Life can be hard on your heart. Most of us grow up protecting our hearts, not wanting to allow people too close. Have you ever gone through a season of recovering from a broken relationship – your heart needed attention, but by who?
Jesus’ solution is that we should care for one another’s hearts. Before saying a final goodbye, three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Peter responded “yes” and Jesus said, “feed by sheep.”
Like Peter, almost all of us who follow Jesus get to shepherd someone else. As we pay attention to their heart and care for their heart; we shepherd them.
Jesus shows us what that looks like, both with his example and with his words. When he saw the crowds, “He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Mt. 9:36
Isn’t that the human condition? Forget the wars that we are always starting, don’t so many of the people you interact with seem harassed and in need of a good counseling session?
Jesus described himself as a “good shepherd.” He described his relationship with his sheep – how his sheep know his voice and listen to it. John 10
In Matthew 18, he gives us a protocol for taking care of lost sheep. All of us as his sheep start out lost and periodically on life’s road, we lose our way. We need his shepherding. We need those who are called to follow him to look for our hearts. Mt. 18:12-14
He gives us principles in Matthew 18 that help us understand how to search for and fight for sheep. For example, there is the principle of the 100th sheep that says A shepherd’s commitment to the flock is as strong as his commitment to an individual sheep.
The other sheep intuitively understand that the same love the shepherd feels for the one lost sheep is the love that he feels towards them. Were they to ever be lost, he would love them in the same way. The greatest way for a shepherd to communicate love is to assure that those sheep that are closest to wandering are brought back into the fold.
How do we care for sheep?
A shepherd’s caring is not passive. A shepherd looking for a wandering sheep fights for it. He does so with these four characteristics:
Compassion hears the bleating of the sheep that’s fallen down on the ledge when it’s too far off to hear. That’s us when we find ourselves estranged from God or one another. Perhaps we need to forgive and don’t know how.
Compassion feels the terror that pounds within a sheep’s breast when it knows it is hopelessly lost. Compassion drives the shepherd to search. Compassion is the yearning that a mother feels to protect when her children are in danger.
We search for a lost heart when we take the time to clarify meaning. You say something like, “What you said hurt your friend – were you aware of that?”
While a shepherd looks in bushes and on ledges for a lost sheep, we’re in the business of trying to find out where people have hidden their hearts. People don’t leave a church because they have a wanderlust. They leave because in some way or another, they feel as though they haven’t been understood. They leave because they have an itch that hasn’t been scratched.
Figuring out where they’ve hidden their hearts and how to scratch their itch is hard work. Sometimes the searching process involves clarifying so that they really do feel understood.
Searching is not safe. When the thunderstorm is rolling in or the wolf is on the prowl, it can be dangerous, risky work. When you go after a friend whose heart is bruised, you sense that it may end poorly. They may reject your attempts.
It is risky to go where the footing is treacherous. It is risky to try to sort out misunderstandings when the only outcome may be getting hurt.
When I worked in Cambodian refugee camps in 1980, we saw a lot of desperate people who needed help. We were motivated to help by our compassion. But we became familiar with a term called “compassion fatigue.” After a certain amount of time, it is common for those who want to do good to burn out and lose their motivation. Perseverance overcomes compassion fatigue.
If you are a shepherd, how many sheep have wandered from your care last year? Was it because the process of caring for them wore you out? How many people have you known were offended, but you allowed them to wander?
The key to the Great Commission is unity, and the key to unity is the principle of the 100th sheep. If we really loved one another like the world expects us to, then most sheep wouldn’t wander. And those who did would be compelled by our love to return to the flock.
Bottom line: We are all God’s sheep. Jesus is our great shepherd. His commission to us, his under-shepherds, is to look for lost sheep. It can be hard, dangerous work. It’s much easier to just leave them behind. But that is what Jesus did and it’s what he calls us to do as well.
Questions to consider
How is your heart? Are you hiding it from others?
Who tends your heart? Who asks the hard questions?
Whose heart do you tend? Do you feed Jesus’ sheep?