“I am the Good Shepherd” —John 10:11
Early one evening when I was traveling in the Holy Land, I took a long walk in the hills outside the village where I was staying. As the shadows of evening lengthened, I sat on a hillside and watched a large flock of sheep in the valley below. Several shepherds were tending the flock, and the restless sounds of bleating wafted up from the canyon, echoing around the hills.
Then, as the sun began to set, I watched a remarkable thing take place. Suddenly, as if by some prearranged signal, the shepherds began to call out to the sheep. Each walked in a different direction. To my utter amazement, the sheep, after some milling around, divided, and a separate group followed each shepherd. What a lovely sight–the shepherds out in front, the sheep following faithfully behind. They knew their shepherd and he knew his sheep. Each shepherd led his sheep to a different sheepfold. Each sheepfold had four walls, with a man-sized opening on one side. The shepherd stood inside the sheepfold and called the sheep inside. Then they built fires just outside the door and began preparing the evening meal.
It was almost dark when I started back to the village. I turned for one last look at the magnificent scene below. The picture is still etched in my mind. The shepherds seated in the doors of the folds, fires blazing, the sheep secure inside. Before long, the fires would be banked, and the shepherds would curl up in their blankets for a long night of watchfulness in protection of the sheep. They actually would be the door to the sheepfold. No sheep could go out, and no invading danger could come in.
The same customs and practices of sheep-herding have been followed for centuries. In that evening I felt that I had been ushered back two thousand years.
It was dark when I reached the main road. As I walked through the night, I pondered what I had seen. Then the words of Jesus’ dynamic “I am” proclamation thundered in my mind. “I am the door of the sheep… if anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep” (John 10:7-11). I thought of the sheep in the fold. With the shepherd as the protecting door, the sheep need not be anxious.
Just then, a jet fighter screeched across the sky, and a truck filled with armed soldiers whizzed by me on the road. I was jerked back into twentieth-century reality. The peaceful scene back in the hills made a vivid contrast to the modern world of technology and alertness for war.
That set me thinking about the implications of Jesus’ “I am” promise. What does the pastoral imagery have to do with life today?
I thought of the exasperated exclamation of a little boy who came home from Sunday school and was asked what had been talked about. “Ah, same ol’ stuff. Shepherds and sheep–sheep and shepherds!”
I smiled to myself with empathy. The closest most people get to a shepherd is in a Christmas pageant. About all we know of sheep is the price of lamb in the meat department of a supermarket. And yet, the impact of Jesus’ “I am” assertion contains an answer for one of the greatest struggles we all face. It offers us an antidote for worry.
One of my favorite stories concerns the author, Thomas Carlyle, who built a soundproof chamber in his home in Chelsea in London about a century ago. He wanted to shut out all the noises of the street so that he could write in uninterrupted silence. It worked, except for one piercing sound that penetrated through the vaulted walls. His neighbor had a cock that was given to vigorous expression several times at night and once at dawn. Carlyle would sit, pen in hand, distracted from thought and expression, waiting for that disturbing sound. Finally he protested to the owner of the cock, and was assured that it crowed only three times at night and once at dawn. “But,” said Carlyle, “if you only knew all the worry I suffer waiting for that cock to crow!”
We laugh. But how very much like our lives today. And there’s no soundproof, people-proof, danger-proof chamber into which we can escape. But even if we could, we would take private enemy #1 with us: worry. There’s no place to hide from the universal sickness of worry. We carry it around inside ourselves. Like Carlyle, we anticipate, expect, and wait for the invasion of distracting difficulty.
Worry is thinking turned toxic, the imagination used to picture the worst. The word worry comes from a root meaning to choke or strangle. Worry does choke and strangle the creative capacity to think, hope, and dream. It twists the joy out of life. We get dressed up like mountain climbers and climb over molehills.
Worry changes nothing except the worrier. The distressing habit of worry is impotent to change tomorrow or undo the past. All it does is sap today of strength. William Inge was right: “Worry is the interest paid on trouble before it comes due.”
