I know it sounds silly, but it’s true: My cat taught me the true meaning of grace. He also taught me how to love unconditionally, and how to forgive seventy-times seven.
Here’s what happened:
My husband and I have a wonderful cat named Winston. From kittenhood he was loving, playful, affectionate, well behaved, and litter trained. Now, I don’t know what the trigger was but I’ve always suspected that the house we moved into must’ve had traces of cat urine in the carpeting from a previous tenant. Anyway, Winston began wetting the carpet, even though he’d been house-trained for all four years of his life.
It started out as only once or twice a week but quickly escalated into a habitual problem. As the months passed by, the accidents grew more and more frequent until he was urinating on the carpet 2-3 times daily.
During this time, I became pregnant with my first child and was in the nausea phase of the first trimester. Each day that I scrubbed and scrubbed (did I mention, scrubbed?) and disinfected the carpet, all the while feeling like I was going to barf (only to find yet another soaked spot), I grew more and more resentful and despaired. My resentment turned into bitterness, and the bitterness into loathing.
I no longer felt any love or affection for Winston. When I looked at him, all I felt was anger and frustration and dislike. I had stopped petting him long ago. I didn’t play with him or cuddle him. If he jumped up onto my bed, I pushed him off. And if he was in my way, I shooed him away rather than stepping around him. The constant nausea from pregnancy only exacerbated the situation.
My cat had brought out the worst in me.
We tried everything. We researched and researched and tried one tactic after another. We changed his litter daily, tried different brands of litter, bought him a new box. We took him to the vet to test for bladder and urinary tract infections; there were none. The vet figured it was behavioral, that he was marking his territory.
We continued to try various tactics in the hopes that he could be re-litter-trained but after a full year had passed, we reached such a state of helplessness, and the carpets were in bad shape in select areas, we decided (among other reasons) that we were going to have to move to another home. That way, the carpets could be thoroughly steam-cleaned without furniture in the way; and we also had high hopes that the next home would have no scents in the carpet. It was to be a second chance for Winston.
But, after it was all said and done, he began peeing on the carpets of the new home as well. We were so disappointed, we wondered if we might have to have him put to sleep. But we knew we wouldn’t. How could we end the life of a cat that wasn’t sick or dying? And we couldn’t give him away either because of his peeing problem. In short, there was no solution in sight.
Yet God was working in my heart.
The Holy Spirit began to gently convict me of my attitude. It didn’t matter that Winston was an animal rather than a person – he still deserved to be loved without condition. If I could not love my cat unconditionally, how could I love people unconditionally? My eyes were opened to an ugly selfishness inside me, and I was ashamed. I confessed my sin and repented.
At this point, I still hadn’t make the connection to grace, but through baby steps, God began to teach me the true meaning and application of grace. The first thing I did, and this took considerable effort, was to force myself to show Winston affection again; despite his behavior. The feelings weren’t there but I went through the motions anyway. I started petting him again; but I wasn’t able to go all the way and cuddle with him initially.
Over time, however, I was able to let him curl up in my lap, too. Very slowly, the feelings of affection began to return, even though he was still wetting the carpet every day. I had my relapses but with the Lord’s help, it got to the point where I could find the wet spot, feel sad and frustrated, but no longer react in anger. Instead of yelling at Winston, I would instead give him a firm but gentle rebuke (I wasn’t letting him get away with the bad behavior), clean up the mess without grumbling, and then make an extra conscious effort for the rest of the day to still be affectionate and loving with him.
I wasn’t rewarding his bad behavior; I was loving him in spite of it.
Then a curious thing happened. It didn’t happen overnight but as the months passed by, the accidents grew fewer and farther between. Eventually he stopped messing on the carpet altogether! Over the years that followed, he would only have a few accidents in the whole year, rather than every single day. Now it’s been nearly two years since his last accident. In short, with the on-going help and conviction of the Holy Spirit, I was able to love my cat out of his bad behavior.
Though it will always be a mystery as to exactly why Winston both started and stopped peeing on the carpet, I truly believe he (at least in part) stopped the behavior because I had learned how to extend him grace, each and every day, regardless of whether or not he deserved it. And what do I mean by grace? I mean that despite his actions, I refused to reject him.
Winston didn’t earn my love but God taught me how to give it to him freely, just as God gives us grace freely as well.
Galatians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.”
Along with grace, we must also learn to forgive. The two go hand in hand. When the Apostle Peter asked the Lord, how many times should we forgive our brother, Jesus replied, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22) I had to forgive my cat afresh every single day.
I now apply what I learned about grace through Winston to all of my relationships.
Condemnation and rejection will never change a person. In fact it will only push them further into sin and rebellion. People who feel unlovable do unlovable things. Romans 12:14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Verse 17 says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” Now, I’m not perfect by any means, and I don’t always love others as well as I could (there are times when I have to ask others to forgive me); but I have found consistently that gracious love is the only genuine way to love others.
I now thank God for what I went through with my cat. It was a horrible year for me and I was greatly disturbed by the person I was becoming; but God saw fit to transform me. Through Winston, he taught me a valuable lesson on the incredible power of grace.
Romans 2:4 says, “Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?”