did not give himself to men because he knew their hearts” John 2:24 and we should be equally wary.
(4) Finally, after straightening out our feathers, removing dirt, dust, parasites and all harmful things, we replenish the oily covering – our anointing – by spending time with the Lord in praise and thankfulness, reading his word and meditating on the things of God, praying and seeking his will in all things.
If we draw near to God, he draws near to us. And the devil has to flee.
“Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” (James 4:7-10)
Are you doing all this daily? Or are you letting things slide, hoping for the best, thinking it’s okay because God’s got it covered? Are you aware of the need to “preen your feathers” or ignoring it? If you are spending each day in careless ignorance of your condition, you need to stop laughing and start humbling yourself.
Don’t end up like a bird or animal with a damaged coat!
Don’t let the cold, the wet, the blazing heat of the sun or the filth of this world encroach on your spiritual life; don’t let parasites take up residence unnoticed, don’t let your feathers get knocked out of order and then hope you’ll still be able to paddle or fly when you suddenly have need. You may get a rude shock.