How COVID-19 Revealed ‘Sheep Without a Shepherd’

A friend recently presented me with a horrifying word picture. “During the pandemic, I’ve encountered many people who seem like sheep without a shepherd – even Christians.”

She was referring to a Scripture verse that says Jesus had compassion on the crowds following Him, “because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NLT). Other translations use disturbing words like weary, scattered, aimless, faint, distressed, bewildered, dejected, troubled, worried, and worn out.

No matter how you translate this, it’s not a pretty picture! In a hostile world, lost sheep – those without a shepherd – don’t do well fending for themselves.

Yet the part of my friend’s statement concerning me the most was her assertion that even professing Christians were exhibiting these same dismal characteristics amid COVID-19. How could that be? Surely God’s people should exhibit a better outcome.

My mind raced to King David’s words in Psalm 23. He wrote that because the Lord was his Shepherd, he had everything he could ever need. He experienced a fulfilling, overflowing life of green pastures, quiet waters, and righteousness pathways. Day by day, the Lord was restoring David’s soul and guiding his steps.

David had been a shepherd himself, and he knew what it was to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4). But even there, his heavenly Shepherd was with him. No need to fear!

Psalm 23 concludes with one of my favorite verses in the entire Bible: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (v. 6).

So, if this is the wonderful life of one who follows the Shepherd, how could His professing followers today be more akin to “sheep that have no shepherd”? Something seems drastically wrong with this picture!

We can’t just say David’s imagery should be confined to the Old Testament. In John 10:11, Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd “who gives His life for the sheep.” Although the devil desires to come as a thief to steal, kill, and destroy, Jesus says He wants His sheep to experience an abundant life (John 10:10).

However, an abundant life doesn’t mean the absence of difficulties. In fact, Jesus promised tribulation to His followers:

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NLT).

Yes, “trials and sorrows” will surely come, but at such times it’s more important than ever to draw close to the Shepherd to discover His perfect peace (Psalm 91).

Who Cares for Your Soul?

Those who are following Jesus shouldn’t be like sheep without a shepherd. His presence is available to shelter us and provide for our needs in every situation.

But my friend’s statement about dispirited Christians points to another aspect of what the coronavirus has revealed. In addition to closely following Jesus as our Shepherd, every believer needs to have close Christian friends to provide “shepherding” on a human level.

In contrast to David’s beautiful words in Psalm 23, he paints a very different picture in Psalm 142:4 (ESV): “Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul.”

While David knew that the Lord was his Shepherd, he was horrified to look around and find no one available on earth to care for his soul. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many Christians to this same sobering realization. Whether we belong to a congregation of hundreds or of thousands, in times of trial we face very real questions: Who can I call upon to help me and pray for me? Does anyone truly care for my soul?

Sadly, many have discovered that the time to develop close relationships is not during a storm. The only way to have people who care for our soul during the stormy times is to invest in the relationship when times are good.  

The model of leadership in the New Testament is much different than how we often prioritize pastoral gifts in the church today. While we tend to honor those who are gifted visionaries and orators, Jesus and His apostles put special value on leaders who reflect His heart to care for the sheep:

Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly – not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor (1 Peter 5:2-4 NLT).

I hope you have friends or church leaders who have a heart to care for you in this way. If not, please don’t wait until the next pandemic to make some changes.

You don’t need to feel like a sheep who has no shepherd! Jesus is calling you to draw near to Him as the “Great Shepherd,” and He also wants to give you people who stand ready to care for your soul when the need arises.