Just before my senior year in college, I traveled to New Zealand for four weeks. For one of those weeks, I got to work on a sheep farm.
Fun fact: In New Zealand there are about 4 million people and 35 million sheep!
On the farm I worked, most of the sheep were pregnant and they needed to receive vaccines, lice treatment, and mineral supplements.
My friend Matt and I show up on our first day and got dressed in a blue onesie (see pic below), and then hopped on a couple four wheelers and drove out to meet the farmer.
He explains what he is doing and then asks us in his New Zealand accent, “alright mates, who want to give the vaccines?”
Now, fortunately I went to the University of Georgia and they have an excellent veterinary school.
Unfortunately, to this day I have never actually stepped foot in that building.
So I have no idea how to give sheep vaccines but, for some reason, I slowly stick my hand up to volunteer and am given a needle with a little pack attached to the back of it.
And over the next few days, we gave all the sheep their vaccines, lice treatment, and mineral supplements. And you will be pleased to know that I only accidentally stabbed myself with the needle one time.
To be honest, it only took me about 5 minutes to realize how dumb and helpless sheep truly are. What made matters worse, is that I could see myself in all of their behavior.
I literally looked up to heaven at one point and said, “God I am so sorry that I am this way.”
So I want to quickly highlight a few of the ways that we as people are like sheep.
1) Sheep Fight Things that are Good for Them
When I gave the sheep their vaccine, we would line them up into a pen and I would approach them from behind, place the needle into the back of their neck, and inject the vaccine. Pretty simple right?
No. It wasn’t.
The sheep did not like the vaccine at all, and in fairness to them it does hurt a little bit when someone sticks you with a needle. But instead of being still, they would fight by putting their head down, and then slamming it back up as hard as they can.
As it turns out, head butting a needle does not solve the pain problem. It would make it much worse!
I kept wanting to explain to them, even though the injection hurt for a brief moment, they needed it. The vaccine would protect them from disease, and it would also protect the lambs they were carrying because they would be born with immunity to a lot of dangerous diseases.
Does that sound familiar? We sing songs about God loving us and we highlight Scripture about His plan. When God calls us to do something inconvenient or when the tiniest pain enters our life, however, we frequently fight him and get angry with Him. Our trust goes out the window, and we forget that God can use pain in our lives to shape us, and to make us more like Him.
2) Sheep Have Trust Issues
After giving the sheep a vaccine or their supplement, we needed to get them to turn around and move to the other side of the sheep pen.
Initially I tried using my voice, patting them on the side, pointing, whistling, and nothing would get them to move. So John, the actual Shepherd who ran the place, explained something to me about the psychology of sheep. They won’t go somewhere they can’t see.
His suggestion was to do this: literally grab the sheep by the face, and turn their head in the direction we wanted them to go.
We’d grab the sheep by the face, and they would stubbornly stand there saying, “I’m not moving, I’m not moving, I’m not moving, oh hey there’s my friends!” and then they would move.
I’ve always felt like I trusted God, but in February of 2012, Morgan and I were getting really serious about moving to New Zealand. We had prayed about it everyday for 2 years and felt like God was calling us there.
I spoke to some college students that night about the different ways people are compared with sheep in the Bible. As I drove home, I turned off the radio, rolled down the windows, and started praying so we could make a final decision.
After a while I say this, “God, it would be a lot easier to go if I just knew what would happen.”
I didn’t want to move because I couldn’t see where I was going!
And in that moment, it was like God just reached out and grabbed me by the face, and said, “Evan, you just taught everyone about the importance of trusting me when you can’t see where you’re going. Remember?”
And I realized, it was time to trust Him. We had planned, we had saved, we prayed a lot, and so we moved to New Zealand. It turned out to be an awesome experience – God did great things in our lives and used us to impact others as well.
3) Sheep Need Community
Sheep who wander off by themselves tend to get in trouble. They get lost very quickly and very easily. I would watch a pack of sheep move along and occasionally one of them would get separated from the herd.
They wouldn’t make it ten feet before they froze, and looked around like a deer in headlights. Usually one of the sheep dogs would bark them back in the right direction.
Sheep really don’t know what to do when they aren’t in community. They get scared, they get lost, and they actually get in danger.
Do you know how a lion or a wolf attacks sheep? They won’t go after the herd – instead, they wait for that one sheep to wander away from the pack. As soon as a sheep gets separated, that is when they get attacked.
Our modern world often likes to celebrate the individual who can do it all and doesn’t need anyone else.
But after 2020, I don’t think I need to stress the importance of community to anyone. Our family was quarantined for several weeks completely, and then mostly quarantined for a few months after, and we were losing our minds.
