If God is the good shepherd why do so many sheep stray?

One objection to the Gospel that unbelievers often raise - indeed it was raised at least once on this blog last week - is, "If God is the good shepherd, why do so many sheep go astray?" If God wants no-one to perish, why don't more people accept the Gospel? Do the sheep have to look for evidence of the shepherd, or should the shepherd look for the sheep?

The first point I want to make, is that the Bible doesn't teach that some sheep have strayed, but that we have all strayed:

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; (Isa 53:6)

The other thing, is that once we have come to Christ, he proves that he is the good shepherd by keeping us secure from straying.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. (John 10:27-29)

So the real question is "Why don't more sheep return?"

For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:25)

Jesus himself expressed this problem using another analogy:

"The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest." (Luke 10:2)

God has chosen to work though men and women. This was the reason he created them: that they might bring his order to the earth as it exists in heaven. There is nothing wrong with the farmer who sowed the seed, or the harvest that came up, its just waiting for labourers to go out and bring them in. The sheep who have not yet returned to the shepherd need to be told the good news, that they can come back.

The issue is "What will we do about it?" If we are straying - will we return? And having returned, will we then go out again with the message of hope. God doesn't just save us to give us a ticket to heaven, but to make us a part of his great eternal plan for this world.


Anonymous said...

Just a couple of points that I would like contribute

1) Sheep, as little as I know about them, seem a lot like little children – needing constant care, direction, food, and safety. You see, even metaphorically speaking, being called sheep isn’t much of a complement as they’re twice as smelly as manure and half as smart. Too often in the church today we’ve forgotten to focus on God…on the Shepherd. We pay too much attention to the sheep – how they should live, or think, and act. It could be said that the church should be focusing on the days pressing issues: the environment, world hunger, gender equity, racial justice, economic disparity. Others contend this all begins with personal morality: we should instead focus on personal values, follow the commandments, live lives of sexual purity, and making sure we read the Bible daily.However now a days "Who's value are right" But there’s so much to be said about how we live, or should live. There is Mary and Martha one fussing about the kitchen and one focusing on Jesus, not herself. From a Christian point of view some times we look too much towards the incoming sheep and neglect the sheep that are slipping out the back door !!!

2) Psalm 23 is a great Psalm in respect to your post. Whatever valley of the shadow of death you traverse, God is with you, and will lead you home. The church is to declare God the Shepherd, and not the sheep – the goodness of Jesus, not the sins of his disciples. It is the gift of love that the Creator, of all that is, knows the name of every lowly, smelly, wandering sheep. It is the gift of faith that we hear his voice…But those who heard these words from Jesus’ voice centuries ago also knew something we’ve forgotten: Shepherds weren’t too high on the social ladder because they lived with their sheep. That’s why the sheep knew whom to follow. You could put several flocks of sheep into one enclosure, and they’d all know who to follow out. By sight? Because you smelled just like them? No. The follow the voice of the Shepherd. Over the years the image has changed, but the power of the words, and impact of this image, and the voice of the Shepherd has not.

3) the church needs to identify its self. To the unbeliever it is too diverse in its ethics and to do one thing on Sunday and another on Monday is fine as "that is what the church is doing" (perhaps another post for another day)


Anonymous said...


From a different viewpoint - I've always taken the sheep to be those already in God's fold - Christians. Why do so many make a commitment and then stray away again?

Some would say they didn't make a real commitment in the first place. But I know people whose faith was real (evidenced by the Holy Spirit at work in them) and yet later have strayed.

Others would blame their lifestyle - they weren't prepared to change. But sometimes unless you walk out on everything you have, you cannot change your life, but married person who makes a commitment and is then living with a non-believer who condemns and bruises their faith cannot walk out on their partner and children.

Others may blame their church. The family of God are unaware of the pressures and temptations being exerted on someone who eventually just gives up and walks away.

