Something funny happened in Colorado last week. (Funny unless you were one of the people involved – in that case, “Oh, so sorry!”)
Last Sunday there was an accident blocking a main road into the Denver airport, bringing traffic to a standstill. Enter Google Maps. Drivers checked their navigation apps to find an alternate route around the traffic jam. Google Maps came through for them sent them an alternative way out of the traffic.
Many people followed the directions. Unfortunately, the directions led them through a field over a rain-soaked dirt road. Many got stuck in the mud. Many got stuck behind people who were stuck in the mud.
“The alternate route took drivers down a dirt road that rain had turned into a muddy mess, and cars started sliding around. Some vehicles couldn’t make it through the mud, and about 100 others became trapped behind them.” (link)
100 cars! And this “detour” was on the way TO the airport, so many of these people were trying to catch flights.
One lady described, “I thought ‘maybe there’s a detour’ and pulled it up on Google Maps, and it gave me a a detour that was half the time,” she said. “It was 43 minutes initially, and it was going to be 23 instead — so I took the exit and drove where they told me to.
“There were bunches of other cars going down too, so I said, ‘I guess it’s OK.’ It was not OK.” (link)
I must admit that I was not as charitable as I should be as I was reading about their misfortune, my thoughts were this.
“What a bunch of dumb sheep, trusting Google Maps like that.”
Then, as my brain likes to do, it threw me a curve ball. “Hang on a sec. Why are you disrespecting sheep? We have been talking about sheep and shepherds a lot in Church lately. You ARE a sheep, and Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Being a sheep must not be such a bad thing.”
It is true. Christ is the Good Shepherd, and we are His sheep – or at least we are supposed to be. He was pretty clear when He said, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. I am the good shepherd and know my sheep, and am known of mine.” (John 10: 11-14)
I might be the only one, but I don’t consider being referred to as a sheep as particularly flattering. We live in a society where people love to use that label as a way to diminish people for a lack of intelligence or agency. They even invented the word “Sheeple” to define “People compared to sheep in being docile, foolish, or easily led.” (link)
I don’t want to be the “sheeple” kind of sheep.
Calling faithful members mindless sheep is one of the most frequent, (and ironically) most vacuous accusations leveled by those who oppose the Church and its members. “Those people are just mindless sheep that can’t think for themselves – unlike us, who are smart, independent minded.” etc.
Christ does consider us His sheep. But I have yet to find a scripture where he asks us to be mindless sheeple. On the contrary, one of my favorite scriptures is Matthew 10:16, which is still part of the sheep/shepherd motif.
“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
Christ doesn’t want a bunch of dumb sheep waging spiritual warfare against serpent-minded wolves. He wants us to be wise – as wise as those sneaky serpents, and the head serpent, Lucifer. Paul expressed it much better when he wrote:
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
That is serious business – not the kind of battle that God would entrust to mindless sheep.
Then the question is, how do we be wise sheep, and not find ourselves off track and stuck in the mud?
The answer is to make a lifelong, concerted effort to listen to the correct shepherd. Not just any shepherd, THE Good Shepherd: Christ. How we do that is simple gospel understanding: We have Christ’s words in the scriptures, His words through the voices of the modern prophets (D&C 1:38), and the influence of the Holy Ghost to guide us.
That makes for smart sheep.
Sadly, the Church has a long history of sheep being led astray and out of the fold. Early on, people followed men like James Strang, who led a splinter group to join his “kingdom” on an island at the top of Lake Michigan. Remarkably, 300 followed him. After Strang’s death, many of his followers left and joined up with the splinter group, the Reorganized Church, that was led by Joseph Smiths very own apostate son.
It didn’t end there. Since the Church was restored, there has been an endless parade of wolves leading not-so-clever sheep away from the fold. Even today, some are led away by alternate voices preaching a “better” religion, or a sociopolitical outlook that conflicts with what the Good Shepherd offers His sheep.
Those alternate voices are real, they are around us, and they are dangerous. To make matters worse, some of those voices are very appealing, logical, or just plain LOUD.
Some years ago, when I was running activities for a Young Men’s encampment, we set up a course for the boys to navigate – blindfolded. As part of their instructions, we brought the youth leaders up front and instructed the boys to listen exclusively to the voice of their youth leaders for direction – and nobody else. Nobody.
They started their course and were navigating quite well until an “Alternate Voice” entered the fray. Turns out that our YM President had been released a short time before the encampment. One thing about Bro. Morris is that he is a larger-than-life personality, and he has a voice that can part the sea.
Brother Morris starting shouting the boys new, incorrect directions. Loudly. Before long, they were running into trees, stumbling over ditches and completely off course. To make matters worse, he would also approach the blindfolded boys individually and whisper conflicting directions. Chaos ensued.
The first time they ran the course was an abject failure. We had them stop and regroup. We asked them if they knew what went wrong, and the answer was obvious to all of them: “Brother Morris gave us bad directions.”
I simply asked, “Is Brother Morris your leader?”
The light bulbs went on. From that point forward, the boys navigated the course brilliantly by listening to the correct voices. Lesson learned.
But it is a lesson that has to be relearned constantly. Those alternate voices are relentless and convincing – especially to those sheep who are not wise sheep.
One of the most ironic and tragic things I have witnessed is when someone is seduced by a fake shepherd and leaves the Church, only to turn around and accuse the flock they just left as being “mindless sheep.” They mock the valiant as they themselves line up behind a false prophet, or no prophet at all, like sheep to the slaughter.
Joseph Smith taught one way to discern who the wolves are – and it should serve as both a warning for us, as well as personal advice:
“That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives.” (link)
But it is tricky. The alternate voices of the wolves are getting better at their nefarious job. Smarter, more articulate, more convincing, and with unlimited bandwidth and support of popular opinion. Surely Jesus’ prophecy has been, and is still coming to pass:
“For in those days there shall also arise false Christ and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch, that, if possible, they shall deceive the very elect, who are the elect according to the covenant.” (Matthew 1:22-23)
Sadly, I know plenty of people who fit Christ’s description as the very elect who have been deceived.
I am a critical man. I like to know the “whys,” and I like to know the “hows.” Sure, there are some questions that I don’t have answers to…yet, but I have spent much of my life learning and studying, while relying on the voice I trust most to help me be a wise sheep. The voice of the Good Shepherd. It might come to me through the Spirit, through the scriptures, or through the voice of His servant, the prophets. To me, “it is the same.”
“In our day we are experiencing an explosion of knowledge about the world and its people. But the people of the world are not experiencing a comparable expansion of knowledge about God and his plan for his children. On that subject, what the world needs is not more scholarship and technology but more righteousness and revelation.” Dallin Oaks
I don’t wan’t to be a mindless “sheeple,” I want to be a wise sheep – confident in the knowledge and understanding that the world does not offer. I have no desire to follow the wrong voice and end up bogged down in the mud or stranded on some island in Lake Michigan.
I have no problem being a sheep who is following the Good Shepherd. That is the place to aim for.
The prophet Jacob sums it all up nicely, “O be wise, what can I say more?” (Jacob 6:12)