Someone has said, “In a world full of sheep, be a lion.”
The statement is pithy and catchy, appealing to our desire for individuality, not to mention, no pun intended, our innate pride. It also looks good on a t-shirt or motivational poster. We want to think of ourselves as smarter, stronger, more independent, and more capable than the people around us. Being a sheep, we tell ourselves, is for other people. We are different.
Strangely, one might observe that all the people claiming to be carving out their own path very often seem to be going in much the same direction as others who likewise claim to be carving out their own path. It is a bit like the teenager who, in a fit of rebellion and non-conformity, ends up dressing and looking just like every other teenager who is refusing to conform.
Gary Larson once drew a Far Side cartoon featuring one sheep, in a crowd of sheep, standing up shouting, “Wait! Wait! Listen to me!… We don’t have to be JUST sheep.” But what else is a sheep going to be?
From God’s perspective, no matter how much we protest, we are all basically sheep and sheep we will remain. Nor does God mean any insult by the moniker. God frequently likened His people to sheep in a positive way. Psalm 23 is quite well known, with its opening line, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Likewise we read in the Psalms, “Know that the Lord, He is God! It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture (Psalm 100:3; ESV).”
In our pride we want to be lions, or wolves, or some other animal perceived to be fierce and savage. But in humility, we do better to recognize that, in our relationship to God, being one of His sheep is not all that bad. We struggle against being God’s sheep to our own detriment. Jesus taught a lesson about this once, saying, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. (Matthew 25:31-33; ESV)” The sheep were the ones save. The goats were the ones who were lost.
In a world full of sheep, try not to be a goat.
In a similar manner, when Jesus observed the people of His day, we read, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36; ESV).” This observation by Jesus is likely a reference to 2 Chronicles 18:16, and a prophecy concerning the death of Ahab, king of Israel. Without proper leadership, the people would be rudderless and directionless.
The Lord’s solution to the people’s condition was not to tell them to stand up as lions and to stop being sheep. Rather He encouraged them to listen to God’s word and obey it (cf. Mark 6:34). Additionally, He encouraged His apostles to tend to the needs of the masses, by doing their part to teach God’s word, and seeking for others to do the same (cf., Matthew 9:37-38).
From God’s perspective, we are all sheep, and what we need is guidance.
Upon more than one occasion, God lamented the poor leadership provided to His people by those He had appointed to shepherd them. For instance, God told Jeremiah, “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold. (Jeremiah 50:6; ESV)” And elsewhere He said to the prophet Ezekiel, “As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because
my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep… (Ezekiel 34:8; ESV).”
God never encouraged His people to cease being sheep. Instead, God sought to provide better leadership, namely Himself. God as Shepherd was always the ideal. Again, the Psalms, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and, “We are His people. The sheep of His pasture.”
Jesus taught concerning Himself, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)” Likewise, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me (John 10:14; ESV).”
We are going to be sheep. We might play-act at being lions, or pretend we are wolves, or even a dragon or such, but in the end, we are sheep and sheep we will remain. Our primary choice then is who are we going to follow. God offers Himself and His Son as shepherds for His people, leading them to green pastures and still waters. There are other shepherds we might choose to follow, but they aren’t the Good Shepherd, and they won’t lead us aright.
In a world full of sheep, make sure you are following the right shepherd.
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Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.