One thing I do know - the Shepherd does call and his sheep do hear his voice. God's sheep will return to his fold. Sometimes God will use others to guide them back, other times God will do it totally on his own, through the soft whispering of the Holy Spirit inside the "non-believing" believer.

Why do sheep stray? Because life is tough and just sometimes we get snowed under by the pressures of it.

Why do sheep return? Because God is always faithful and will not allow even one of his sheep to come to harm and sooner or later, his sheep are drawn back to the safety, love, peace and joy that comes from living under God.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,

It is actually clear from the teaching of Jesus and Paul that a married person who comes to faith actually can leave their spouse and kids and choose to follow Christ wholeheartedly.

Luke 9:61-62
Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good bye to my family." Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."

Luke 14:26-27
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

1 Corinthinans 7:15-16
But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

But I think the sheep analogy is used in different ways by different writers. I agree that (for example) John uses the analogy of sheep to talk exclusively about believers, but the same is not the case for Isaiah - he calls everyone sheep.

Comparing verses from different writers gets a bit confusing if you assume that all sheep are the same sheep...

(another) Anonymous.

Chris HH said...

Anonymous I & Anonymous II:
Yes, the issue of Christians who stray from the faith for a while (backslide) is a separate issue. I didn't attempt to address it, but thank you for bringing a clarification.

Anonymous II:
I would contest your exegesis of the Scriptures regarding a new believer walking out on their partner and children! A marriage vow, made by a believer or not, is a solemn covenant before God. God hates divorce [Malachi 2:16]

Jesus is saying that our commitment to follow him must come first, even above and beyond other genuine commitments such as that to spouse and children.

Paul is saying that if the unbeliever leaves, then the believer is not under obligation to try to salvage the marriage. Certainly there is nowhere where the believer is given carte blanche to walk out on their family!

Steven Carr said...

God delegates the task of getting his sheep back to other people?

A *good* shepherd doesn't do that.

A good shepherd goes out himself, rather than hoping that other people will tell the sheep how to come back.

'There is nothing wrong with the farmer who sowed the seed, or the harvest that came up, its just waiting for labourers to go out and bring them in.'

Lots of sheep going to Hell because God relies on fallible humans to bring in the harvest?

Chris HH said...

Hi Steven,

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)

He didn't delegate that to anyone else.

Anonymous said...

I will make this a short comment, but I think it is a valid point. It seems that most people that have problems with certain aspects of the gospel have a common thread. In almost all of the posts, the idea of personal responsibility is ignored, but that is what comes with free will. We cannot blame God if people stray, we can not blame God if people refuse to go to Heaven, and we can not blame God if people have struggles when they refuse to live in a responsible manner. The major problem with most people is that they expect God to do everything for them. Life is about choices, and it is about living with the results of those choices, God would be unjust if he forced his creation to follow him, that would be a God that does not Love, but our God is Love.

Mark H said...

Well said Moody! I think we've all implied this issue, but not yet hit it head on!

A friend of mine once said, whilst we were discussing the topic of heaven and hell, "what kind of despot, dictator, deity would condemn those who don't love Him to spending eternity with Him". God's love for us is prepared to let us go if that is what we've determined for ourselves in our hearts. It's our choice.

I think we also have to be mindful of Paul's words in Romans 1:19-20 "for what can be known about God is plain ... so they are without excuse". God is not defaulting on revealing Himself to people when He asks us to share the message. Rather, He gives us a part, a role, in the process of helping others to recognise what He is revealing to them.

To use (stretch?) another Biblical analogy, Jesus stands at the door and knocks. Someone sharing the gospel with us helps us to understand what we are hearing, because we do not always recognise what is on the other side of the door!

It is not our job to convince people, but to help people. I will invest all the time necessary with somebody who is genuinely wanting to understand, but it is a waste of my time to try and convince somebody who has already set their heart against God (unless Holy Spirit specifically directs me otherwise). We can't do Holy Spirit's job!

John 16:8-11
And when [Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world [Satan] is judged.