The Good Shepherd Doesn’t Break the Sheep’s Leg

sheep1“A good shepherd breaks the leg of a sheep that strays from the flock – this is to protect them and teach the sheep how much he loves them.” –Myth.

The first time I heard this myth was while I was getting my doctorate. The professor speaking had just written a book about shepherds. He and his family had lived in the Middle East outside of Jerusalem for five years learning the shepherding trade so that he could write about God as the Good Shepherd—an image of God seen throughout scripture. He said that he had heard this story about the breaking of legs many times before becoming a shepherd himself—and that it had been used to teach people that if they were going through a hard time, it was because God had broken their leg so they could learn to depend on God.

He went on to tell us that this was a myth and nothing more. Not only would a shepherd never harm a sheep, but there were many ways to keep a sheep near the flock without physically causing it pain—they might tie the sheep to other sheep or themselves—they might assign a dog to watch a particular sheep—they might even tie a weight to the sheep’s leg. But NEVER would a good shepherd break the leg of a sheep. In fact, a sheep found with a broken leg would likely be put down to keep the animal from suffering.

I am not so worried about how shepherds care for sheep.  I am worried that people think God is out there breaking legs (making people sick, giving people hardships, hurting people in unspeakable ways) in order to bring them into God’s kingdom. What kind of loving God would that be? I don’t believe this for a second!

Sure, we suffer the natural consequences of other’s and our own actions, but not always—God, more often than not, shows us unspeakable grace even when we fail due to our own fault.  But God is NEVER the cause of that suffering.

I am also concerned that people may take this myth even further to say that it is okay for us to break the legs of others in order to get them to behave in a particular way. Maybe this translates to treating a child, a spouse, or a friend, who has let us down, poorly in the name of love. No! That is not the way we demonstrate the love of Christ to others.  Jesus never broke legs and neither should we.  Jesus told us to serve others not hurt them. Showing grace and mercy always triumphs over hurting another.

Your pain, your hurt, your challenges are not caused by God’s love. God does not hurt you because God loves you. God’s mercy, kindness, and goodness is how God romances us and how God creates faithfulness within us.  Jesus stepped in—even when we deserved punishment—and took that punishment on himself.  Jesus made us free from sin and guilt. That is the kind of God we have.  Believe me, God isn’t out there breaking legs.

*****

April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.  

7 thoughts on “The Good Shepherd Doesn’t Break the Sheep’s Leg

  1. be named. But then the question that Tammy raised remains unanswered: What about Jacob? (God) crippled Jacob and Jacob limped for life. Well, now I am back to square one. I guess I will just have to wait until I get to heaven, and not allow my questions to grow larger than my faith, since we walk by faith and not understanding. Not a very good feeling, but I’ll get by.

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  2. Oh yes, He was blessing Jacob that day, in fact, that very day he was renamed the Father of the Jews, renamed “Israel”! That does not mean that he did not “touch” Jacob’s hip and cause him to limp the rest of his life. My point is God is God, he can do what he wants. He promises that “all things work together for good to them who love him and are called according to his purpose” . I take great comfort in that, because there are many tragic things that happen that I can’t understand. But, I do trust God.

    As I said in my first comment, I do NOT believe Job was suffering as a consequence of sin. God does allow suffering for many reasons, to refine us (1 Peter 1:7) , to teach perseverance (James 1:2-4) to allow us to know comfort and teach us how to comfort others( 2Corinthians 1:3-7) –to name a few of the reasons.

    However, as any good parent, we must offer both grace and discipline to our children if we love them. it is never an abusive or cruel discipline. God, as our perfect heavenly father, does discipline his children (Hebrews 12:6) Do you always know what that discipline is, because I sure don’t.

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  3. I too have heard that myth and if you say it isn’t true, I believe you. However, I look at scripture and I see times where God does “break legs” (figuratively and literally) For example in Genesis 32, Jacob wrestled with God and God “touched his hip” so he had a permanent limp. Also, in Job, God purposefully pointed Job out to Satan (Job 1:8) “have you seen my servant Job?”. God allowed a time of huge testing and trials for Job. Not a consequence of his sin, rather a way to prove that Job’s faith went beyond anything that would be given or taken. (The Lord gives, the Lord takes, blessed be the name of the Lord. Job 1:20)

    I do agree that it is never our job to do the “breaking”. I trust in an all-knowing, all-loving, righteous God to save a wretch like me. I will continue to strive for faithfulness to Him and compassion for others.

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    1. Tammy,

      Good points. But I think if you look more closely at the Job story, God did not cause Job’s suffering. God took away God’s protection from Job. Job had not done anything wrong!! God was not punishing him. God allowed bad things to happen, but did not cause them to happen.

      Nor was God punishing Jacob – God blessed Jacob that morning!

      The problem is this.. people who are ill sometimes want desperately for it to be their fault so that they can make a deal with God. “God, I will do better if you heal me.” This is not healthy. Nor is God into deal making. God is into grace. We suffer because the world is broken, not because God is punishing us. Good people often get sick and die due to nothing they did wrong. It is important that we honor this instead of trying to do what Job’s friends did and try get him to admit that his sins caused his problems. Job held strong and confident that he was not a fault.

      The Epistle of James is very clear in saying that God is not the author of the bad things that happen.

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