People were designed for community, and like sheep, we need each other to survive and thrive.
This is particularly true of the Christian community. Without accountability and encouragement in the faith, we are more prone to wander, and that is often when the enemy likes to attack.
4) Sheep are Easily Distracted
This is a bonus sheep illustration because it is not from my time on the sheep farm.
After we moved to New Zealand, my wife Morgan got a job teaching in rural school. Each year, they hosted something called pets day.
Now you might expect the kids to bring their dog or their cat or their hamster to school, right? Most of the students, however, lived on a farm. So instead of dogs and cats, they brought sheep and chickens and cows to school.
At pets day, they had a few fun contests. One of them was best costume, which led to one of my favorite pictures of all time. And I don’t mean it’s one of my favorite sheep pictures, it’s actually one of my favorite pictures of all the pictures:
They also hosted another contest on Pets Day: it was a sheep race. The rules were simple – a parent would hold a sheep at the starting line, and then the student would stand on the other side with a delicious milk bottle and call for the sheep to come. Whichever sheep was first to their kid, would win the race.
Let’s watch what actually happens:
As you can see, the sheep start out full of energy and purpose and excitement.
“I’m going to win the race! I can see my kid! I’m going to- oh look, grass.”
This video is hilarious, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, this is often how we treat our relationship with God. I’ve experienced it in my life, and I’ve seen it in many others.
We get excited about following God, we jump to a great start and pursue him with everything we have, and then we get distracted.
“I just went on this retreat and it was amazing and I’m going to follow God with everything in me and – oh hey look, Sports. Studies. Work. Friends. Netflix.”
Like sheep, we are easily distracted. This is not to say that sports or school or friends are bad things. In fact, they can be great things!
But they cannot be the one thing. They cannot offer you the satisfaction that comes from God. They cannot be your savior. They cannot be your shepherd.
5) Sheep will Walk off Cliffs
Sheep will follow each other, just about anywhere. You have these big beautiful pastures and they are free to go anywhere they want. But they all follow each other on the same paths and create these lines in the grass.
In fact, they are so committed to following each other, that if one of them walks off a cliff, others will follow.
You know how your mom always asked, “if your friend jumped off a cliff, would you do that too?”
A sheep would say, “absolutely, yes! Bert jumped off a cliff? Where is it?!”
I spoke about sheep on a student retreat a few years back, and one of the students drew this incredible picture to the right.
As you can see, the first sheep was wandering too close to the cliff and saw a delicious dandelion and decided to go for it. Unfortunately, her friends all followed and now she’s stuck.
And this cartoon is hilarious, but it’s also real life for sheep. Just a few days ago, this video went a little viral online. Watch what happens to this sheep who was stuck in a crack:
The truth is, sheep are extremely slow to learn. They will follow each other to their own doom, and they will make the same mistakes over and over again.
We laugh at this because sheep are funny and no one actually got hurt, but I have actually seen the aftermath of a sheep who wandered too close to the edge. She didn’t make it. It wasn’t pretty.
Again, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we do the same thing as people.
How many times will a business try to get ahead by cheating before we realize that integrity is important? How many people will drive drunk or try drugs because they think they’ve got it “under control” before we grasp how dangerous that can be? How many people will have affairs or attempt to get away with abuse before we realize it’s a great way to ruin your life and the lives of others?
People love to get too close to the edge, and when they take that next step it is a consistently harder fall then we realized.
Here’s the point: Sheep are very slow to learn. They do some really foolish things, and they will copy each other in doing those foolish things or repeat their own foolish mistakes. They should know better, but they still do it, and people are the exact same way.
Sheep in the Bible Need a Shepherd
Let’s bring all our sheep together into the pen here.
As I said at the start, people are frequently referred to as sheep in the Bible. The more you learn about sheep, the less you will want to admit that we are, in fact, like sheep.
But we are sheep.
We’re fight against good things, we struggle to trust God, we’re lost without community, we get easily distracted, and we make the same mistakes over and over again.
Much of the story of the Bible illustrates the fact that, in order for sheep to survive, they need a shepherd.
This means that I need a shepherd, and you need a shepherd.
And while this may be humbling, there is some good news: we have the best shepherd in history.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:10-11
When you recognize that you are a sheep who desperately needs a shepherd, there is really only one thing for you to do: stick as close as possible to the good shepherd.
We don’t just need the shepherd on Sunday mornings, we don’t just need him right before meals or bed. Sheep need a shepherd all the time, and we need God all the time.
Choosing to abide in Christ will make you a better leader, a more loving person, and a light in dark places. Not only that, but Jesus came that we would have life and have it abundantly.
May we pursue the shepherd, and may we live life to the full.
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