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 a while, 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 help 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 beside the beauty of His preciousness.