Have you heard the one about the wandering sheep and the gentle shepherd? Sheep may be sentient beings, but they aren’t very smart. Which is why they have shepherds to watch over them–to make sure they don’t get into thornbushes, or eat poisonous plants, or walk off the edge of a cliff. So the story goes that if a shepherd has a sheep that is repeatedly getting itself into dangerous situations, the shepherd will break the sheep’s leg and carry it on his shoulders while the leg heals.
Now the question recently arose, among a circle of my acquaintances, “Is this true?” Do shepherds really do this? And, furthermore, is this consistent with God’s character?
I’m not really the person to answer the first question, since I’m not a shepherd and have never talked to a shepherd. But that’s okay, because I’m really more concerned with the second question. Certainly, we like the God who is always-loving, always-giving, always-kind. Maybe you’re good with knowing just that much about God. I know I was, for a long time. “Yep, got it, God. You love me. Thanks! I appreciate that.” But what do you do when you’re handed some circumstances that seem very…..well, unloving? What am I supposed to do with that? How do the facts of my situation fit into my assumptions about God, and vice versa?
I’ve been plumbing the depths of this one for a while now. May I share some thoughts with you? I offer these thoughts with all humility, knowing that they are imperfect and perhaps even flat out wrong. I have no college degrees, letters after my name, or thesis papers to support me. I only have my own humble, broken experience and a lot of thoughtful prayer and Scripture meditation. So, for what it’s worth, here it is.
I entered the waters of this discussion through the book of Hosea. Hosea is the prophet whom God told to marry a prostitute. This marriage was intended to be an analogy. Hosea’s wife was to Hosea as the Israelites were to God. In other words, God’s people had wandered and strayed and God was wanting to redeem them.
Hosea is filled with violent imagery of God tearing His disloyal people to little bits. He is a fierce lion, a leopard, a bear. God is not subtle here. He is very clear about His anger. I wouldn’t want to meet any of those animals on my path, much less one that was angry at me.
But wait, I thought God was ever-loving and gentle and kind. What’s with all this ripping and tearing?
My personal answer to that, is here:
I cared for you in the desert, in the land of burning heat. When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied they became proud; then they forgot me.
They forgot Me. I forgot Him. Things were going well, I had everything under control. Who needs God when I have an organized home, obedient children, delicious food, and perfect health and strength? I’ll go greet Him at church and say “Hey, thanks, God!” and then go back to my organized home with my obedient children and eat my delicious food.
But that’s not what God wants. He knows that isn’t the way to Life. The only way to Life is through depending on Him. Why would I depend on Him when I already had everything I needed? So he came upon me like a lion. Yes, indeed. I have the privilege of being ripped open by God’s own hands.
Is this not the God you know? Are you getting a little worried at the thought of a God who gets angry and causes pain? Don’t worry, I’ll bring it back around for you:
Let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but He will heal us. He has injured us but He will bind up our wounds.
This is the promise I cling to in the midst of my turmoil. If, even after He has torn me to pieces, I will return to Him, He will heal me. He promises that. And I hold Him to it. I don’t know when I will be put back together again and made whole. It may be a very, very long time. It may not even be this side of eternity. I don’t know. But I do know that He promises to restore me…and in His own good and perfect time.
So is being a Leg-Breaking Shepherd contradictory to being a Gentle Shepherd? I don’t think so. From the sheep’s perspective it is certainly confusing and painful. But the shepherd knows exactly what is needed to bring about His purpose:
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts
Let’s be clear that the leg-breaking is not vindictive and God certainly does not rejoice in causing His children pain:
For He does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.
Rather, the leg-breaking is one of many methods that God uses to get the attention of His children. It is administered with a heavy heart and only when it is the only way that will bring about the good that He intends. God wastes nothing…especially our pain.
If I can trust that God’s perspective is more comprehensive than my own, that whatever He sends is sent to accomplish a good purpose, then I am opening myself to God and inviting Him in to do His works in me:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the eart and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth; It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it
And if I can learn that even when the things He send don’t look good or feel good, it doesn’t make them not Good, then I am starting to understand what it means to give thanks in all things. And that is something to be thankful for.