‘Return to the Shepherd of Your Souls’
TWO heartwarming parables of Jesus describe God’s intense concern for those who are still his people but who have strayed. Just imagine the anguish of the shepherd who leaves the flock of 99 and searches in the wilderness for the lost sheep “until he finds it.” Or consider the earnestness of the woman who loses the drachma coin, perhaps part of a priceless set. She spares no effort to find it—lighting a lamp and sweeping her entire house “until she finds it.” And what rejoicing upon the recovery!—Luke 15:4-10.
No doubt you realize that Jesus was talking about people who have a dedicated relationship with God, and yet for various reasons have drifted away or become “lost.” Perhaps you may be one of these. The great effort indicated in the parables to retrieve something cherished and the rejoicing upon its recovery may be touching to you. They show the interest God, his Son, the holy angels and your spiritual brothers and sisters have in you. The parable that follows these two gives more details about the course of the one who is “lost.”
The Parable of the Prodigal
With heartrending vividness Jesus shows in the parable of the prodigal son (1) why a person would drift away, (2) what can happen while away, (3) what it takes to return, and (4) the welcoming attitude of God. The two sons in the parable may be compared to people who, like you, have come to know the Father, enjoyed the ‘abundance of spiritual bread’ in the household of faith and dedicated their lives to Jehovah.—Luke 15:11-32.
There are various reasons why some, like the younger son, leave the “home” of our heavenly Father. Often it is simply the increasing burden of the “anxieties of life.” (Luke 21:34) Occasionally the influence of bad associates has hindered some from “keeping on obeying the truth.” (Galatians 5:7, 8, 10, 12) Hard feelings over a doctrinal matter may have caused a number to go “off to the things behind.” (John 6:60-66) Basically, some either consciously or subconsciously have considered the environment in Jehovah’s spiritual household to be too confining. These ones, like the prodigal, no longer want to be under the watchful eye of the Father. They seek ease of movement in a “distant country.”
Alone in a Distant Country
The prodigal—after he used up all his money—found anything but freedom and fun. He gravitated in conduct to the point of “living a debauched life.” When hard times struck, in desperation he “attached himself” to one of the citizens who “sent him” to herd swine—the lowest task for a Jew. He even hungered for the pigs’ food!—Luke 15:13-16.
John had been a congregation elder before his trip to a spiritually “distant country.” “Following the truth is definitely a safeguard, but when you are not active, you let your guard down,” explains John. “Even though you might not do anything really bad, little things begin to be tolerated. You say to yourself, ‘Well, I’m not attending any congregational meetings, so does it really make a difference what I do?’” Another Witness who was inactive for several years admitted: “I really did get involved in bad conduct. I found out very quickly that there is no limit to how low a person can sink by associating with persons of the world. The only way to enjoy their association is to keep your mouth shut about Jehovah. When you do, you are headed for a lot of trouble.”
Yet many who become inactive do not drift back into a “debauched life” as did the prodigal of Jesus’ parable. Still all become aware of the separation from a close relationship with God. One inactive couple “never picked up a Bible for 15 years,” and yet remained morally chaste. The wife explains: “Materially speaking, things were extremely good for us during those years. You can be led to believe that there is no need to come back to Jehovah. We built our entire lives around our jobs and ourselves. We tried to block off all memories of the truth to the point of moving to an area where no one knew us. But all this happiness was candy coated. Inside we were torn apart. My husband was deeply depressed for years. We stopped praying, even before meals. I couldn’t sleep many nights worrying about the truth and feeling guilty.” The husband added: “We felt that we were on death row.”
To be estranged from Jehovah, to feel all alone spiritually, is a painful situation. One Christian woman who once was inactive said: “There is nothing like having Jehovah’s favor. When you feel bad and you can’t pray to him, or you have doubts that he is going to answer your prayers, it is a terrible condition.”
“He Came to His Senses”
The prodigal recognized his inner spiritual feelings and responded. Jesus said: “He came to his senses.” The original Greek words literally mean, “He came into himself.” He had been “beside himself,” in an unreal world. And now he became aware of his own true spiritual condition. He reflected on the peace and abundance he had enjoyed in his father’s home.—Luke 15:17.
Though the prodigal achieved this realization on his own, often such insight follows several spiritual discussions that rekindle dormant feelings. For example, Diane, while inactive, confided in a Witness with whom she had become acquainted: “I can’t come back to Jehovah. I don’t love him and I know that that must be the motive.” The Witness asked: “Did you love your husband at the beginning of your courtship?” “No, how could I? I didn’t know him,” replied Diane. “I then realized,” confessed Diane, “that loving Jehovah would come with getting to know him once again. I later got in touch with the congregation and asked for help. A couple, under the elders’ direction, studied the Bible with my husband and me for over a year, and we became active again.”
However, one of the biggest obstacles to returning is an overwhelming feeling of guilt.
Have I Gone Too Far?
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son,” is how the prodigal felt after he “came to his senses.” Others have felt the same way—unworthy of being called one of God’s family.—Luke 15:17-19.
