Just Imagine: God a Shepherd!

By Greg Forster: part two of a series.

In a talk on Sending Disciples to a Pluralistic World, Vincent Bacote said: “Many Christians live in an imagination desert, unable to connect faith to vocation.”

That’s a deep insight – that it takes imagination to make the connection between faith and work. And Bacote draws the work/imagination connection tighter when he points out that imagination itself is work: “How do we awaken their imagination? Above all we need to help them see that imagination is the friend of truth. To imagine is to work with truth to envision various ways God’s truth can appear in our workplaces.”

But our imaginations themselves need to be redeemed; hence the vast and ever-changing wealth of images in the Bible itself. Do we invest the great effort that it takes to reimagine our world, and above all our God, as God himself invites us to?

Do we imagine God as a worker?

One of the most important images in the Bible is that of God working as a shepherd. It recurs again and again in the Old Testament, as God reminds his sheep that he is caring for them. “All we like sheep…” And it is prominently claimed by Jesus in the New Testament. One of Jesus’ most memorable claims is that he is the Good Shepherd. He talks about caring for his sheepfold; he talks about keeping away the wolves in sheep’s clothing. He says to Peter “feed my lambs.”

What is by far the most famous psalm – almost the only famous psalm? “The Lord is my shepherd…”

How many churches and schools are called “Good Shepherd” this or that?

Now stop for a moment.

Have you ever actually pictured God, or Jesus, as a shepherd?

Dallas Willard and Gary Black, in The Divine Conspiracy Continued, remind us that shepherding was a very familiar profession to the original audience of scripture:

The kind of life David describes in Psalm 23 is one bathed in shalom, or “peace,” which proceeds from understanding that Yahweh, the LORD, is a shepherd and hence a provider, protector, teacher and loving host. The shepherd is one of the oldest and most enduring of Hebrew metaphors (Genesis 49:25; Psalms 77:21; 80:2; 95:7). What David understood and experienced was the reality of knowing a loving, attentive, present, powerful and purposeful guide for his life. Our greatest assurance and soul-filling hope is that the LORD, Yahweh, is our shepherd. It is because of this simple, yet endlessly profound reality that we can begin to understand our place in the world and the joy that is ours forever.

To say that God is a shepherd would have immediately invoked all sorts of associations:

The shepherd’s vocation is largely lost on us today. There is an intimacy in shepherding. Shepherds know their sheep because they are with them all day, every day, for weeks on end, in solitary places. They learn the actions, habits and preferences of their flock through constant oversight. They protect, feed, direct and correct the sheep continually, developing a bond, perhaps even a love of their flock. Jesus says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11), something that David knew was part of his responsibilities as well. As a result, the sheep respond and are benefited. Without a shepherd they are lost, in danger and unable to endure the realities of the wild. To think of the LORD as a shepherd is to come to understand the intensely personal, comforting, attentive and providing nature of God’s love and care for his flock of humanity.

It was the purpose of God, in calling himself a shepherd, to invoke these associations. He invites and even commands us to picture him in these terms.

What difference would it make in our lives, in our work, if we imagined God as a shepherd and helped others imagine him that way?

The first thing that stands out to me here is Willard and Black’s suggestion that God’s omniscience includes practical knowledge. Like many, I tend to think of God’s omniscience in terms of his knowing things in the abstract – he knows all the facts, he knows all the principles, he knows all the logical connections. But although God does know all things in the way a computer or a philosopher knows things, God also knows all things the way a shepherd knows things. That is, he also knows those kinds of things. In our cultural terms, he knows how to change a tire, analyze a chemical sample or mow the grass. He knows the right way to phrase a delicate inquiry or when is the right time for a difficult conversation.

As we learn and practice these kinds of knowledge – “know-how” – we are delving into the mind of God.

Their point about intimacy – personal knowledge – is also important. As we work, we work “with” God. But what does it mean to be “with” God? Is he present to us as the light and air are present? As our own hearts and minds are present? In some ways, yes. But it takes on a new meaning if we picture ourselves as sheep and he as our shepherd.

This reaches a sort of culmination in the point about God taking care of us. For the sake of resonance I’ll call that covenantal knowledge. God is our protector and provider as we work, but that sounds very abstract. Does he protect me like my hard hat does? Or like an employee advocate in HR? In some ways, yes. But it takes on a new meaning if we picture ourselves as sheep and he as our shepherd.

I once asked a great man, who had founded his own company and seen it through many travails, what he thought of the popular idea that those who are economically successful are motivated by money. He said: “They need to read John 10, versus 11 to 14.”

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