Finding Good Shepherds

The LORD is my shepherd, so I don’t lack anything.

I learned that from David ben Jesse—the biblical King David—who was called a man after God’s own heart.

He was called that by God himself!

But “after God’s own heart“?  That is intriguing because I most often hear about God’s will, or of his knowledge, or his holiness, his power, his wisdom, and so on, and not his heart. This came from my teachers at Bible college, and later at seminary, as they unveiled an inscrutable and emotionally detached—“impassible”—God to us, a God committed solely to enhancing his own glory. So, given such insights into a demanding and disaffected God, what does it mean to speak of his “heart”? Such language seems too soft, too tender, too vulnerable—certainly not befitting an awesome God.

So maybe “heart”—at least as the Bible applies it to God—speaks of an all-wise, holy, sovereign, omniscient, predestinating will? Ummm . . . maybe.

But what if it actually does speak of his love? What if it means exactly what we think of when we talk about “opening my heart” to someone? What if God’s heart is his own affective center—the dynamic movement of his collective, inherent, mutual-triune love—poured out into our own hearts by his Spirit? That his being and doing is moved by love? What if that is actually true?

I find the thought both attractive and disconcerting! It brings me back to a question raised when my teachers reshaped “love” for the sake of good theology. I learned, for instance, that the biblical term agape speaks of a divine—will-based—love. Which can lead to a painful sigh: “Okay, I know God loves me . . . but could he ever like me?”

So, once again, just how was David’s heart like God’s heart?

We need to consider David and his heart. If ever there was a powerful figure in the Bible— surpassed by Jesus alone—it was David. Yet David was passionate. He wore his heart on his sleeve. Sometimes too much so! David danced his heart out before God and the nation. So boldly and wildly that it offended his wife. He wrote Psalms that still vibrate with urgent devotion and delight. He loved God with a rare courage and persistence. He loved Jonathan as the only other man in Israel bold enough to defend God’s reputation against overwhelming odds. He loved his mighty men, refusing to even sip some water that represented their life-risking devotion to him. He loved Bathsheba. And he killed her husband. So David—as a test case—was a lover, but his overall track record—the Uriah principle—warns us away from equating his profound capacity to love with his “heart after God’s own heart.” Correct?

Again, maybe. So, again, what should we make of the Heart-to-heart linkage?

The answer certainly rests in the common ground David shared with God: both David and God are shepherds.

David called God his own shepherd. God called David to be the shepherd of Israel. And it wasn’t just David. God always loves good shepherds—remember that it was a group of humble shepherds who received the great angelic serenade celebrating the birth of the ultimate shepherd, Jesus. David’s brothers left their youngest brother with what they saw as a demeaning job—the family sheep-chaser. Yet the role was, for David, an entryway to the wealth of God’s spreading goodness. He tasted God’s love as he found delight in caring for God’s creatures.

So David came to be captured with a vision of God’s deepest values as he sat among his family’s sheep night after cold night. As he fought off wild animals—the lions and bears—he looked for the best pastures and the safest watering holes. He loved his sheep and was ready to die protecting them. A sling against a lion? Casting pebbles against a bear? No problem, as long as God was his companion and the sheep were his concern.

It would have been during the long nights that God whispered new insights to his young companion-in-care, so that in the morning David could write what he learned: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”

And care for David, God did! As we read in the prophetic books, God measured leaders by how well they served as shepherds to the people God gave them to lead. Over time the report was grim. Ezekiel, speaking on God’s behalf (in chapter 34), summarized the reason for Judah’s Babylonian captivity: “My sheep were scattered [by their false shepherds]; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” What was God’s promised solution? “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD.”

And so he fulfilled his promise by coming—in the Son—as “the good shepherd” of John 10. Just as David once stood between the lion and the sheep, Jesus came as the one who “lays down his life for the sheep.” Why? Because he cares for the flock! And how profound is this care? Jesus measured it by the quality of the care he found in his Father’s bond with him: “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

It was this bond of love between the Father and the Son, by the Spirit, that God shares with his flock—stated yet again in the prayer of Jesus in John 17:22-23 as he asked the Father, “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

So David was a pioneer and exemplar of that bond of love, both with God and his people, Israel. He had the heart of a shepherd—of a bold lover of others, even at the expense of his own welfare!

But what about David’s murder of Uriah after stealing the man’s wife? David had violated his own shepherd’s heart. He had “eaten” from the flock that was meant to be under his care. Yet we must never forget that God used a “proper” passion to confront David’s ungodly passion. Nathan, by God’s direction, confronted David: “the poor man,” God said through Nathan, “had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought.” This beloved lamb was then stolen by a despotic rich man.

