EARLY in my Christian life, I encountered a conundrum that puzzled me for some time. As an enthusiastic new believer, I was very keen to make the best use of my time and opportunities to serve the Lord. Books and sermons that urged me to “Go” for the Lord propelled me forward to an active life of service – participating in church services and programmes, doing youth work, attending Bible conventions and training events, doing door-to-door evangelism, and the like.
But along the busy road, I also heard a different message. While God seemed to be saying “Go”, from time to time, He also seemed to interrupt my Christian activism with a puzzling command to “Wait” or “Be still”. Then I would try to retreat into some contemplative cocoon, trying to understand what God was trying to do.
One could get into a nice rhythm of going and being still if the instructions to do so came at comfortably regular intervals. But if they come alternating in frequent and disruptive fashion, then it can get very tiring – like what happens in fitness training for rugby players, where the coach makes them sprint and stop suddenly in frequent bursts for an extended period of time.
I complained to God that it did not make sense to me. It should be either “Go” for a fairly decent length of time or “Be still” in a similar way, but not in the contradictory way in which His messages seemed to be coming at me. God’s answer was quite puzzling: “My messages are not contradictory. You can go and be still at the same time.” How does one understand something like this?
This remained a puzzle for me until some years later. I was reading the 15th chapter of Luke – about the good shepherd who left his 99 sheep to find a lost sheep. The text describes what happened when loving shepherd and lost sheep meet. “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home” (Lk. 15:5-6). Then, suddenly God’s puzzling comment years before came home to me, and was no longer a stranger but now a friend.
It struck me that the sheep that was found had a lesson to teach in reference to my old conundrum. What was the sheep doing after it was found by the Shepherd? Was it going? Yes. Was it still? Yes. It was going home, and it was lying still. In fact, it would not be going if it was not still, and it would not be still if it was not going.
Things began to make sense to me. I realised that there is a place where one can go and yet be still – and that place is the Shepherd’s shoulder. My conundrum was solved – at least in theory.
My next challenge was to experience this paradox of being still and yet going at the same time. What would it mean, in practical terms, to be on the Shepherd’s shoulder?
In his book, God, I Don’t Understand, Kenneth Boa discusses how paradox is weaved into all the key Christian doctrines. For example, God is three persons and yet one; Jesus is man and God (the great paradox), God is sovereign and yet we are each responsible for our actions, God is everywhere and yet located in particular places; God dwells in eternity, outside time, and yet works within time. The central doctrines of our faith are richly coloured with paradox.
To experience being still in God and being active for God at the same time can only take place if we chose to live our lives in Christ. This particular paradox is solved only at the Shepherd’s shoulder – a holy and intimate place where we can hear the heartbeat of the One who found us and is carrying us home, and feel His gentle and holy breath. To hear His heartbeat is to become spiritually alive – it brings our entire being in step with Him; and it keeps our soul singing in rhythm with His song.
His breath warms our hearts and protects us from the deadly and icy coldness of unbelief and sin. It revives that which is dying in us and resurrects that which is dead. It blows away the cobwebs of sin and neglect and delivers new life. Together, the Shepherd’s divine heartbeat and life-giving breath remind us that He is present, even though the dark shadows of the night may hide His face from us. We can rest on His shoulder.
Without this trustful surrender and growing intimacy with Jesus, we are lost. Any attempt to “be still” or to “go” without seeking to live on the Shepherd’s shoulder will end in self-deception and frustration.
TAKE, for instance, many common forms of Christian activism. Christians are on the go, but without the stillness and peace of the Shepherd’s shoulder. Or there is often a disconnection between one’s devotional life and one’s active service. That is not how it should be. We have already lost the battle if we baptise our sinful ambitions and give them biblical names. Often, Christian initiatives and activism are tainted with unredeemed self-interest – people end up building their own kingdoms and institutions. There are others who start out with good intentions and then get lost in a public activism that is not sustained by the life and Spirit of God.
On the other hand, there are those who retreat into a contemplation that is more selfindulgent navel-gazing than a living intimacy with God. Intimacy with God will always bring us into God’s universe-wide mission. We constantly face the dangers of a self-driven activism that does not come from God or a self-indulgent do-it-yourself spirituality that has little to do with the heartbeat of God. What can happen in a Christian’s life can always also happen in church.
We guard ourselves by learning how to live on the Shepherd’s shoulder, and about what it means to be carried by Him (Ex. 19:4) even as we carry His name (Acts 9:15). There we will learn that we are called not to worship our programmes and our experiences but the living God. Our lives must be “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Then only can we have active hands
and feet connected to a restful heart that worships God by being still in His presence and going wherever He goes.