Believers are called lots of things in the Bible, but sheep or flock is one of the more common images used. We are led beside still waters in Psalm 23, listening for the voice of the Shepherd in John 10:14, and being sought when lost in Matthew 18. Jesus even called Himself the good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep (John 10).
Sheep are interesting animals. They need to eat daily to stay healthy. Snakes, sharks, and camels can go extended times without eating, but not a sheep. Strangely, they are also social eaters. They eat best when with other sheep and will rarely eat alone. Just like we may tend to do in social settings, sheep will overeat. They sometimes must be encouraged to stop eating so they can ruminate what they have already consumed. Let’s think a moment about how these realities define our spiritual lives.
Eat daily to stay healthy
One way to tell a sheep is unhealthy is loss of appetite. God’s Word is our source of nourishment as believers. Psalm 1 reminds us that the blessed man is the one who delights in God’s Word and feasts on it day and night. One reason this is true is temptation doesn’t carry a calendar nor does it pace itself. It doesn’t stop and say, “It is Tuesday so I need to wait until Saturday.” Opportunities to represent Christ are usually not scheduled either. We must be attentive to God’s direction as we go through the day or we may walk right past an opportunity to give a cup of water in Jesus’ name. Life happens daily so we need to eat spiritually daily.
Technology makes it possible for some church leaders to provide daily posts for the sheep in their care. But this can create an unhealthy codependency. We sheep are more than content to let someone else do all the heavy lifting so all we need to do is listen and check the box on our to-do lists. This practice is not healthy for the shepherd or his sheep. Sheep are social eaters so it goes against their nature (more on that later) and it also upsets their stomachs. Sheep are ruminators who must chew and rechew their food (more on that later as well). Feeding a sheep processed wheat creates digestive problems for them. They need whole grains. Believers need whole grains as well or the pure milk of the Word as Peter called it (1 Pet. 2:2). It is from the pure milk that we gain the most nutrition and we need that pure milk daily. We need that daily engagement to stay spiritually healthy.
Lifeway and SWBTS polled churchgoers, asking them if they felt that they could walk with God without other believers. Surprisingly, two-thirds agreed or strongly agreed with the statement (from online survey for SWBTS Center for Revitalization, Jan 2019). One would wonder if the quarantines endured because of COVID-19 would impact those responses.
But sheep are social eaters. We need other believers if we are to stay healthy. Arthur Flake tied daily or individual Bible study with participating in a group. In his journal, Flake wrote that “people who do not go to S.S. (Sunday School) do not study the Bible”. He gave no explanation. Of note is when Flake wrote this statement in his journal: 1920. The world had experienced a pandemic as well in the years prior in the form of the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. People quarantined, with some cities completely cutting themselves off from the rest of the world. We would have to surmise that the experience of the Spanish Flu quarantine played some role in Flake’s note.
Bible study groups must be given priority for believers to be healthy. The group experience encourages individual daily Bible study where we reflect more deeply on the things shared in the group experience. The daily study motivates us to participate in a group Bible study where we can share what we discovered and ask each other questions, giving everyone deeper understanding. We may be able to walk with God alone, but we can’t be healthy sheep if we do so. We are social eaters and need to be in a group.
Need to ruminate
We mentioned rumination earlier. Sheep have compartmentalized stomachs and chew and rechew their food to get the most out of it. Sheep will strip a pasture clean if allowed but, in the process, will eat more than they can digest. The shepherd may need to step in and stop some sheep from overeating so they can ruminate and get the nutrients they need.
We need time to ruminate as well on our spiritual food. The writer of the first Psalm called on us not only to take in God’s Word but to meditate on it (Psa. 1:2). This is especially true for students and adults. Learning theorists emphasize the need for reflection by adults for learning to take place (same is true for teenagers). We need time. We can’t forget that kids also need time to process. This processing is seen in their questions…the ones that usually start with why. Some experts blame education models and the industrial revolution for the squelching of the inquisitive mind, but other factors may impact that as well. The bottom line is we need time to ask those why questions so we can move to the how and what questions. These questions usually are asked when we are alone and have the time to think. We see the value of individual Bible study at this point. As sheep, we need spiritual rumination.
As sheep we need to eat daily, connected to a group that gives us time to reflect and ruminate. This reality should impact the priority we place on groups in our church, the way we resource our groups, and how we foster spiritual growth with our church.
What ramifications do you see when thinking about believers being compared to sheep? How do your groups reflect those ramifications?
Next week we dive deeper into Eating Daily.
Dwayne McCrary gives leadership to Explore the Bible resources at Lifeway. Explore the Bible resources are one solution that helps you better feed your sheep. Secure samples here