What I Learned From a Sheep Named Buster: Lessons in Discernment

The sheep hear [the shepherd’s] voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out … and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. … My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

– John 10:3-5, 27

When I was a child, we lived across the road from a sheep farm. Every spring, fluffy white lambs ran through the fields. Bleating sheep was part of the natural symphony of our country home. (Let me comment here that sheep do not make a delicate baa-ing sound, as some would lead you to believe. Delicate is not even close to the word I would use to describe it. Unfortunately, I cannot perform my best bellowing sheep imitation for you. But I digress…)

During those years, my dad chased many a sheep that had escaped through the old wooden fence around their pasture, and my mom and I would watch him and our neighbor, Bill, heaving on the escapees’ rear-ends to push them back into the safety of the pen. Those bits you hear about sheep being stubborn? We were eyewitnesses to it.

One sheep we will never forget. His name was Buster. I have a photo of my young self, my arms wrapped around him. I’m probably ten or eleven, in the glasses and braces stage of life. When Buster’s mother died during the birthing process, Bill took the small lamb into his home. He was bottle-fed and kept inside more like a dog than a farm animal. And this early experience gave Buster, let’s say, an interesting personality. He was just as stubborn as the others, but his familiarity and perhaps something akin to affection gave him particular audacity. Our poor neighbor was knocked a few too many times onto his elderly hips by Buster’s head butt of greeting or protest. But Buster knew his name—Bill had only to go to the edge of the barn, and yell Buster’s name, and before long, you would see him making his way over the pasture to where we stood. In spite of his stubbornness, he knew his name, and he knew the sound of the one who called him.

[The end of the story: Buster’s antics were eventually recruited to represent the mascot of a nearby university. Someone should write an inspirational children’s book about his success story.]

Jesus, in the book of John, says that his sheep know the sound of his voice. Our intimate and dependent bond with him creates (or should create) an awareness of his voice, a deeply ingrained sense of recognition, much like Buster and our neighbor Bill.

When He convicts us, when we have a nudge from the Holy Spirit, when He gives us direction, when He applies the Scripture to our lives, or when He speaks through the voice of a fellow brother or sister, we should discern his voice and listen. The longer we walk with him, the more our ears should learn the sound of his voice. As we learn and experience more of his character, we become better able to distinguish his voice from the others that flood us. For not every “voice” or inkling is from him, and not everyone who says "God told me [fill-in-the-blank]" is correct or trustworthy.

We must cling to the Bible as God’s recorded Word for us and use it as the measuring rod for all else. There is no other message or revelation from God on equal plain or authority to the Bible. Anything that contradicts it or attempts to add on to it is to be discarded as false, as should anyone who equates their message with the authority of Scripture. Reading and studying Scripture helps us to learn the sound of God’s voice, so we can recognize it when we hear it—and ignore all others.

His voice calms and still us; it brings peace and comfort. It does not stress, worry, frighten, or harry us. His words point us to God's love, goodness, and faithfulness. His voice convicts us of sin, but it does not condemn us. It leads us into repentance and the freedom of forgiveness. His voice enlightens us and brings clarity; it does not confuse. The words He speaks equip and strengthen us for obedience and lead us to greater discipleship. 

So we seek to hear what the Lord may have to say to us personally each day, in prayer, in the Bible, and through the people, circumstances, and sights we may encounter, may we listen carefully, and may we recognize the sound of his voice.