“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?” —Luke 15:4
There is a lot I love about the parable of the lost sheep, but perhaps my favorite aspect is that the shepherd goes to where the sheep is.
He doesn’t stay with the group, stand at the top of the hill, and yell down, “Hey! Come back! Come back over here! With us!” (like I am prone to do to my young kids when they run off in public). He doesn’t stall to deliberate why the sheep left. He doesn’t waste time worrying what dangers may lie in his journey to find the sheep or what the sheep will say when he gets there.
He just goes. He goes until he finds.
I think there may be a lesson here.
We all know someone who is feeling “lost.” And by lost I’m talking about more than just a change of beliefs. Any trial that leaves us feeling disoriented, that life isn’t turning out as expected, or feeling lonely can make us feel lost. If there is someone “lost” in our lives, it is not effective to stand atop our hillside and yell down, “Hey! Come back! Come back here with us!”
We may have to go down to where they are.
I don’t mean we have to put ourselves in dangerous situations physically. I mean we should try to go to where they are emotionally.
We should seek to understand what they are feeling. What is in their heart? What are their fears? What is their story? Are they feeling judged? Misunderstood? Unloved? Unheard? Lonely?
Among the greatest gifts one person can offer to another in this life are those of genuine love, attentive listening, and hearing another’s story without judging the person.
In fact, these are among some of the greatest gifts Christ offers to us. He is uniquely able to offer us perfect empathy since He has actually experienced all of our emotions and fears Himself. While we can’t offer perfect understanding as Christ can, we can become Christlike as we try to emulate this empathy He offers to us.
This empathetic listening and loving is needed for all who feel lost in some way because of the discouragement and difficulties of life, but especially for those sheep who, for whatever reason, have left the flock.
In our best efforts to encourage them to come back, sometimes we lose this ability to go where they are emotionally. Sometimes we are blinded by our own grief or fears or attempts at finding the right words to say from our hilltop, and consequently, we lose sight of the Christlike ability to empathize with pain, to love.
Unfortunately, I speak from experience. I had a number of friends leave the Church a few years ago, and sadly I let my own discomfort and disappointment inhibit me from reaching out to them during a time when they really could have used my empathy and love.
I am determined to do better.
My determination was strengthened when another friend who left the Church opened up to me about just how difficult his journey has been. His closest friends and family members are still active, and he tearfully said he has wanted to share his story and his feelings, he has yearned for the opportunity to feel understood, but no one has ever asked. He feels like they don’t want to know. Consequently, he feels misjudged, misunderstood, and unloved. He feels his friends and family members’ love is conditional on his membership in the Church.
I am determined to do better.
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin has said:
“Brothers and sisters, if only we had more compassion for those who are different from us, it would lighten many of the problems and sorrows in the world today. It would certainly make our families and the Church a more hallowed and heavenly place. …
“I know that each of you bears a concern for a loved one. … Love them. Be kind to them. In some cases, they will return. In others, they will not. But in all cases, let us ever be worthy of the name we take upon ourselves, even that of Jesus Christ” (“Concern for the One,” Apr. 2008 general conference).
Now, when I hear of a friend leaving the Church, I don’t want to wallow in the “whys?” or allow my disappointment to blind my resolve to love. I want to reach out. Uninhibited. With courage, I want to say, “Do you want to talk about it? I’m here. I will listen. I love you.”
I want to put myself in their shoes to understand their feelings and their journey. Like Christ, I want to go where they are.
“And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (Luke 15:5).
Even if this “finding” is simply finding empathy for what our loved ones are feeling and going through, thus bringing about mutual respect and understanding, that is cause for rejoicing indeed.