David’s response—the response of a good shepherd—was instant: “the man who has done this deserves to die” he commanded. Nathan then turned the table: “You are the man!”

God knew, even though David’s heart had turned away from him for a time, that a shepherd’s passion was still alive. It was one shepherd—God—speaking to another—David. They still shared a common heart. A heart all of us are invited to share with the LORD, our shepherd.

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19 Comments

  1. Leanne

    *smiles*

    So, I was starting to reply to your last post but worried that I was going to derail it. I deleted my post but kept thinking, “I just HAVE to ask him if he is serious when he says people don’t grasp God’s love or His heart in the posts he writes.”

    *chuckles*

    The Holy Spirit is one good prompter, no?

    I haven’t even got through this whole post and know I’ll probably clog up your comments with trip after trip to share my two cents but…………….. I just have to put this out there.

    God is EXACTLY, “too soft, too tender, too vulnerable” and that is EXACTLY what makes Him so POWERFUL!

    If we only knew, Ron, really KNEW how mighty and sovereign is the One who LOVES……….

    *sighs*

  2. Leanne

    okay, round two 😉

    “the Uriah principle—warns us away from equating his profound capacity to love with his “heart after God’s own heart.” Correct?”

    You already know this isn’t correct. Remember (you already do, btw *grins*) that the Bible said David had a heart “like” God’s heart, not that he possessed the actual heart of God.

    Now, mind you, I don’t have a string of letters behind my name and I purposely avoided seminary because I just knew it would destroy my faith and my soul (apologies to those of you who survived intact) but I keep coming back to the whole “made in God’s image” thing re. David’s heart like God’s.

    To me, the key phrases are “like” and “image”. I’m not your word study girl but I can grasp, without doing a whole study on the Greek/Hebrew and all the other kinds of big brain stuff I know you can do as easy as breathing-hah!- the idea that God’s talking more about reflections of Him than actual duality of being.

    *grimaces*

    I’m not sure that makes as much sense in writing as it does in my head.

    Okay, I think it just might be pointless to try and convince you of something you already know, especially when you say it waaaaay better.

    *grins*

  3. R N Frost

    Writing with an ironic turn or two (all too close to full blown sarcasm?) has its dangers, doesn’t it! What you’re hearing in this post is my own repentance . . . my sense of God’s true, living, triune, and relational love as the antidote to some of the theological re-writings of the face-value Bible narrative.

    The comments you offer on the ‘image of God’ call for another posting, but for now I’m still mulling over what it means for God to be our shepherd.

    So, to expand on what I wrote, David gives us as much insight about a shepherd’s heart as we could hope for. Yet I often hear, from those who are more Stoic (mind-and-will-centered), that David’s great sin is a warning (hence I’m linking the Uriah principle to a Stoic view of things . . . that I don’t buy): i.e. they would hold that affective love is NOT a reliable quality in God or in humans.

    This post answers: yes it is! It was God’s awareness of David’s deepest values as a shepherd (his “heart”) that he was able, through Nathan’s story of the lamb, to recall David to his past love, a love focused on the welfare of his sheep and not on his own selfish appetites.

    God, in effect, used a ‘proper’ love to overcome an ‘improper’ love (a symmetrical problem-solution engagement of sin) rather than a ‘will-based’ (asymmetrical problem) solution. It was God as one-who-loves that recaptured David’s heart after his fall and recalled him to what he shared with God; as made clear in Psalm 51 . . . “create in me a clean heart!”

  4. Leanne

    Well, I think this is where I bow out because I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up. I get that you are chewing on the theological versus the experiential(at least I think that’s what you’re doing!) but I have nothing of an intellectual nature to offer you and I don’t want to interrupt your processing.

    I’m glad you are experiencing God-however it may be-and if you don’t mind, I’ll just watch/listen from a distance (unless I just can’t help but jump in 😀 )

    Does that sound fair?

  5. R N Frost

    Thanks for what you’ve shared,Leanne. I will say that what this is about has everything to do with our experience of God. My background as a former seminary prof has lots to do with what and why I’m writing: I’m concerned (as you noted for yourself) that some expressions of high scholarship have derailed the love God offers to us. So in this last posting I’m writing “against” some points of view I know to be present in the Christian community . . . but I’ve tried to be a bit playful in doing it. Your concerns were very ‘on target’ (in my humble view), especially as you emphasized how God’s power is located in his love. I agree wholeheartedly. But not all Christians would.

    So, again, thanks for engaging and please pitch in whenever the Spirit nudges!

