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.