What do we learn if we consider that WE might be the lost sheep in the parable of the lost sheep?
“God’s Love: The Most Joyous to the Soul” by Susan Porter, First Counselor in the Primary General Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
“Heaven is cheering you on today, tomorrow, and forever.” Elder Jeffrey Holland, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
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Welcome, everyone! Today I am thinking about a talk I heard at church recently that is going to stick with me for a long time I think. The speaker shared a quote from Susan Porter’s talk in October 2021 General Conference called “God’s Love: The Most Joyous to the Soul.” Susan Porter is the First Counselor in the Primary General Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She said,
“Brothers and sisters, do you know how completely God, our Heavenly Father, loves you? Have you felt His love deep in your soul?
When you know and understand how completely you are loved as a child of God, it changes everything. It changes the way you feel about yourself when you make mistakes. It changes how you feel when difficult things happen. It changes your view of God’s commandments. It changes your view of others and of your capacity to make a difference.”
It’s something to consider. When I think about the moments when I am most trusting in God’s love for me, deep in my soul, these are the moments I feel most at peace. These are the moments I realize that God already loves me, without my needing to do anything differently. God loves me even though I have made parenting mistakes. God loves me even though I continue to stumble around, uncertain of the next right thing to do with or for or about my children. My Heavenly Parents love me, knowing that I have made and will continue to make mistakes. They love me–whether or not I repent or grow.
Think about that. God’s nature doesn’t change based on our behavior. As Elder Jeffrey Holland has said, “Heaven is cheering you on today, tomorrow, and forever.” Our Heavenly Parents are cheering us on, and not only us, but our children also. Today, tomorrow, and forever. Our children are Their children, just as loved as we are. When I trust in God’s perfect love for me, and for my children, I don’t see challenges in my life as judgments against me or punishments, but rather as simply part of the mortal experience. Mortality is about having a human experience. Part of the mortal experience is that people we love make choices we would prefer them not to make. Part of the mortal experience is us making choices that our loved ones would prefer that we not make. Think about the last time you said or did something that someone you love didn’t like. Mortality is happening all around us, mortality operating as designed. We are all human beings with agency, so now what?
After sharing this quote from Susan Porter, the speaker went on to talk about the parable of the lost sheep. I’ll read it from Luke 15:4-7.
“4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
Often we talk about this parable in terms of those of us at church “going after” people who are not at church. There’s nothing wrong with caring about people who don’t come to church. I am all for it! Let’s meet them where they are. But I was intrigued by the idea shared by this speaker, that “You are always the sheep.”
What? How can that be? This person is the lost sheep? He’s at church every Sunday. He serves faithfully in his calling. We don’t normally think of people like this as lost. There was a time when I didn’t think of myself as lost. I was comfortable in my vision of myself as one of the ninety and nine.
But what do I learn if I consider that “ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” don’t actually exist. There is only one just person who needs no repentance. That one is Jesus. And the way Jesus tells the story, any one of us is worth celebrating with joy, more than 99 of Him. That math doesn’t make sense at all. And I think that’s the point. The point is our infinite worth–before, during, and after we are lost and found. We are always the sheep, and Jesus will always find us because we are worth more to Him than can be measured.
When I’m coaching I help people slow things down to take a closer look at what they’re thinking. I help them gain more awareness around their beliefs and what those beliefs are creating in their lives. I want to do that now with this parable and circle back to verse 5. “And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” Already Jesus is rejoicing, and they haven’t gone anywhere yet.
When I’ve thought of this story in the past, I’ve had this movie in my head where the shepherd finds the sheep, lifts it up and immediately carries it home, and then celebrates with everybody else. But when we slow it down we realize there isn’t a timeline here. A friend of mine pointed out that, in her experience, Jesus is just out with the “lost” sheep, for however long they’re away. He always knows exactly where they are and He is there with them, waiting for them to turn to Him. He doesn’t immediately haul them back to the fold. And I think we can read the parable that way. Jesus is the shepherd who knows where every one of His sheep is. He is the shepherd who lays them on his shoulders, keeps them close to Him, and rejoices in their inherent value. Joy doesn’t wait for them to be back with everyone else. Joy is there in the relationship, in the closeness to Jesus, in the closeness of Jesus.
We don’t know exactly when, but at some point in the story, this sheep does get reintroduced to the flock. It’s still the sheep that it was before Jesus carried it back, but now it’s here with the rest so they can all celebrate together, just because they’re here together, in the same way the shepherd rejoiced in the sheep when it was just the two of them. I wonder whether we could do better at celebrating together just because people are here with us, as they are, whatever that looks like for them. And maybe that is some of the work we need to do to repent and grow ourselves, because there’s a case to be made that we are always the lost sheep in this story.
And I wonder how we could do better at encouraging and celebrating the people who aren’t here with us, especially our children.
Remember, there are no empty chairs.