  6. Leanne

    The funny thing is, I have been able to sit under your teaching once or twice over the years and have read your book. Nothing you’ve ever taught ever contradicted what I know to be true about my Lord and in fact, when I’ve been under other teachers I’ve often wished you were in the room or that I could listen to you directly because I know you are so rock solid in your knowledge of Him.

    What I am discovering-as much as one stranger to another can on a blog-is that there is as much “wealth” in my experiences of Jesus as there is in your concentrated study of Him.

    The rub comes-and not from you, of course!-in that not all Christians are able to bridge the gap between head and heart. This disconnect in The Body has caused me much sorrow.

    I think we get in the way of Him without even realizing it, you know? I’m not sure what to say or do about that but I thought I’d offer it up.

    More than anything, though, I wish we-meaning all Christians-could pool our knowledge of God-head and heart-and just talk! I’d like nothing more than to have mutual give and take instead of systematic teachings or knee jerk reactions and/or dismissive judgments of others.

    You said you’re exploring what is means for God to be our shepherd. I think we-each other-have a huge part in it. Maybe He guides us through each other to a closer understanding of Him?????

    This would definitely be easier face to face!

    *grins*

  7. Laurie

    Head vs Heart – this is a familiar conversation!
    Although I was raised in an evangelical church that taught me I was to have a relationship with Jesus, I remained mostly “head”. Interestingly, it was “head” knowledge without much intellect behind it. As a teen, my father died and all that “head” knowledge couldn’t sustain me, subdue my anger or that of my church peers when I couldn’t “get over it”. I left the church, married, had babies and it wasn’t until 16 years later that I was shown “heart”. ( All the time in between I was both self-loathing and very judgemental, a strange but I’m finding a common, combination.)
    Heart was lived out before me by a wonderful group of women and then one night, reading a devotional, I asked God if he loved me like that. Yes, he said, I love you like that. It was so amazingly life changing that my antagonistic, agnostic husband, took note and soon Jesus just knocked him over with a feather and he was His.
    It was a scary journey to get to that point. It seemed that it couldn’t be just about love, after all the Beatles had said all you need was love, and how could they be right!?! What I do know is that when I let go of the “head” stuff that I thought was the right stuff, the safety net of Love caught me and I haven’t been the same since.

  8. R N Frost

    I really appreciate how your comment, Laurie, illustrated what Leanne offered when she wrote: “Maybe He guides us through each other to a closer understanding of Him?” That is, your husband was able to read the truth about God’s character through the magnifying glass of your own love.

    Let me add a couple of thoughts (one rather extended, the other very brief):

    1) The question of “head versus heart” is more important than almost any other concern we have once we become followers of Christ. Why? Because it offers us the ‘eyeglasses’ for reading both life and the Bible. In the Stoic view. the human will is central in explaining every action, and the intellect is given primacy as the dispassionate center of sound judgments.

    The Bible, by contrast, treats our affections as primary, so that we are defined by the guiding desires of our hearts.

    This, by the way, is a formal issue: many/most academic Christians presume (uncritically) a Stoic version of the soul. That is, the Mind, Will, and Emotions are treated as 3 mutually-engaged motivational faculties that account of our behaviors. The Stoics held that while the mind and will are aligned with qualities that God has, emotions are not ‘of God’ because they ultimately represent physical responses & appetites that God, by his purely spiritual nature, transcends. Thus the goal of the Stoics was to achieve “apatheia” (balanced self-control) by applying informed [mind-based] will-power [the will, obviously] in ruling false desires [the emotions].

    The Bible, by contrast, presumes a single motive center in the soul: the heart. And the heart is “affective” [yes, that means emotion-based] because it represents the relational aspect of our soul where God’s love meets us and moves us to respond to his word and his ways. As such, the heart must be guarded (as in Proverbs 3:5 & 4:23) because the heart–as a responsive capacity–can be drawn away from our Eden-birthed love-for-God to other loves, all of which are extensions of Adam’s inaugural response to the Serpent’s invitation to self love.

    The applied reality of all this is something that Madison Avenue certainly understands as they sell us their goods (i.e. that we are affection-driven beings: “responders”). And so do secular neurobiologists . . . e.g. Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux who have shown that we actually “think by feeling”. Sadly the Stoic tradition is most effectively (and robustly) guarded by Christians, by scholars who view their own rational abilities to be “self-directed” along with their devotion to a “free (i.e. self-guided) will.” Thus the majority of Christian academics ignore a face-value reading of the Bible on such issues.

