Where Was The Shepherd? – I Just Wanna Be a Sheep, Part 2

From the Naples Underground. "Aiuto" means "help" in Italian.
From the Naples Underground. “Aiuto” means “help” in Italian.

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ (Luke 15:4-6)

Imagine that I am a Shepherd. I take care of a flock of 100 sheep, to paraphrase a familiar story. For a moment, let’s not focus on what I am, but instead, on what the other sheep say about me.

The strong matriarch or patriarch preaches to the herd: “The creator of this green land and all in it and all the goodness we see around us is Tim. Tim is the greatest good. Tim sees all. Tim knows all. Tim can do anything. Tim is everywhere at all times. And Tim loves you.” After a couple of generations, belief in me grows strong in the sheep community, given that all the sheep are well taken care of.

The sheep gather near cool waters, and they all talk about the wonderful qualities of me, Tim, but today is different. A wolf attacks them while they’re grazing. Most of them scatter in an effective way, but Alex does not. The wolf catches Alex by his leg and crushes it in his teeth, immobilizing him. Alex is actually a believer in Me and cries out at that very moment for Me to save him. But it doesn’t happen. In the middle of a Tuesday afternoon and within earshot of a peaceful, babbling brook, Alex is gutted open by the savage wolf. The other sheep’s only choices are to endure Alex’s wailings until he dies or look away in sheer horror. The wolf finishes his meal and casually departs.

Now, without going into a lot of philosophy, I think we can agree that this wolf attack is “bad” in an uncomplicated sense of the word. And when the sheep reconvene after the clean-up of Alex’s mangled body, his blood still stains the grass. And what do my apologists say about me in the face of this tragedy? What can they say?

“Tim is the creator of all.”

“Tim is good.”

“He knows all.”

“He can do anything.”

“He is everywhere at all times.”

“Tim loves us.”

Spoken in isolation, these “truths” didn’t pose a problem. But in light of the sheep’s recent experience, what are they to think? Why would I create the wolf if I am good? I knew when the wolf was coming, but did not stop it? I was present with them when the wolf attacked and did not stop it? I love them, but when the fervent Me believer Alex cried out to Me in my ever-presence for help, I was silent? This is what we call the problem of evil.

This argument is something of a “silver bullet”, because it is, I think, the single most honest question that can be asked about faith. All of the claims about Me are fine in isolation. When the world is fine and good, when the world reflects the supposedly awesome and fundamentally good character of the One that created it, these claims make sense. But they shatter into incoherence the moment the wolf enters the pasture.

The sheep are going to have to admit something about me, and they’re not going to like it. Did I not care that the wolf approached? Was I present, yet doing nothing? Am I truly able to stop such horrors? Do I really love my flock? Did I make everything in the world just the way it is, including the sheep and the wolf, knowing the exact time and date of Alex’s eventual demise? Or am I really there at all?

These thorny questions come around again and again and demand answers that have never, and I suspect, will never come. I saw a sheep die this week. Madison Baird*, of Walla Walla University, a Seventh-Day Adventist school, died after a collision with a truck while on her bicycle. I was devastated when I heard, and I did not even know her. It’s hard to understand how you could care that much about a person you don’t know, but that’s who I am. And I know that she brought life to those around her. My only question is: Where was the Shepherd?

Admitting to the falsity of even one of these claims infuses the situation with much more clarity and sense. None of them being false is highly unlikely, and accepting all of them as true seems to do nothing towards answering this all-important question. I’ve heard many parables and promises, and 99 of us made it back to the fold, but one sheep never did, and no one can tell us why.

*I couldn’t possibly express my condolences more sincerely to anyone who knew Madison. I have no trouble believing that she was light, art, beauty, and whatever you knew her to be. I hope you find comfort. I hope you find rest. Personally, I always find this helpful. Or to see what love looks like, you should check out this Facebook page. And coming from someone with some experience, just know that you will carry on. #MaddyStrong

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15 thoughts on “Where Was The Shepherd? – I Just Wanna Be a Sheep, Part 2”

  1. Thanks, Tim.

    You don’t see an answer anywhere, but here’s the answer I’ve seen:

    If God is good, the creator of everything, knows all, can do anything, is everywhere at all times, and loves us, then death, ultimately, is not a terrible thing.

