When You Feel Like You Don’t Belong
I am the Good Shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.John 10:14
And I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power, together with all God’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. Ephesians 3:17–19
Last week I took some children on a trip to a farm in the Cotswolds. These children spend the vast majority of their lives in the dirt and the noise of an urban, inner city environment. So there was something satisfying and wholesome about seeing them frolic amongst the animals in the glorious spring sunshine of the beautiful English countryside.
The highlight of my day was watching the children pet the lambs. It was entertaining hearing lambs and children bleating at each other in a kind of call and response. Some of the lambs, like the children, were frisky and skittish, scouting around in search of attention, while others were content to lie in their straw, snuggled up together.
As part of the day we also got to watch a shearing demonstration. The sheep wriggled and kicked, even as it was being set free from its heavy wool coat: the thing that had protected it in the winter no longer necessary or helpful in the spring. The shepherd held the sheep steady, adjusting her grip as necessary, and finished the job beautifully.
The Bible is full of metaphors and stories about sheep and shepherds. Abraham, Moses and David all started out in the obscurity of sheep farming. Jesus call himself the Good Shepherd, tells the story of the lost sheep and instructs Peter to feed his lambs. And, perhaps most famously, Psalm 23 calls us into the peace and tranquillity of still waters, reminding us that the Lord is our shepherd and will provide for all our needs.
Shepherding is a lonely job, requiring all the shepherd’s time and attention. The sheep must be properly fed, protected from predators and the weather, moved safely around different pastures, medicated, sheared and bred successfully if the flock is to survive. Shepherds, therefore, must stay close to their flock, far out in the countryside, far away from the business and commerce, arts and culture, education and influence of busy cities. Shepherds seem destined to live on the edges of society.
It’s easy to feel like you’re on the edge of things, even in your own life, sometimes, isn’t it? We ask questions like, am I significant? Do I make a difference? Has anyone noticed me? We worry that we’re an outsider, that we don’t fit in and don’t belong anywhere.
Brene Brown writes:
Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for true belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. (Braving the Wilderness)
Not belonging is a painful feeling. I moved around a lot as a child, so I was always the new girl at school; always the girl with a different accent or the wrong shoes. I was always the girl who hadn’t been there since the beginning and didn’t know the ‘in’ jokes or the cool slang.
So I know that the powerful desire to belong can lead us down some negative paths if we’re not careful. We can act or speak in ways that don’t feel authentic in an attempt to fit in with others. We manipulate people or situations to give ourselves some advantage. We shun people and cause them to feel on the ‘outside’ so we can feel on the ‘inside.’
But as Brown suggests, the ways we try to fit in and find approval never lead to true belonging. They cause us to live in fear of being found out. They cause us to worry about what will happen when people see who we really are. They cause us to be anxious and insecure, never able to trust that others love and accept us.
Jesus, though, has a better way for us. By calling himself the Good Shepherd, he is going to the people who are on the margins and identifying with them. He makes himself at home with them. And he does that for us too. When we feel on the edges and like we don’t belong, he reminds us that he’s with us. We can belong to ourselves because we belong to Jesus. He knows us and loves us completely. We are fully approved and accepted by him.
When we are rooted and grounded in God’s love, we find that we can accept ourselves, and ‘present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world’ because we know who we are: chosen, accepted and loved. It leaves us free to live in ways that love and accept others, just as they are, too. It doesn’t mean that we’ll never feel on the outside again, or that we’ll never experience the pain that comes from broken relationships. But it does mean that in those moments, we can go back to what we know, deep inside ourselves: that we belong to our Good Shepherd and we are safe in his hands.