    Let me add a point that may be useful to some readers: a common Stoic charge against an affective “heart-centered” view of the soul is that it is “anti-intellectual” and, therefore, nonsensical. What they miss (or chose to ignore) is that the intellect is the “processing center” in either understanding of the soul. What differs is not whether the mind is involved, but how the mind operates.

    As an illustration, I think of C.S. Lewis whose “intellectual” book on suffering, [The Problem of Pain], avoided heart-centered concerns. But when his wife, Joy, died of cancer he wrote one of the most emotional books I’ve ever read, [A Grief Observed]. Of the two, I always offer the second to someone faced by the deep loss of the kind you experienced, Laurie, in losing your father.

    To sum up, the mind and will are merely the servants of the heart (serving our affections by setting up rationalizations in support of whatever we love most; and then in applying, often fiercely, what we have loved and rationalized. So to speak of the “heart” is simply being transparent by speaking of what it is that REALLY motivates us. The Stoics, on the other hand, are forever hiding what they love; and are pretending (usually in a naive self-deception) that their choices are merely logical and free-will-based. Jesus, however, dismissed that sort of thing in John 8:30-59.

    2) Because we were made, in God’s image, as responders-to-the-love-of-another (after God’s divine, eternal, mutual love, which accounts for the assertion of 1 John 4 that “God is love”), we have in Ephesians 3:19 a glimpse into the greatest truth ever offered: our love relationship with God in Christ will never run out of room or time as we experience that love both now and in eternity to come!

  9. Jack

    Hi Laurie, I’m a lurking reader and I so much enjoyed what you shared! These conversations between disciples and teacher are as rich and precious as Ron’s central messages. Ron, thank you for hearing the call for this site. God, if you please, answer this prayer that your would bless it that it may grow beyond our imagination. What a great gift…

  10. Mark

    Hi Ron! You say it well when you say that the heart is the motivational center of the spirit. It is the focus of much of Scripture when applied to belief, faith, love and fidelity. But are the desires of the heart really akin to emotion? Emotions, as we frequently understand them, seem to me to be fleeting things – very “natural” in fact – and are themselves simply “responders” to the deeper matters of the heart (much as the mind and the will respond to the desire of the heart; to what is loved). To me, to compare the emotions to the longing of the heart is like comparing the composition of ink on a page to the ideas they are communicating – the heart is so much more. Isn’t the orientation of the heart, the focus of longing and desire, the very center of love (which is not emotional in that fleeting way, but deep and overwhelming and all-consuming the way the spirit operates)?

    I love what you have shared about David and his shepherd’s heart. I’ll add one more thought to that, something that should cause leaders and pastors in the church to think twice about how they care for those God has entrusted to them. Jesus contrasted the shepherd with the hireling, who split when there was danger; leaving the sheep to fend for themselves. It is a great privilege to be a shepherd – and God takes seriously the charge He has given. The rule book for shepherds? A heart for the sheep.

  11. R N Frost

    Yes, Mark, a shepherd ready to die for his sheep offers real security for the flock! And I’m now speaking from my own status among “sheep.” The hireling, as a self-concerned figure offers a temporary posture of caring, a presence as a leader, and a readiness to run whenever it seems expedient.

    The dramatic change of heart that Christ brings about, drawing us to share his own heart, is the only way for true under-shepherds to emerge: those selflessly committed to others. May such shepherds multiply!

    On the question of emotions, I see them in terms of a continuum. Call it a spectrum of outward “energy” or “expressiveness” versus inward “direction” , but in any or all such terms I find the common thread: a response to others. So while the “emotions” seem to us to be more ephemeral and flighty, while longings seem more rooted, I think that misses the point. Jesus, for instance, showed a full range of love in John 11, the Lazarus account. He loves, but allows Lazarus to die. Yet in the presence of Mary, Martha, and the close companions of Lazarus, Jesus wept: an emotional response. As in my H2O analogy (ice, water, steam = hard water, wet water, airy water = all are H2O), I see all as responses. Yet it’s certainly true that most of life needs to be lived in the more ‘substantial’ range of affective responding [e.g. “if you love me, keep my commandments”].

  12. Mark

    4:17 A.M.? I’m worried about you Ron – you’re keeping my hours!

    I’m still not ready to give up on this anthropological question – not so much out of challenge than wanting to have a better understanding. I want to get away from dichotomist and trichotomist language to explore this question. When I think of flesh, I think of all those things that make up “natural” man – including physical, emotional, mental, volitional, all of which respond to the longing of the heart for the things of the world. The heart, as Paul tells us in 1Cor 2, is dead until made alive by God, after which by His Spirit is made alive to Him, at which point those things previously aligned to the world begin to alive to this new heart (longing) for God. Isn’t this a more biblical approach to anthroplogy?

