The Burden and Blessing of Sheepness

An acquaintance posted this on Facebook this morning and it caught my eye.  It pokes fun at the Biblical use of sheep for people in general and followers of God in particular.  After all, sheep aren’t terribly admirable creatures.  In the animal kingdom, there are many, many, many other animals I would aspire to be other than a sheep.

But that’s sort of the Biblical point.

The article criticizes the church (or more accurately, God) for portraying people as sheep, and thus conferring on them a designation of meekness and tolerance that allows people (pastors, particularly) to prey upon them.  It suggests that instead of sheep, we should encourage the people of God to consider themselves lions.

The irony here is rather sweet.  Don’t be a victim, be a perpetrator.  Don’t be weak, be strong.  Don’t be prey, be the predator.  That seems so problematic on so many levels I’m actually glad I’m sitting down.  Acknowledging the risk of abuse in any relationship, the solution is not to become the one that is likely going to be accused by somebody else of abuse.

The Biblical use of the sheep metaphor is precise.  Painfully so.  We have delusions of grandeur and aspirations of greatness fueled by a media-obsessed culture where you can become wealthy and influential by recording yourself having sex with someone else and sharing it with the world.  We are exhorted constantly to greatness because mediocrity stinks.  Children are led to believe they are geniuses and artists deserving of the world’s highest accolades just so they never feel bad about themselves, which in turn sets them up for a lifetime of bitter disappointment.  Everybody wants to be a lion.  Very few people are.

And the even deeper truth is that even the lions are sheep.

Every single one of us has somebody more powerful in our lives.  We may know them or we may not.  But every single one of us, at some point or another, sooner or later, is a sheep.  Our limited resources are exhausted.  Our limited intellects are at wits’ end.  Our limited cleverness is befuddled.  We find ourselves at the mercy of a bacteria, or a dictator, or an abusive pastor.  We have no other options, no other means at our disposal to deal with the situation or the person.  We suffer.  We hurt.  We bleed.  We die.

This is what sheep do.

The solution is not to become a lion, because even a lion is a sheep before death itself, or disease and infirmity, or against an unforeseen accident.  Every dictator is a sheep before death, or the haunting fear of betrayal or revolt.  And every single one of us will one day succumb to a predator of one sort or another.  How will we deal with that?  How do we deal with the abusive supervisor at work that thwarts our ambitions and steals our accomplishments?  How will we deal with the ungrateful child who discards our love and concern and abusively rebels against the things we hold most dear?  How will we deal with a spouse who is negligent of our needs?  How will we deal with a pastor who abuses the office entrusted to them by God, and to whom they must one day answer (Hebrews 13:17, or Ezekiel 34)?

At some point we have to face our helplessness, embrace the reality of our sheepness.  I won’t say that we have to like it – but we have to acknowledge it.  We are not God.  We are not even lions.  We are sheep, always in danger of being the victim of somebody stronger or smarter or more sinister.  And if we cannot overcome them, if we cannot transform ourselves into lions who disperse such adversaries, what can we do?  Here’s a link to a song I love by a great band – 10,000 Maniacs – that deals with this very theme.

What Scripture assures us in describing us as sheep is that there is someone who is mightier than the lion, the predator, the abuser.  But that person is not me.  That person is the Son of God who came into this world to save me.  From the lion within me.  From the lion that stalks around me.

We must trust in God just as sheep must trust the shepherd.  First and foremost in all things.  We can and must seek His strength and peace as we suffer.  Of course, to the best of our ability we work to avoid suffering.  We seek counseling with a spouse or a child.  We utilize whatever avenues we have to resolve conflict at work and church.  And it may be that the only option left to us is to leave that company, to find a new congregation.  But still the damage is done.  Still our sheepness has to be acknowledged.  Still our dependence on the God who created us and redeemed us has to settle into our hearts and minds.

So no, it’s not my job to transform sheep into lions.  It’s to remind sheep that they are sheep.  To remind lions that they are sheep.  To trust in my God and redeemer to hold me in his hands and deliver me from evil, either this day or eventually.  To trust that He will deal appropriately with those who abuse their power and position or my sheepness, because only He is capable of dealing with them.  I am not.  Not always, at least.

If Jesus is willing to be called the Lamb of God, how much more should I in obedience accept the reality of my sheepness?  To do so does not condone the misbehavior of those around or over me.  But to do so is a profound recognition of who I am before God as well as my neighbor, and a profound celebration of the God who has promised to make all things right.

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