Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Parable of the Bell Sheep

Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones You have crushed rejoice.
(Psalm 51:8, HCSB)

A mentor introduced me to the following idea almost two decades ago. W. Phillip Keller's classic book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 provided her source material. The image has reemerged in my thinking in multiple circumstances recently, so the time seemed right to share my storification of it with you.

            Once upon a time, a good, wise, loving Shepherd bought a foolish and bedraggled little sheep to save her from the slaughterhouse her wicked former owner intended for her.  Finding her in dangerous woods, He drew her to Himself, quickly winning her love and obedience by His tender care.
After awhile, though, she grew tired of simply following the Shepherd and enjoying His presence and began to wander about in search of opportunities to help and serve her Master.  Eagerly, she would trot off in search of imperiled sheep who had gotten lost or hurt.  Unfortunately, she often ended up lost, too, in the attempt to bring them back.  She never minded her trials, since through them He found other lost sheep, as well.  More than once, she herself was wounded by wolves or bears (or her own foolhardiness) attempting to rescue other wounded woolies.  Never complaining, she wore her war-wounds proudly as emblems of her dedicated service.
Without fail, the Shepherd rescued her and brought her back, but the wayward, well-intentioned little lamb grieved Him.  His desire was for her more than her wearing herself out in effort to please Him, and His greatest delight was in having her follow close by His side.  Since she had never taken the time truly to know Him, she remained ignorant of His sorrow, until He finally stopped her wandering by breaking one of her legs.
Bleating in pain and astonishment, she kicked and bit and refused His kind overtures of comfort.  Eventually, however, she grew too exhausted from the struggle to fight anymore.  In her silent, helpless weariness, He bound up her wounds and cradled her tenderly, carrying her in His arms until her leg healed and she could walk again.
As she recovered, she learned to know the Shepherd’s heartbeat.  She grew to love the mere pleasure of His nearness.  Far greater than the superficial adrenaline rush of her former labors, her greatest joy became simply that of belonging to Him.
When her leg healed, and the Shepherd set her down to walk again, she no longer desired to wander from His side.  In recognition of the change and as a reminder of her own brokenness, her Shepherd placed a bell around her neck.  This way as she followed close by Him, the bell continually testified to the presence of her Good Shepherd.  Wandering sheep often heard the bell and followed its ring back to His side.  Wounded or cast sheep heard His approach and bleated for help, and the bell sheep would trot along beside Him, ringing the good news that helps was on its way, as He went to their rescue.
This “service” proved far more satisfying, as the glory all went to the goodness of her Shepherd.  Moreover, He used her to accomplish His work without her ever leaving His side.  While she never wanted to repeat the brokenness, she would never have traded the lessons learned through it.  She finally discovered her Shepherd was all she needed when He was all she had, and the pain of the process paled in the beauty of His preciousness.

The LORD is near the brokenhearted; He saves those crushed in spirit.
(Psalm 34:18, HCSB)


  1. Ooh, what a beautiful story! Although somewhat painful to hear. I recognize myself in it, often trying to work, work, work. But staying close to the Shepherd and hearing his heartbeat...I know that feeling too. Thanks for sharing this. I'm always encouraged when I visit you.

  2. @Lisa notes... Yes, brokenness is painful and lays the groundwork for beauty. The story called me by name the first time I heard it, and I have returned to it so many times since...

    Thank you for coming by. I'm thankful God encouraged you here. That appreciation is mutual. God bless you, Lisa!

  3. Never wanting to repeat the brokenness, but at the same time giving thanks for the restoration. Beautiful!

  4. The joys of belonging-- and not of doing; of knowing and being known. This is a precious story, and it blessed me. Thank you!

  5. @pathoftreasure I'm thankful you found blessing here. You're welcome, and thank YOU, friend.

  6. we need lamb pictures!

    We need lamb pictures! :)

    I did an Easter poem this year – complete with lamb pictures – I found that lamb pictures are like when people put baby pictures in their posts – everybody goes awwwwwwwwwwwwwww - and everybody likes the post.

    I remember that book – I actually remember getting it on cassette – it was remarkable. And your parable – I heart your parable! To do the job of the master – while never leaving the master's side. That's brilliant, and poignant, and I so need to be that lamb. Such a good reminder – really, a beautiful parable. God bless you Christina, and thank you for this! It was lambtastic :)

  7. @Craig Glad you liked it.

    There are no photos because I was thinking I didn't have any. The only farm in our town has alpaca, horses, and cow, but no sheep. Now that you mention it, though, I may have some old prints from our travels. In other words, I'll see what I can do.

    God bless you, too, Craig.

  8. unlike me, my wife doesn't like to re-watch "It's A Wonderful Life" every year around Christmastime. it's not that she has a different view from mine of the film's aesthetic merits; it's just that, as she sees it, even tho' there's a very happy ending, there's a lot of grim stuff on the way there.

    that's kind of what i found myself thinking when i read your post. that the best of motives--
    gratitude towards and love for the Shepherd--can (given ignorance of the Shepherd's will for us) actually cause us to stray from Him and grieve Him--is tragic. that our ignorance of our Shepherd's will for us is so close to invincible that the Shepherd must break one of our legs to overcome it, is again tragic.

    i guess the right way of thinking about it, tho', is that the grimness on the way is a indication of the wonderfulness of the destination. if we're broken at such a deep level, that even after we have resolved to give the Shepherd our hearts and our lives, we are still so far from being able to love and serve Him well, then it's all the more wonderful that the Shepherd will heal so deep a brokenness.

    it's interesting that of the other commenters, only Lisa drew attention to the painfulness of the parable. maybe it's a rorschach test, and i found the painful aspects salient because (sadly) i see in myself the wayward sheep, more than i see the sheep after she was belled. i have recently been trying to do lots of volunteer work. it's not that i think this is a bad thing, but i did just start doing it, rather than praying for guidance about whether it was the best thing for me to do, and my failure to pray beforehand puts me in mind of the wayward sheep.

    your posts always do me such good, whether i find them comforting, or uncomfortable--thank you!

