I’m glad to introduce a three-part guest post series by one of my very favorite people, Sarah Draves.
Sarah has been an incredible friend to my wife and me over this past year. This series, which explores the biblical use sheep and shepherding imagery, is close to her heart, and it’s my hope that God gives you as much insight through it as He’s given me. Without further ado, Sarah’s Sheepology series:
A friend gave me an unexpected gift the other day. I love gifts, so I was excited before I even opened it. I got even more excited when I pulled out an adorable, hand-made stuffed lamb.
Apparently, I’m a person with a very specific “Thing.” You know what I mean: Once, you mention casually to your family that you think unicorns are pretty neat, and for the rest of your life no one ever passes anything “unicorn” without purchasing it for you—all the while assuming the gift will bring you supreme happiness.
Unlike most twenty-somethings, my Thing is not a sports team or a band or even a unicorn but, rather, Sheep. And unlike most people who come to dread receiving their Thing year after year, I joyfully welcome anything related to my Thing.
Several years ago a mentor shared with me her passion about God’s identity as our Shepherd and our identity as His sheep. In order to understand the profound meaning of the relationship God is ascribing to Himself as our Shepherd, I had to understand two things:
1) the nature of sheep, and
2) that our Western shepherding is not the kind of shepherding Jesus was talking about.
The nature of sheep must be explored first, in this post, since shepherding is based on the needs of the sheep. The next post in this series will compare Western and Eastern shepherding; much shepherding in the East today is still quite similar to biblical shepherding. When we begin to paint a picture of what a relationship between a shepherd and his /her sheep was really like, we can really begin to view God, ourselves, and His heart toward us in new ways.
The New Testament alone references people with sheep close to forty times. I really think God created sheep as a reflection of our human nature. Learning about them has been both sobering and hilarious.*
Before we start looking at what sheep are like, allow me to step on my soapbox for a minute to address what sheep are not: sheep are not dumb. They are extremely needy and, in attempts to meet their needs, can be driven to do some pretty dumb things. (Soapbox over.)
Sheep are actually quite relationally intelligent. In studies, sheep can visually recognize up to fifty individual sheep by photo. They also have strong emotions and frail hearts: sheep feel pain over the pain of other sheep in their flock. In fact, when one of its sheep-friends is in distress, a sheep can literally kill itself with worry because it can’t do anything to help. All it can do is to cry out for its Shepherd to come rescue its friend.
Sheep are Defenseless, Directionless, and in all ways Dependent.
No other animal is so dependent on someone else to take care of it. Its wool, for instance, has to be sheared regularly, or it becomes matted and overgrown, and debris accumulates in it. As a result, the sheep can become overheated and topheavy; and when a sheep gets topheavy, it easily lose its balance and falls over—a position from which it is unable to escape on its own. Once a sheep is on its back, it is stuck there until someone finds and rights it, until it starves to death, or until a predator puts it out of its misery.
All sorts of things can cause suffering for a sheep. Flies will gather on its face and can drive the sheep insane. In an effort to relieve itself of the constant annoyance, a sheep will hit its head against tree stumps or fence posts, sometimes causing its own death. To prevent this, the shepherd will smooth oil around the sheep’s eyes, nose, mouth and ears to repel the tiny Death Files.
Parasites will burrow into the folds of skin beneath the sheep’s wool, lay eggs and cause infection. The shepherd must investigate every inch of his sheep’s’ bodies, and will pay that same tender, meticulous attention to each one.
Sheep are also prone to overeating, over-drinking, and slothfulness. The shepherd carefully weeds dangerous plants from the pastures to which he leads them, and often wakes them early in the morning when dew is on the grass so that they can hydrate and eat all at once. He takes individual walks with those he notices have been inactive.
In their dependence, sheep are also directionless. [1 Peter 2:25] They seek a leader to follow, even if it’s just another directionless sheep. (In Turkey in 2005, 1,500 sheep followed one wayward sheep off the edge of a cliff while their shepherds were having a lunch break!) Sheep also get overwhelmed and paralyzed when given too many options to choose from while traveling to new pastures, or when the path seems scary. The shepherd knows to show them clearly which opening to go through and which steps to take.
Sheep are dependent on a shepherd for defense as well [John 10:12]. They have neither defensive nor offensive weapons; they don’t even have front teeth. (If attacked, a sheep could perhaps gum its attacker to death . . . .) Sheep are prone to heart attacks if terrified, and can become too scared even to bleat. Should the sound of a predator be heard, the eyes of all the sheep will flash to their shepherd. [Exodus 14:13-14] They know they are helpless without him.
Sheep may be the most wholly dependent creatures I’ve ever heard of, but God says people are no different. Our world and our own Selves cry out, “gain independence; you shouldn’t need anyone/thing; defend yourself; figure it out on your own!” But Jeremiah 13:11 says differently: God created us to cling to Him. Our neediness is nothing to be ashamed of; we were created for it [Psalm 100:3]. God could have said, “You are the lions of my pride,” but he didn’t. God could have made us any way He wanted to, and yet He chose to make us like dependent sheep. Our God is aware of our need and, further, is prepared and willing to provide for us in every way.
If we are created dependent, then there must be no expectation that we would be able to handle life on our own. So often I am reluctant to engage with God because I think He won’t protect me, won’t guide me, doesn’t care about the details of my life. But if God knows I am a dependent, defenseless, directionless sheep, then He must be paying attention to me. If I am simply a sheep, a Good Shepherd would never abandon me to care for myself, defend myself, or figure out my own path.
In light of this knowledge, I begin to be more merciful and gracious with myself. And I draw near more confidently to this actively attentive God.
If we are sheep, we can abandon the stubborn independence that drives us away from intimacy with God, the shame that comes when we sense our neediness. Instead we can embrace the limitations of our nature and be drawn more joyfully into his arms. We can delight in being His sheep [Psalm 23:1] – like this little guy:
As I’ve learned about what sheep are like, it has redefined my concept of what a good shepherd would be like. In the next post, we’ll look at four passages in Scripture that especially illustrate the kind of Shepherd God calls himself.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.
— Micah 5:4-5
*Most of my information has come from the Gracestoration Bible Study (www.gracestoration.org) and from Philip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. Keller was a shepherd in Africa for a while, where shepherding is still as it was in biblical times.
- 09/03/2013 - Affirmation and Trial
- 26/07/2011 - Sheepology 103: Shepherding, Part 2
- 20/07/2011 - Sheepology 102: The Shepherd
- 27/06/2011 - A Gospel Worldview Part 5: A Theology of Vulnerability
- 13/06/2011 - A Gospel Worldview Part 4: The Story is the Standard