    “‘Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?’

    The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    1 Corinthians 15:55-57

    And I think some of Maddy’s friends would agree. Death is not the end.

    If that’s true, then the only reason to have a problem with God is if you think it’s somehow impossible, as we’ve discussed before, for God to create beings with free will. Then you can blame God for creating a wolf that was pre-determined to kill sheep.

    But if God can do anything, certainly He can create free will.

    I have no idea how. But He can.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it.” – The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

      I hold God to quite a high standard, as should be the case of someone of His purported power. You believe in a God with all these qualities, but it would have taken only one ounce of His omnipotence to raise her like Lazarus. One dash of persuasion to send her on a different bike route that day. One iota of His perfect compassion not to create someone at all whose painful destiny He foreknew, and whose death He knew would result in pain unimaginable for her parents or anyone that knew her. But He stood there, ever-present, able to do anything, and listening to the petitions of thousands, and said, “No.”

      Why does His path to the eventual good involve so much pain along the way? Why can the One who can do anything not come up with a better plan?

      Finally, if death is not the end, why do Christians lock their doors? Why do they fear ISIS or Ebola killing them? Why do they wear seatbelts? Or, to quote someone you know, “Why are you weeping? Who are you seeking?” (John 20:15) I suggest that it may be because, late at night, Christians can hear from afar off, perhaps in just the form of a whisper, the answer they already know.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re questions are real.

        There’s that song, “Because He Lives”, that we both know. The author of 1 Thess. 4 writes about how we don’t grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. In Acts 20, Paul tells the elders in Ephesus that the Holy Spirit warns him of hardships in every city he enters, and that he considers his life worth nothing to him, if only he can testify to God’s grace. And then they all weep and embrace as they say goodbye, because Paul has told them he will never see them again.

        There’s something about knowing God that is stronger than all the pain in the world. It’s so much stronger that the pain, though felt completely, loses its power.

        So that sort of begs your next questions. Why lock your doors? Why fear ISIS or ebola? Why seatbelts?

        I might add, why not give everything? Why not share it all in common? Why not devote our lives to protecting people that can’t protect themselves, and supporting people who can’t earn an income of their own? Even at the peril of our lives? Why not invite people into our homes, for as long as needed?

        As for my additions, bro, we should! I’m trying to work up the courage. Seriously. I think the rarity of these things is a testament to the tininess of people’s faith.

        Of course that’s another reason God is so glorious. He can forgive even small faith.

        But in terms of door-locking, I don’t know. You could pray every night. You could accept people walking in and taking your things, or doing really bad things to you and your family. You could lock your door. But I think the root of what you’re getting at is more along the lines of: why be afraid?

        We shouldn’t be. Fear God, and don’t worry about a thing. Locking your door, as a Christian, should serve a functional purpose–keeping you and your family better rested, and your things in order, so that you can do your work well. If a lock is a security blanket, at some point that has to change.

        Personally, after a few minutes of intense fear when I first learned about ISIS, ISIS and ebola don’t really scare me. Of course that might change if an ISIS fighter walks in the door tomorrow morning. But hopefully not that much.

        And seatbelts? Well, in regard to that–and locks, ISIS, and ebola–I don’t think it’s bad to want to /avoid/ pain or to stay alive. The only real issue is if your desire to avoid it interferes with your ability to function well and enjoy life.

