Jesus made it abundantly clear that good shepherds cherish their sheep, while wolves are intent on doing harm. And there is a sense in which we are all called to be shepherds. We all have a responsibility to care for the humans around us, and those responsibilities are reflected in our daily communication and interactions as well as in larger ways. Even children can learn to be increasingly kind and respectful of others.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. 1
These two depictions of our interactions with others are poles apart. They are opposed to each other. Jesus gives, the thief steals. He gives and protects life, but the thief kills and destroys. Jesus models good, healthy behaviour for us to follow.
Good shepherds cherish their sheep by respecting boundaries
Jesus’ words about shepherds, thieves, and wolves illustrate the difference between respect for boundaries and violation of them.
Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.2
Jesus described an appropriate method of entry. There is a gate, and it can be open or closed. In the same way, we have boundaries around our spiritual, emotional, and mental worlds, with our physical bodies and sexuality, and even our possessions and spaces. Good shepherds cherish their sheep by respecting each boundary, but abusers will commonly cut across a number of boundaries, not just one.
In the last post, we looked at the issue of consent and the way God models that for us. Here we see the opposite: a person who does not respect the boundaries of the self but climbs over them in any way they can. Good shepherds don’t do that. Jesus doesn’t do that.
A trustworthy person stops at the gate. They ask for permission to enter and wait for the gate to open. There is nothing forceful or disrespectful here, and the sheep only give consent in a relationship of trust. In that consenting, respectful relationship true intimacy develops: the sheep and the shepherd know and trust each other.
Jesus applies the same principles to mission
I noted yesterday this ethic has implications for all our relationships, and it is important to include our missional relationships in those. Engaging in mission, in the form of evangelism or in practical care, also requires the kind of respect for boundaries Jesus models. When Jesus spoke about the way good shepherds cherish their sheep, he extended the same ethics to those he cared about who were in other communities:
I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.3
Why is this so important? Saying these words did not win Jesus the friendship of all those who listened:
The Jews who heard these words were again divided. Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?”
But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”4
It’s clear from the passage Jesus was speaking truth to power. Why did he bother?
Abusers are the wolves and thieves in this scenario
When Jesus said thieves come to steal, kill, and destroy, that’s an apt description of abuse. Deliberate abusers employ tactics to invade a person’s self, including their heart and mind:
- Gaslighters5 try to change their victim’s memories and their picture of reality.
- Abusers might convince an innocent person of (false) guilt or complicity.
- In a faith community, an abuser is likely to attempt to take the place of God in the eyes of their victims.
- Outside of faith communities, it is still common for abusers to try and assume a position of absolute authority. They just use different words.
Dedicated abusers will do anything they can to undermine their victim’s sense of self, and their capacity to hear clearly from their own inner wisdom, from their conscience, from God, and from other people. The abuser seeks to become the authoritative voice of the victim’s inner world and interpretation of reality. Those tactics can be devastatingly effective, and it can take quite some time for a victim to recover. Because it is also common for the abuser to isolate their victim, and this violation of the self assists that, it becomes very difficult for friends to intervene. The voice of the abuser is loud, and victims ultimately need space to rediscover their own voice.
This is heart-breaking.
Recovering from crossed boundaries
To comment personally, a couple of decades of youth work has given me many opportunities to see this kind of behaviour. It’s painful to watch, and worse to go through. I feel for those who are in the midst of it. So although this series is going to look at some ways of recovering, this is a complicated issue that deserves gentleness and respect.
I highly recommend seeking out a good therapist who is competent in dealing with trauma and abuse. I’d also recommend finding trustworthy friends who follow Jesus’ modelling of respect for humans. Both of those goals could be difficult, especially for those who have been isolated by abuse or have found themselves in abusive communities. You might find 1800RESPECT a good place to call in the meantime.
Steve WadeDedicated abusers will do anything they can to undermine their victim's sense of self, and their capacity to hear clearly from their own inner wisdom, from their conscience, from God, and from other people. Click To Tweet
- John 10:10
- John 10:1-5
- John 10:16
- John 10:19-21
- The action of tricking or controlling someone by making them believe things that are not true, especially by suggesting that they may be mentally ill. (Cambridge Dictionary)