  9. @chris Your wife's perspective on "It's a Wonderful Life" is certainly understandable. There is much darkness in that film on the way to the redemptive ending.

    My understanding of the bell sheep story diverges from yours in some respects, partly based on my own experiences of brokenness. Fundamentally, this sheep's motives were not so much gratitude and love tainted by ignorance as they were pride (or self, ego, the flesh) and a desire to earn acceptance and accolades through works of service.

    In any case, I agree with you that this is grim and tragic, perhaps even more so than your understanding, because the ignorance is culpable and not innocent. Isn't hubris the classical tragic flaw?

    I hope that's enough to tide you over until the second bell sheep post next Wednesday, but I'm afraid it's only muddied the waters.

    Like all parables, it could well be a sort of Rorschach test. When I first heard the story, I was in the midst of such a deep brokenness that the bell sheep brought unadulterated comfort and hope. It placed the pain in a context and clothed it with purpose and Presence. For one on the outside of the brokenness, however, it would no doubt take on a different tone.

    I'm sorry you see the wayward sheep in yourself. May the Lord grant you the light you need to assess your commitments before Him. His mercies are new every morning, every need.

    All thanks go to Him that you find good here, even when the good is uncomfortable.

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  11. I guess what bothers me about this parable is that I don't believe God hurts us after we belong to Him. I do believe that God will throw us into the very pit of hell if we don't choose His son in this lifetime. But, after we have invited Christ into our hearts, I don't believe God hurts us. Because God sees the big picture, has a plan, and never wastes a hurt (in the Romans 8:28 sense) He may allow Satan to hurt us. He will definitely allow us to hurt ourselves. But I don't believe God hurts us, and I don't believe, Christina, that God has made you sick, so I don't like it that--in the parable-- the shepherd broke the sheep's leg. He should've allowed a wolf to break it. Otherwise, it's a fine parable, and I understand why you appreciate it.

  12. @Brandee Shafer Friend, thank you for your compassionate heart and affection for me. You are a blessing. I'm prayerfully considering how to respond to the substance of your comment, but I at least wanted to acknowledge you immediately and let you know I'm working on it.

    Another blog's recent post of a hymn by the author of "Amazing Grace" may perhaps bear on this issue:


  13. @Brandee Shafer Friend, thank you for your compassionate heart and affection for me. You are a blessing. I'm prayerfully considering how to respond to the substance of your comment, but I at least wanted to acknowledge you immediately and let you know I'm working on it.

    Another blog's recent post of a hymn by the author of "Amazing Grace" may perhaps bear on this issue:


  14. How did I miss this? Summer, perhaps. The funny thing is I'd missed your writing. . . could have looked and found it.
    Appreciated this story so much. Actually want a friend to read it. . . I think it would encourage her. Remembering our shepherd is Good, all the time, helps keep us near Him.

  15. @Amy You probably missed this post because you have better things to do than read this little blog. That's a good thing! (I'd missed your voice here, too, although with gratitude for your full summer.)

    Thank you for missing my writing. Your words always encourage me. I'm glad you appreciated this piece, and I pray that it does encourage your friend in the Lord if He gives an opportunity to share it. I agree that His goodness helps keep us near.

    God bless you, friend!

  16. It's ok if we depart on the issue of God hurting / God allowing hurt. I've been struggling for weeks to write the post (to link w/ antbed Anne) that will explain my sensitivity on the issue, and at least, now (thanks to this exchange), I feel motivated to study it out in the Word. I'm thinking of Job, where God just kind of stepped back and let Satan torment. But I need to look elsewhere in scripture. The Psalm above doesn't satisfy me in the least because I don't know that I trust David's perspective on the issue. Davis was at least as human as I.

  17. @Brandee Shafer Thank you for the follow-up comment. Definitely, do study it out in Scripture, and I will go back to the source, too!

    Job does speak to the question. Other passages/people which have shaped my thinking are Joseph's story in Genesis, Moses at the beginning of Exodus, Peter throughout the Gospels, and the chapters Isaiah 53 and Hebrews 12.

    I'm also okay with the possibility we will continue to disagree. The question of God's role in human suffering is complex and mysterious. Fundamentally, any answer we come up with that eliminates the mystery is probably wrong. Lots of wiser hearts than mine are represented on both sides of the discussion.

    Maybe this is too fine a distinction, but in my thoughts there is also a difference between hurt and harm. I would never intentionally harm my family or my dogs, but there have been many times I had to hurt one of the dogs to protect them from harm (grooming, administering injections, vet visits, the Cone of Shame, yanking the leash to pull them out of danger when they refused to respond to verbal commands). Mothering probably demands the same choices sometimes.


Thank you for sharing your day with me! Your presence here is a gift. *You* are a gift. Right now I am unable to reply to every comment, but please know I read and pray for each and every commenter. Grace and peace to you in Christ.