        The point is, “all voluntary concentration on one’s own bodily well-being, all worry and anxiety, hampers rather than furthers the creative force which instinctively and beneficently governs all life… indifference to the external /means/ of life (food, clothing, etc.) is not a sign of indifference to life and its value, but rather of a profound and secret confidence in life’s own /vigor/ and of an inner security from the mechanical accidents which may befall it.” (Max Scheler, /Ressentiment/ p. 60, on Luke 12:22-34)

        Believing in God doesn’t make me hate this life and just want to get to the next. It also doesn’t take away my sense of touch or devalue my relationships with people. It doesn’t numb me to tragedy, or joy. It just lets me know that an unbelievably great thing is out there–and is right here–no matter what happens.

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      2. Also, a note about how I defend Christians:

        I try not to. I’ve never been able to justify the typical American Christian life. I think loads of things are terribly skewed, and I’m not trying to excuse those things.

        So these defenses are more from a personal perspective, as if every time you say “Christian”, you refer to me.

        That’s all.

        Thanks for posting! I don’t know if I’d take the time to put thought into all these different things if you weren’t motivating me like this. I suppose that’s the glory of dialogue.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That is absolutely the glory of dialogue. 🙂

    I think you might have missed the point of those earlier questions. I meant to ask not “Why fear?”, but “Why take any precaution at all?” Or, as Jesus might’ve put it, why “take thought for the morrow?” (Matt 6:34)

    And you say that Heaven doesn’t diminish your life here, but why shouldn’t it? There’s no sickness, pain, crying, death, sorrow, loss, etc. You will get to live forever in the presence of the One whom you desire most to be with, and all the troubles of this world with grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace. And all of our trials and tribulations here will be matchlessly eclipsed by the glory and splendor of Heaven, with evil gone forever, and eternal goodness on the throne. How does that not diminish the value of this life?

    Anyways, always keep thinking, sir (and posting and commenting, too!) 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, it’s tough man. I still can’t believe you haven’t read the Narnia series. They face a lot of that stuff.

      One author (maybe C.S. Lewis?) imagines that, when the end comes, the people in paradise will look back on their lives and see that they were actually in heaven the whole time, and the people about to die will look back and see that they were in hell.

      That song starts “turn your eyes upon Jesus.” Meaning, it all starts now. This life is just as real and just as much part of our existence as the future will be. We don’t have to wait until heaven to walk with God. We can turn our eyes on him now. The primary component of Christian life is having Christ in you.

      So Paul goes and writes stuff like Philippians 1:23,24. I take that in the sense that a thing can be complemented by a better thing, not only diminished by it.

      Like cake and ice cream. I think ice cream is way better, but cake still tickles my taste buds. The best, however, is cake with ice cream. Or maybe dulce de leche–which is kind of a perfect combination of cake and dairy.

      Still don’t quite understand your precaution question. Pain still feels bad, it just is no longer morally significant. So avoid it if you can, but if you do feel it, take it in stride.

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  3. It’s all good.

    The point is: If death is nothing, and to die in Christ is to gain, why are you avoiding it at all? Why do you cry when someone dies?

    And if the point is that Heaven is now, why is Heaven promised later? If the point is that you can love and have morals and uplift the broken in this life and live a truly good life without the promise of Heaven or the threat of Hell, then what do you need Christ for? What is He saving you from?

    I’ve heard many Christians say, “There’ll be people in heaven that have never even heard the name of Jesus…” Uhh….in which case they’re clearly capable of living lives of which Jesus approves without hearing about Him, so why do they need Him? What is He going to save them from?

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    1. He’s saving us from eternal death–that is the reason we can have that “secret confidence in life’s own /vigor/.”

      There are no threats, there are only promises. And there are no lives Jesus approves of.

      There is only reality: the Source of life hoping you love him enough to marry him. Because he wants us to live, and we can only live for a little while without him in us.

      I think a good reason to try to avoid death is in Phil 1:24-26.

      And tears without bitterness come because we’ll miss people, and even if we believe, death is still one of the most intense things we can experience–so why not match it with an intense emotion?

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  4. Hmm…I’m highly skeptical of your claim that there are “no threats, only promises.” One that comes to mind is Jesus’s admonition that if we deny Him, He will deny us in front of his father. Also, the idea of separating wheat from chaff and the chaff being thrown into a furnace doesn’t sound like “Good News”. Also, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Also…you get the point. “No threats, only promises” does not really seem to be something that’s congruent with what the Bible or at least most churches teach.

