Being Called a Sheep Isn’t a Good Thing

I wrote this piece while serving in Africa as a missionary. At the time, I was living in a small village far away from city life. The observations made in my time there profoundly shaped how I understand the Bible. I pray this one does the same for you.

I had a quick thought to leave you with before I head back out to the village for a week.

An exegetical fallacy that is commonly made today is overextending a metaphor or broadening the semantic range of a word too far to include more meanings than it is given by its original context. In other words, loading a word or metaphor with more meaning than the author intended it to have, because by overloading it, you can use it to make your own points. Many well intended preachers and teachers are guilty of this, and I may be committing the same crime in the following. Nevertheless, I have made some interesting observations of sheep during my time in Africa so far.

Scripture commonly refers to Christians as sheep. In the States, I think the significance of this comparison is often missed, if not completely lost. I am no longer convinced it is intended in any way as a compliment. I have found sheep to be the least intelligent of any domesticated animal I have ever seen. Livestock free range in this part of Africa, and when I say free range, I use the term loosely. What I really mean is people let their animals freely roam all over the place without any restraint. Due to this approach to raising livestock, it is a common occurrence to see goats, chickens, cattle, and sheep in the middle of the road. While goats, cattle and chickens have the common sense to run out of the road at the sight of an oncoming vehicle, sheep do not appear to be blessed with this foresight. Instead, they will stay put in the middle of the road, or worse, run from the side of the road out into the middle as if trying to get hit.

In addition to their lack of intelligence, sheep also seem to be completely incapable of taking care of themselves. Again, consider the conditions in which the livestock are provided for (or not provided for) here. When they are born, sheep are some of the cutest little things I have ever laid eyes on. Most are pure white with a soft coat of fur. But within weeks they become the most unpresentable of creatures. The white fur quickly gets filthy and the sheep seem to have no concern (unlike most of the other animals) with keeping themselves clean. Within a month, sheep typically turn this grotesque shade of brown and are covered with all kinds of substances I will not list on my blog. They are pitiful looking, aimless creatures that wander around all day barely keeping themselves alive.

Now contrast this with the “Precious Moments” image of a cuddly little sheep with some Bible verse comparing Christians to the cute little animal in the picture. I think this may say something more about how we view ourselves as Christians than how God intended this metaphor to be used. Is it possible that we have misapplied this idea in our heads and made ourselves out to be pure, innocent (howbeit sometimes slightly misguided) people who are just too cute to be bad?

Instead, after observing sheep for the last several months, I am convinced of a new reality. We are an aimless group who, without the daily guidance and protection provided by the Great Shepherd, would have no means of taking care of ourselves. We would be in a ditch, needing a way out. We are helpless, but we serve a God who is able.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I know my own and my own know me. (John10:11-14)

5 Comments

  1. John M said:

    i love your blog posts.

    March 20, 2010
    Reply
  2. NickieB said:

    Love your insight on sheep and totally agree we have twisted what God said to make us feel good. I love your blog, it is like your right here. It sounds just like you, I guess because it is you.

    March 22, 2010
    Reply
  3. imbeni84 said:

    Good point. I've often heard that sheep are among some of the least intelligent animals on the face of the earth; if they fall down, they just lie there until someone helps them up; they can die of thirst mere feet from water because they don't have the intelligence to realize that the water is right there. Not exactly a very edifying comparison for Christians. Yet people have twisted it.

    Know that I think of you often. Hope all is well on your side of the world.
    Heidi

    April 3, 2010
    Reply
  4. BrianJohnson said:

    Sheep , unlike other animals depend on someone for their survival, they need a shepherd to guide and care for them , on their own they are useless and as you say they would perish without someone to show them the way to survive. Pretty much sounds like Christians to me

    January 23, 2017
    Reply

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