Encouraging thought of the day: you are a mouflon.
Wikipedia tells me that the mouflon is the precursor to modern domesticated sheep. This majestic, wild creature was slowly changed by humans into the fluffy creatures we know today.
I bring this up because I’m so tired of Christians telling me that I’m a helpless little sheep in need of a shepherd.
I was at my parents’ church this Sunday, and the adult Sunday school class was going through Max Lucado’s Traveling Light, a study book based on the 23rd Psalm. You know, the famous one about the Lord as your shepherd.
I’m surprised at how anti-human this teaching is. Even more surprising I would have accepted it just a few years ago.
The whole chapter this week was about the “burden of self-reliance.” Lucado explained to his eager listeners why they cannot possibly make it on their own. Unless you are perfect, he said, you need to totally, utterly rely on God for everything.
Still uncomfortable with being a sheep? Will you humor me and take a simple quiz? See if you succeed in self-reliance. Raise your hand if the following describes you.
You can control your moods. You’re never grumpy or sullen. You can’t relate to Jekyll and Hyde. You’re always upbeat and upright. Does that describe you? No? Well, let’s try another.
You are at peace with everyone. Every relationship is sweet as fudge…
You have no fears. … Heart condition discovered—yawn. World War III starts—what’s for dinner? Does this describe you?
You need no forgiveness. Never made a mistake. As square as a game of checkers…
…Let’s evaluate this. You can’t control your moods. A few of your relationships are shaky. You have fears and faults. Hmmm. Do you really want to hang on to your chest of self-reliance? Sounds to me as if you could use a shepherd.
The false dichotomy
How’s that for a false dichotomy? You either are 100% perfect, always in control of your moods, always at peace with everyone, always fearless—or you must rely on God. Your only option other than complete, flawless success is to throw up your hands and rest entirely on the power of that supernatural best friend Lucado has never seen but is just sure is there.
Lucado even gets poetic, offering a satirical version of the 23rd Psalm for people who think they don’t need God:
I am my own shepherd. I am always in need.
I stumble from mall to mall and shrink to shrink, seeking relief but never finding it.
I creep through the valley of the shadow of death and fall apart.
I fear everything from pesticides to power lines, and I’m starting to act like my mother.
I go to the weekly staff meeting and I am surrounded by my enemies. I go home, and even my goldfish scowls at me.
I anoint my head with extra-strength Tylenol.
My Jack Daniels runneth over.
Surely misery and misfortune will follow me, and I will live in self-doubt for the rest of my lonely life.
That’s why everybody needs a shepherd, and why we shouldn’t be ashamed of being called sheep, Lucado says.
Sheep are dumb, he says. They can’t be trained. They are defenseless, with no sharp teeth or claws. They’re slow. And sheep are dirty; they can’t clean themselves like a cat or a dog.
Indeed, I’ve heard over and over how sheep cannot survive on their own. But was it always this way?
Meet the mouflon
This is a mouflon. Wikipedia tells me this species is an ancestor of all domestic sheep, just like wolves are the ancestors of dogs. I don’t know anything about mouflon, but I can see they look very much like Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep. Have you ever seen a bighorn sheep relying on a shepherd?
Unlike domestic sheep, bighorn sheep are strong, and they are fast. They won’t grow heavier and heavier wool if they aren’t regularly sheared by a human; in fact I’d like to see any human try to approach a bighorn ram with any kind of shears. And they’re far from helpless; they may not bite like a wolf, but I certainly wouldn’t want to stand against those powerful horns or sharp hooves.
While sheep may be a symbol of weekness and dependency, the wild ram has always been a symbol of power. In Biblical poetry “horns” are used as a metaphor for strength.
What happened? People bred sheep to be as they are today. People bred sheep to be easy to keep on a farm. To be docile. To create lots of wool. To follow a herd, and not fight back.
People bred sheep to be stupid.
It took thousands of years of selective breeding aimed at a very specific purpose for the mighty, independent mouflon to become the silly and helpless creature of Lucado’s metaphor. What might this say to us about the church?
It seems to me people are stronger than they think. But from the day a Christian baby is born, he or she is told he is weak. The young Christians learn that they can’t possibly be good without God, that they can’t possibly be happy without God. Every song, every Sunday School lesson teaches that life’s burdens are too heavy to bear, life’s troubles too oppressing to face—that is, unless Jesus is there to face the burdens with you. Just give it all to Jesus—you know you will fail, and your friends will fail, so there’s no other possible way to get through life but to rely on this cure we have for you. All you have to do is submit and surrender your will to what we tell you is true, and all your problems will be taken away.
What do you suppose people would be capable of if they weren’t taught that?
After reading Lucado’s poem, I say this: Yes, it’s true that I find myself quite often in need. While ‘retail therapy’ isn’t really my thing, it’s true I sometimes need a shrink, or some other physical comfort for my situation. It’s true I am sometimes afraid, I sometimes creep through trouble I wish I could overcome, and sometimes I need a Tylenol when holy oil just won’t cut it.
And yes, some days are filled with misery, misfortune, and self-doubt.
But not all days.
And I don’t believe I will live out all of my days in self-doubt and misfortune.
Does Lucado think once you are a Christian, all your troubles go away? I suspect he does not. There are countless books out there offering comfort to Christians, answering ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ ‘Where is God when he feels so far away?’ ‘I prayed; why did this happen to me anyway?’ All one has to do is listen to people share their stories to learn that Christians also have self-doubt, require a shrink, or even need medicine for chronic pain.
Either Lucado is blaming Christians for their problems (This wouldn’t happen if you really trusted in God!) or he’s just lying about what Christianity offers, to make the alternative sound worse.
More than that, perfect control and perfect comfort isn’t required for life. I fail sometimes, but I get back up and try again. I learn from the experience. I’m not at peace with everyone, and I’m not completely fearless, but I am growing every day.
A Bighorn doesn’t live a comfortable, easy life high in the Rocky Mountains. It has to stand against bitter cold. It has to watch out for wolves and mountain lions, and its young may be targeted by golden eagles. It has to search for its food among rocky places.
It leads a hard life. But a Bighorn is strong. And it lives, regardless.
I have friends that I rely on each and every day. They are not perfect. Sometimes they let me down. But they have been there for me when I needed them.
There are times when I think it would be great to have a loving shepherd to take care of all my needs. But I’m not a domestic sheep. I am a mouflon. I live, I survive, I even thrive where the livestock thinks no one could ever be happy. And it’s better to live free in the truth than to chain yourself up in comforting lies.