    And still, I maintain that if you are supposedly friend with the One who holds the keys to life and death, you shouldn’t be afraid or even sad about it.

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    1. Not to mention, if you are friends with the Way, the Truth, and the Life, why do you not pray for the dead to come back to life? It happened a lot in the Bible. God could still raise them from the dead, could He not?

      “‘Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened.'” (1 Kings 18:27)

      I’m almost certain that you don’t pray for this, Steve, and neither does anyone else. The reason, I think, is because it is not going to happen. If people pray for things like a good grade on a test, they can pray AND study. And because it’s relatively easy to get an A on a test and bolster your faith, but you’re certainly going to be disappointed praying for a reanimation, you pick the easier option.

      Prayer, when put to the test in isolation, fails.

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      1. By “no threats,” I mean no threats as motivation to live a good life. Those things are descriptions of what will happen, but motivation never comes from the threat of hell. Or, really, from the promise of heaven as some see it. So they could still be called a threat in some sense, but it isn’t as if God is saying “Live a good life, or else…”

        And I still maintain you shouldn’t be afraid of death either. Sadness, however, I don’t see as much of a problem.

        Also, resurrection did not happen a lot in the Bible. There are 9 instances, plus the group that was raised when Christ died. And that’s over 4,000+ recorded years. But there have been accounts of resurrections since then, even to the present day. And people definitely do pray for this.

        I met someone two weeks ago in Cambodia who, as she tells me, was dead for an hour or two, and then came back to life. It happened about 5 years ago. Her family was with her. They prayed.

        In regard to prayer, I’ve spent all week interviewing church planters here in Laos, and a lot of them shared instances of prayer having powerful impacts, whether healing, casting out demons (which they distinguish from physical and mental problems), or less miraculous things like helping them pay off debts.

        There are stories like this in the US, too. But many people tend to just write them off as overactive imaginations or something. Maybe some are. But how do you reason through making every person that reports something like this a liar or a lunatic?

        I haven’t prayed for someone to come back to life. I also haven’t been directly connected with very many people who have died. But here’s the thing–if everyone is going to die anyways, why pray to bring someone back to life? As far as Adventists believe, the very next thing they will see is Jesus returning. The reason to be sad is that we will not see them for a while, not that they are in some bad situation. And so, often, a prayer for a resurrection would be kind of selfish.

        Of course, it seems like God doesn’t resurrect most people, even when people ask.

        But back to my first paragraph, here’s what I wonder: how can you understand, supposing He’s real, that the One who made you and then died to rescue you has a vendetta against you? Why doesn’t that help you work through any confusion about God’s goodness that you have when you read some parts of the Bible?

        Sort of opening a new can of worms with this comment. Do you want to continue here, or keep talking via another forum? Either way.

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  5. “It isn’t as if God is saying “Live a good life, or else…”
    Agree to disagree.

    1 resurrection is a lot, by my standards, since it’s never been demonstrated to happen.

    What do you think someone means when they say ‘demon-possessed’? We used to call things that, but now we know what epilepsy is, and many other forms of mental illness. There is no such thing as demon possession. Also, as far as ‘healings” go, God doesn’t seem to heal amputees or dead people, unless it happens to be in illiterate Palestine with no cameras around.

    I see you bringing in some Lewis language with “liar or lunatic”, but this is easy to explain. When you come in contact with someone with a mental illness that tells you their feet are on fire, what is happening? Well, it’s real and not real. They are experiencing pain, but what is happening is not what they think is happening, as in, their feet are not on fire. This can be applied to people who believe they’ve had “spiritual experiences”.

    Why pray for someone to come back? Well, why cry if you’re going to resurrect them in a couple of days?