What are you worried about right now? Focus on those people, situations, or apprehensions that concern you most. Now consider a provoking question. Have you ever had a trouble or a problem that was solved or improved by worry? My experience is that 50 percent of the things I worry about never happen. Twenty-five percent of my worries cannot be changed by my worry. And 25 percent are worthy of creative concern, but my worry over the other 75 percent debilitates any productive action. Henry Ward Beecher said it well: “Worry is rust upon the blade.” It renders us incapable of cutting our way through life’s real problems.
There are many available lists of what makes us worry, with appropriate percentages allotted to each. A. J. Cronin, the distinguished author-physician, sorted it out this way:
Things which never happen: 40%
Things in the past that can’t be changed by all the worry in the world: 30%
Health worries: 12%
Petty, miscellaneous worries: 10%
Real, legitimate worries: 8%
When you list your worries, what percentages would you allocate?
What can we do about our worries? It does absolutely no good to admonish ourselves and others with the oft-repeated advice, “Stop worrying!” We are so conditioned to worry that the admonition makes us worried about being worried! Worry takes charge of our minds before we know it. It dominates our thought patterns uncontrollably and inadvertently. We cannot will ourselves to stop worrying. The compulsive response to life is ingrained in our brains.
At core, worry is a low-grade form of agnosticism. Shocking? Perhaps. But look at it this way. Worry is a lurking form of doubt. At base it’s rooted in a question about the adequacy of God to meet our own and others’ needs. And it is nourished by a fear that there may be problems and perplexities in which we will be left alone–out on a limb without him! Worry is a form of loneliness. It entails facing life’s eventualities all by ourselves, on our meager strength. We feel victimized and bereft and helpless to change the course of events. A sense of helplessness begins the cycle of worry. Finally we get so used to the feeling of worry that we get worried when there is little to worry about! We thrash about looking for something or someone we can worry over.
But let’s not be simplistic. Worry is very real. The mental anguish causes emotional distress and physical discomfort. It’s no joke when people say, “I’m worried sick!” Many people do become physically ill as a result of worry. Often it leaves permanent damage: breakdown of the nervous system, stomach disorders, tension headaches, back trouble. It’s not what we eat that makes us ill–but what’s eating us!
Worry is really a distortion of the capacity to care. If we were thoughtless, irresponsible, impervious people, we would not worry. We want what’s best for ourselves and for the people we love. This protective nature is not bad; being concerned about the problems of life is not a sign of weakness. But the thing that is wrong about worry is that it has absolutely no power to change anything except us. It makes us incapable of doing anything that would affect the problems we face.
Is it possible to be healed of the sickness of worry? Can we find a solution to the disturbing disquiet? Yes! Jesus Christ can heal the causes of worry.
If worry is caused by the loneliness of facing imagined or real problems alone, by a feeling of having to determine our destiny in life’s difficulties without help, then the Lord is the only lasting hope in the battle with worry. He can use our worries as a prelude to power; they can become an occasion to discover his adequacy for whatever is causing us to worry right now.
The secret is in the “I am” himself. God said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” He was speaking in the images of his time. The most familiar figure in Palestine was, and still is today, the shepherd. The picture of the shepherd is woven into the language and imagery of the Scriptures. God is frequently referred to as the Shepherd and the people of Israel as the flock of God. The psalms sing the praises of the Good Shepherd of Israel. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Ps. 23:1). “You led your people like a flock” (Ps. 77:20). “We, your people, and sheep of your pasture, will give you thanks forever” (Ps. 79:13). “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Ps. 95:7). “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps. 100:3).
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus looked over his disciples as his flock (Luke 12:32); He told of his longing, loving concern for his sheep. And when Jesus said he was the Good Shepherd, he clearly identified himself with God. It was as if he said, “I am Yahweh, God with you, the Good Shepherd!” Further, he personified himself as the long-anticipated Messiah. The anointed one of God is pictured by Isaiah in his prophetic promise, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young” (Isa. 40:11).