  13. Leanne

    Mark said: “When I think of flesh, I think of all those things that make up “natural” man – including physical, emotional, mental, volitional, all of which respond to the longing of the heart……”

    When I read this, I think, “Yeah. Just like Jesus, Mark. He became ALL those things you say are “anthropoligical”.

    That’s the whole point.

    Why did He do this?

    LOVE.

    Now, He asks of us, to do the same and to shepherd His flock with HIS heart, the one we received the power to tap into when we first accepted Christ.

    Sometimes that’s all leadership, shepherding is, in my opinion. Tapping into the heart of Jesus for all the world to see.

  14. Mark

    Leanne,

    Exactly. The Word became “flesh.” So when the flesh (including the soul) has a new heart aligned to the only Desire that overcomes desire, the person now in Christ begins to look like the One he/she loves.

    Okay – I am annoyingly curious about precision in the meaning of words (though I bumble over them myself all the time). To which I submit concern over words like “choose Christ” and “accepted Christ” and “belief in Christ” (bereft of the broader meaning of the Greek root pisteo from which it comes). We are responders – not choosers – so I am on guard regarding volitional (mind over will) words that are sowing confusion among the sheep and are spoken from Western pulpits. Longing, desire and love lead to choices, reason and acceptance. The love of Christ compels us…

    1Cor 5:14- “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

  15. R N Frost

    Just to reassure you, Mark, the hours posted for my entries are linked to another time standard (the GMT in the UK) & not to my own clock! So, as much as you’re a model to me as a pastor and faithful man of God, I’m just not able to keep your hours!

    One point of clarification about how I’m framing things in what I write: I accede to the threefold use of “mind, will, and affections” for the sake of conversation with other views of our personhood. This triad was crystallized mainly by the Stoic/Greek view of persons, representing three basic features (or “faculties”), and I’ve been happy to critique what I see as the Stoic blind spot of presuming “three interacting motivational centers” in the soul.

    Nevertheless the designations, even without the Stoic notions, capture what are obvious aspects of our “inward processing” [of thinking, choosing, and feeling]. Other features can be added, of course, such as “conscience” or “ego” and so on. And any discussion of this topic is an “anthropology” of a sort.

    To set up my own language use: these differ in focus from the views of dichotomy and trichotomy, i.e. whether we consist in Body and Spirit (“di”) or Body, Soul, and Spirit (“tri”). So the triad of “faculties” are viewed to be part of the inner aspect of a person by both ‘di’ and ‘tri’ promoters.

    So to make clear what I see in Scriptures: the soul (whether, broadly, our collective “self”; or, more narrowly, our immaterial person) has an even deeper motivational center, the heart. This is the same as our spirit or the “inner man” that Paul speaks about.

    I take our hearts/spirit to be ‘active’ before new birth in Christ, but dead towards God (and, therefore truly dead, by separation from Life himself). Thus in Paul’s use of the “flesh” I take him to be speaking of the collective habits of heart, soul, and body (thus played out in “our members” i.e. our physical behaviors). The term “flesh” [Greek: sarx] is in itself technically a morally neutral word [speaking of the ‘soft tissues/muscles’ of a body], so that in speaking of Christ’s coming in the “flesh” the text is simply saying “Christ was a true, physical person”.

    But in Adam all of humanity, apart from Christ, is without the Spirit [per John 3] and therefore we are all dead towards God before our new birth, habitually ‘curved in on self’ by sin. This sense is clearly what Paul has in mind in his common derogatory use of “flesh” as linked to sin. Once the Spirit enters our own hearts, we become “free” to live without the old habits of our flesh ruling us and are invited to take full advantage of that freedom. But until we get a “new” non-sin-tainted body, the problem of old sinful habits embedded in our continuing physical “vessel” (our flesh or “this body of death”) won’t disappear [Romans 8].

    Christ, himself born of and with the Spirit, was the “new Adam” whose soul is not spoiled by sin. Thus his “flesh” lacks any of the habits or tendencies of sin. So while he can be stirred by physical appetites like us (hence the temptation of Christ involved appetites of body and spirit), he maintains all his desires within the pleasure of his Father’s heart.

    I’m not pressing for a yea or nay vote from you and Leanne (I’m listening to you both!) . . . this is offered just to clarify my own usage and understanding of key NT texts & terms.

  16. Leanne

    But, just to clarify, what you’re really saying is that I am right and Mark is wrong?

    Yes?

    Kidding!

    😉

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