    To answer your last question, it doesn’t help me because there is not one scintilla of evidence to support the claim that God is love. Jesus wants me to love Him more than my own family, and God wants me to be willing to sacrifice my own children to Him. God kills everyone but eight people, has bears maul 42 boys for making jokes, makes bowels fall out of people’s anuses (2 Chronicles 21), and he punishes those who refuse to commit genocide on others. He puts his own chosen people into periods of such desperation that they are forced to eat their own children, condemns women to have to marry their rapists, orders the stoning of homosexuals and people who work on the Sabbath, condones the practice of slavery, uses mind control on people to get them to commit condemnable acts and then condemns them for it, and he ruins the life of one faithful and committed to Him for a bet. He burns entire cities because of wickedness and turns Lot’s wife into salt for looking back, but he spares the man who pages ago offered his daughters to a rapacious gang. He blesses polygamists, and for some reason, created men with penises that he didn’t like and so forces them to remove part of them. He must have arbitrary demands satisfied for helping people, like Moses having to keep his hands raised so that the Israelites could succeed in battle. And he foreknew that this world would become fallen and broken, and yet that changed none of his extremely flawed “design”. And he continues on with a plan that he knows will end in the barbaric crucifixion of his “only begotten Son”, when he could’ve just forgiven everybody.

    You can’t just say “God is love” and then show a character that exhibits none of the characteristics of love. The above paragraph is pretty much a good definition of “not love”.

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  6. On resurrection: I mean that the vast majority of people in the Bible never experienced a resurrection, and so it’s no discredit to the Biblical account that we never have. In fact, very few people believed in resurrection back in the Bible days, whether Jewish or not (see one of the first chapters of The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N.T. Wright). The idea of resurrection has been unbelievable throughout history.

    On possession and healings: it seems like possessions come in a lot of forms (and some people probably mistake mental illnesses for possessions) and I don’t really know how to distinguish. A few firsthand accounts I heard last week included a baby who seized up specifically when the pastor prayed for it (every day for a week until the demon left), sicknesses in a family that were healed as soon as their Spirit worship tokens were burned and they prayed together, and a son being unable to sleep for a week because he saw a ghost every dusk at a house that was supposedly haunted. One healing that was reported specifically as a healing, and not a possession, was a lady who used to suffer from seizures until she started attending church (she hasn’t had a seizure in over a year now). Anyways, possession is definitely seen as something much different than merely an epileptic seizure. You make a good point in adding a component to the list: liar, lunatic, or deceived. Certainly some people could be. But that really just adds one more possibility. Do you think everyone that reports things like this–even when they’re confirmed by multiple people–is one of those three?

    Insert: I don’t feel really comfortable defending these sorts of things, because I don’t have first hand experience with these crazy sorts of miracles. I’m a secondhand account. I am, however, comfortable talking about the more mundane glories of prayer, such as personal transformation. I’ve been able to get free from addictions and experience complete changes of mind from time in prayer and Bible reading. To me, that is stronger proof of God than any of these stories. Nothing else works.

    On God being love: I think we both understand that the Bible attributes a lot of horrible things to God. But if we read the entire Bible as literally as you read the disturbing parts, then we come to an impasse because of things like 1 John 4:16. If both are true, then there has to be something we don’t know or can’t understand. If only one set of these things–the good or the bad–can be understood literally, then to choose either seems rather arbitrary.

    So you can throw the lot out, or keep it and keep looking for an answer that reconciles the two–and maybe wait until the end of all things if that is the only way to get a clearer picture.

    Also, he does forgive anybody that asks–see Jonah, 1 John 1:9, Isaiah 30 and Deuteronomy 30. He gave the earth 100 years to ask before the flood.

    So I’m not asking you to make the bad things OK. I’m just asking you to read the entire Bible with the same level of suspicion or credulity. If you do, I don’t see how you can call God bad. I do see how you can have questions. And I see how those questions could make you throw out the entire text as incoherent. But if you decide to discuss the God of the whole text, you must try to reconcile the crazy bad parts with the good parts, or else be guilty of the oft-condemned practice of cherry-picking.

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