The Shepherd’s Voice and the Sheep’s Consciousness

The other day, my friend was trying to find his way out of a spiritual fog. He felt fearful, and he needed solutions. He told me that he was more intellectual than emotional, and that merely trying to change his feelings would not be solid enough. He needed something for his mind.

Many believers struggle with how the Christian life becomes real. For some, like my friend, the key is what they learn intellectually. Spirituality isn’t real until it can be put into words. For others, the key is what they experience — an emotion, a connection between a prayer and an event, an intuition that isn’t necessarily articulate.

So, when Jesus says repeatedly in John 10 that “the sheep know the shepherd’s voice,” the interpretation of his words is a source of contention. Certainly a direct, personal knowledge of the Lord is central to the Christian life. But is Jesus talking about what we know in our minds or in our experiences?

In much teaching on spirituality, this dichotomy is prominent, and it is expressed in many ways. There are left-brained people and right-brained people — as if we’ve all been lobotomized. There are intuitive people and analytical people — as if analytical results were possible without intuitive questions. There are creative people v. practical, mathematical v. artistic. There’s the head v. the heart.

As if each of us is only half a person.

In this context, a phrase like know the shepherd’s voice falls into a chasm between the thinkers and the feelers, both sides clutching after it while it vanishes into the darkness.

For the thinkers, “hearing Jesus’ voice” has to be explained so as to focus any mystical blur. For the feelers, the phrase is proof that the real Christian life is an experience, not “mere information,” and they proceed to tame the teacherly.

I can’t relate to this dichotomy. Some of the most careful analysis I have done has been driven by passion, while some of the deepest emotions I’ve experienced were animated by knowledge. I am not half a person.

What if God made the Christian life as he made the human personality — integrated? What if thinking and feeling are the veins of an organic whole?

Consider the context in which the phrase know the shepherd’s voice comes to us.

The Gospel of John is built around a legal argument that uses the standards of the Mosaic law to prove that Jesus came from the Father (1:18). The calling of witnesses is central to this kind of logic (1.7-8, 29-34; 5:19-47; 7:14-24; 8:12-20, et al.). John designed the flow of the story to impress our minds with the consistency of Jesus and the illogical hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders.

The overall context of John’s gospel focuses the meaning of the phrase know the shepherd’s voice in chapter 10. The knowledge has an intellectual, analytical, even critical element.

But John’s gospel is narrative. It uses the juxtaposition of the characters’ deeds and words to incite the reader’s gut reactions. John does not intend me to see the malice of the Pharisees coolly. He does not mean for me to be dispassionate while I watch Mary anoint Jesus’ feet with oil and dry them with her hair. I am to feel the power of these scenes.

So, both as part of an emotional drama and as a metaphor in its own right, know the shepherd’s voice carries me deeper into my feelings.

The Bible was written to speak to a whole-person, not a half-person. It builds up the understanding and the emotions in an integrated way, the way the Christian life has to be lived.

For me, this means I often have to change what I’m looking for in the Bible. Sometimes I have to pay more attention to narrative flow and the literary devices of scripture in order to minister to my emotions. But sometimes I need to linger analytically over a verse, take it apart methodically, and learn something new. I have to use spiritual disciplines, in other words, with both my mind and my feelings in view.

In the same way, your first step toward integration may be to realize that you are not half a person.

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3 thoughts on “The Shepherd’s Voice and the Sheep’s Consciousness

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  1. I’m definitely of the intellectual. I have often wished I was more capable of “hearing” subjectively or of learning to do so. At times, I’ve wondered if something were broken in me, more than the usual; yet, sometimes, my telling others of my own lack was a comfort for they felt the same. I don’t so much find myself doubting as wondering if I’m missing something. You’ve given me much to consider.

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