Lk. 15:4 π Jn. 10:11 π 2 Tim. 3:16-17
The question that is troubling me is complex to even ask. It has roots that go deep into our "church" practices but is really answered by the simple fact that we must be led by the Spirit of God. In other words, there is no pat answer, no code to legislate and enforce, no line which can be drawn, no list of criteria to formulate a logical decision. But having said that, it is still worth looking at the various aspects of this question for, though the Bible (apart from the understanding inspired by the Holy Spirit) is not the ultimate source for direction, it is nonetheless valuable for instructing in righteousness. ( 2 Tim. 3:16-17; top ) So let us look to the Bible for some instruction, recognizing at the outset that the ultimate answer lies in the moment-by-moment, step-by-step leading of the Holy Spirit.
The roots of this question lie in the fact that many "churches" and "pastors" have geared their "ministry" toward the 99 sheep. That is, the 100th sheep, the "ones," who are often more problematic in that they are restlessly pursuing something and are not content with status quo churchianity, are often completely neglected or even ostracized and sometimes persecuted. This practice is completely opposed to the heart of a shepherd. Jesus said, "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?" ( Lk. 15:4; top )
Having long ago forsaken the 99-centered mindset of the "church," the question then arises as to how far should we go to rescue the ones. Knowing that Christ sacrificed His own life for the sheep ( Jn. 10:11; top ), there is no line drawn whereby we can do so much for this lost sheep, stop and then say that we have done our duty. Going after a lost one may indeed cost us our life - and this may be our duty.
Consider what the lost one needs. That is, why has he or she become lost in the first place? Often, an errant or false shepherd is somehow to blame. Perhaps the one did not see Christ in the way the shepherd lived - even though the shepherd could quote or teach the Bible extensively. Perhaps the one never experienced the genuine love of Christ - instead he or she was subjected to the numbing bureaucracy and disconnectedness of the mega-"church." This lost one needs to see the love and character of Christ in a very personal and tangible way.
Consider where the lost one is. The one is most often in a spiritual desert, a wasteland of confusion precisely because they are surrounded by all the trappings of "church" and myriads of "Christian" people. He or she needs to unlearn many things and learn a number of new things. He or she is often wary (most often rightly so) of anyone who says, "I'm a Christian" and wants little or nothing to do with "church." And yet this one desperately needs the shelter of being in the flock of God.
Consider the opposition this lost one faces. He or she is isolated, away from nearly everyone who could offer spiritual shelter and assistance. And the enemy is prowling around, seeking just such a one to devour. And so this lost one is in grave danger. Or perhaps this lost one is regularly coming to "church" and wondering why things don't seem to satisfy any more and is starting to look around at other "pastures," wondering where to really feed. Many are the sheep who know that something is wrong at the "church" but almost none know where to turn to find the liberty and provision of the Lord.
And yet there is also the possibility that this isolated experience may be just what the lost sheep needs. Perhaps the one was too dependent upon men and had no ability to hear God. Such a one will indeed benefit from the time in the desert, a time designed to teach you to rely on God alone (who just happens to be the only source available for the things like food, water and shelter that will keep you alive). Yes, such a one will benefit so long as he or she does not stay in the wilderness alone too long. Sooner or later, if it is really the Lord who is leading this lost one through a wilderness experience, He will lead this one into fellowship with other sheep of His.
But for the genuine shepherd who occasionally sees this sheep afar off in the wilderness, it is a time of heart-wrenching uncertainty. His heart is filled with the love of God for this lost one. And he knows that this lost sheep would be much more secure in the company of older, more settled sheep. But the sheep remains off in the distance, skittishly running away whenever he tries to approach. And his heart aches for this troubled one.
But he has to trust his own Shepherd. He must turn to Him, getting on his knees and crying out earnestly to the Shepherd who loves that lost sheep even more than he does to protect and watch over that lost one until such a time as that one will settle down into a more secure position within the flock. Such a time teaches the shepherd more of the depths of God's love, more of the weakness of his own faith and more of the need to never forsake the assembly that God has put us into.
But he also wants to be careful to leave no stone unturned, no effort undone to reach out to this lost sheep. Any opportunity to extend the love the Lord has put into his heart for this lost one must be taken advantage of. No trip into the wilderness is too far to attempt to retrieve this lost one who desperately needs a fresh experience of the Father's heart.
As was said in the beginning, there is no list of rules and regulations whereby the shepherd can know how far to go in pursuing a lost one. He can only follow his God and trust that no sacrifice on his part, when done in obedience to God, will be wasted.
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