“The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees” (John 10:11—12).
The contrast is impelling. A hired hand will help a shepherd. But when danger lurks or a ravaging animal of prey attacks, the hired hand will run for safety, leaving the sheep alone. A good shepherd counts no cost too high to protect his sheep. At no time, regardless of what happens, will he leave the flock. He even will lay down his own life to protect them. He stands immovably between the sheep and the ravaging wolves.
Catch the impact of that. Picture it in your mind. Jesus stands between us and whatever causes us worry–physical danger, people who would use or misuse us, a hostile fate that would disturb or destroy us, powers of evil. When the going is tough, Jesus will be there! Imagine each of your worries as separate wolves lurking about, ready to attack. Are they too much for the Good Shepherd to handle? Remember he said, “I am the good shepherd.” There is the liberating assurance again–Yahweh. Jesus is God with us. He has all power. His providence is our peace. We will never be alone or bereft again.
In that context I want to give you a prescription for worry. Like some prescriptions given us by physicians it has two parts: something we are to take, and something we are to do. It is a companion scripture to Jesus’ “I am” promise about being the Good Shepherd. If I could give you a gift, it would be the freedom to receive and respond to Hebrews 13:5—6: “He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid; what can man do to me?’”
Every time we are caught in the bind of worry, it is a new occasion for an exchange with our Lord. We accept his promise to be with us and give him our wearing worry. Consider the immensity of his promise: “I will never fail you nor forsake you.” Think about both aspects of that. How could the Lord ever fail us? It would be by leaving us friendless and alone in a dangerous situation. And he claims he never will!
But we know that believing in him does not ensure us a long, smooth existence with no problems. Exactly. The Lord does one of three things: remove the danger, strengthen us to stand strongly in it, or use the situation to help us grow in grace.
We’ve all been through difficulties in which we have had a miraculous intervention that completely alleviated the problem we feared. Then there are times he chooses not to change the circumstances, but changes us so that we are able to take them. Also, we’ve all known tragic eventualities that have been the sources of great growth in character and maturity. But in all these, He does not fail. True love never fails. It’s because it does not forsake.
That’s the second part of the Lord’s promise. The word forsake means to disown, leave completely, abandon, desert, and reject. That’s the one thing our Lord will never do. We belong to him, now and for eternity. It is this assurance which enables us to offer our worries to him and say, “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can man or fate do to me?”
The exchange is like breathing in and out. Do that now as you focus on your worries. As you inhale, say the words, “I will never fail you nor forsake you.” Feel the oxygen of hope in your soul. Now breathe out your relinquishment of the worry. As you exhale, say, “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid.”
Basic for our study of how Jesus deals with worry is his claim to be God with us. It is with divine authority that he confronts and offers to heal our soul-sickness. I Am, Ego eimi is the door. He calls his sheep into the sheepfold of an eternal relationship with God. Those who enter by him “will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” A lovely, picturesque description of salvation: the word saved in Greek here is sothosetai, the future passive of the verb sozo, to save, preserve, rescue, from the root sos, meaning safe and sound.
Jesus is the only way. He came to save us. The word salvation meant deliverance in that day. A savior was a deliverer from danger and captivity. Christ is the Savior of the world. Through his life, death, and resurrection, we are delivered from separation from God, bondage to human nature, and the power of fear and death. He saves us from sin and heals our hostility toward ourselves, others, and life itself. We become new creatures when we accept his love, surrender our lives to him, and experience the transformation of our personalities.
means wholeness, healing; and health. The Lord’s promise that we shall “go in and out and find pasture” is our assurance that all our psychological and physical needs will be met in companionship with him as our Good Shepherd. The adventure of the Christian life is not only the assurance of eternal security but the experience of daily security now.
When Jesus calls us by name to belong to him, fear of death is past. We are reconciled forever. Nothing can change our elected status. But that’s only the beginning. He couples reconciliation with regeneration. The process of growing in his love means that he will penetrate our conscious and subconscious natures. Anything that could deb