“You realize that you have knowingly turned your back on Jehovah. This guilt gave me a sick feeling,” admitted Virginia. “When I started becoming active again, I had a real battle starting to pray again. I kept thinking, ‘What does Jehovah want with me, since I turned my back on him.’” Others have felt that they committed the “unforgivable sin.”
Did the father, who knew that his son’s sins were great, view them as unforgivable? Was he cold and indifferent when the boy reappeared? Not at all! He had been looking for his son. “While he was yet a long way off, his father caught sight of him,” according to Jesus. (Luke 15:20) Neighbors may only have seen the rags, the dirt, the bare feet, but the father saw “him.” He knew what a long way the son had come. It was obvious he had left his “debauched life” and was truly repentant.—Proverbs 28:13.
The father ran to embrace his son. The most the son had hoped for was to become a ‘hired man,’ someone really not a member of the household and in some respects worse off than a slave. Never could he have imagined his father’s response: “Quick! Bring out a robe, the best one, and clothe him with it, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fattened young bull, slaughter it and let us eat and enjoy ourselves.” How wonderfully Jesus illustrated the wholehearted response of the father!—Luke 15:22, 23.
The father knew that the prodigal had already paid a dear price—the emotional scars of “living a debauched life” and losing all his money, the agony of being friendless and without food and shelter during a famine, the shame of eating with pigs, and finally, the long journey home. So, too, Jehovah realizes that one truly suffers while “lost” and that it is not easy to return. Yet our compassionate heavenly Father, who is “abundant in loving-kindness,” ‘will not for all time keep finding fault nor according to our errors bring upon us what we deserve’ if we are genuinely repentant and “set matters straight” with him. Some who have committed even gross sins while separated from the Christian congregation, but who return in true repentance, confessing their sins before the elders, may expect loving, considerate treatment leading on to full recovery.—Psalm 103:8-10; 130:3; Isaiah 1:18, 19.
True, the Bible speaks of some unfaithful Christians whose sins are not forgiven. However, Paul shows that these are “in opposition” to the Truth and contemptuously trample on the ransom sacrifice by esteeming it as of ordinary value. (Hebrews 10:26-31) But have you ever taken such an extreme step? Your sincere consideration of this material, rather than having contempt for it, indicates that you still have some love for spiritual things. The fact that you feel guilty and disturbed at heart shows that you have not gone too far. Be assured that Jehovah will answer your prayerful request just as he answered that of David, who pleaded: “Forgive my error, for it is considerable.”—Psalm 25:11.
‘Do Not Be Afraid. I Will Really Help’
Two elders made a call on an inactive couple who in the past had been exceptionally zealous Witnesses. No sooner had the conversation begun than the inactive husband defensively remarked that he knew he should be out in the field service teaching others. “Right now I don’t think you should,” was the surprising reply of Russell, one of the elders. “If you had a member of your family sick, would you tell him to go out and mow the lawn? Well, we’re not going to tell you to ‘mow the lawn’ either. We want you to get well. What can we do to help?” Loving assistance, including warm hospitality by the elders, helped the couple get well spiritually, and the husband is even serving as an elder once again.—Compare James 5:14, 15.
Some repentant ones hesitate to reassociate because they feel unable to take on the full responsibilities of a Witness all at one time. However, Jehovah is reasonable. A gradual step-by-step recovery is usually most practical. Paul said that some who in his day had become spiritually “dull” needed someone to teach them again the elementary things of the Truth. (Hebrews 5:11, 12) This spiritual food builds strength and makes other steps possible. In a number of interviews with Witnesses who once became inactive but later recovered, the majority said they had needed regular assistance. Yet those in the congregation are more than willing to render such assistance. They feel as does Jehovah, who told his chosen people: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not gaze about, for I am your God. I will fortify you. I will really help you.”—Isaiah 41:10.
Yes, God says: “I will really help you.” You may have to break off from some bad associates. You may have to brave opposition from relatives who do not approve of your attending Christian meetings. There may be some matters that you will have to confess to the elders. (Psalm 32:3-5) But never forget that Jehovah is there to help. One Witness who recovered said: “Jehovah just allowed me to see one step at a time and he greatly helped me.” Another one added: “The minute I stepped into the Kingdom Hall all my old friends gave me hugs and kisses. Their happiness just overwhelmed me. I thought ‘Why was I afraid?’” Though some might have an attitude similar to that of the prodigal’s older brother, the vast majority will rejoice to see you return.—Luke 15:25-32.
Why not taste for yourself? One Christian woman who recovered after staying away for some time declared: “There is no other place to find inner peace. Everything else just fell into place once I became spiritually active again. This world offers nothing of value. You have such a good feeling knowing you are pleasing to Jehovah and have his protection. You can sleep at night. Your life now is satisfying and you can develop a real hope for life in the New Order.”
If you are a sheep that has strayed, why not invite the Witness who brought you this magazine to help you to get in touch with the elders in the local congregation. Experience the joy and contentment that result from taking the course described by Peter: “For you were like sheep, going astray; but now you have returned to the shepherd and overseer of your souls.”—1 Peter 2:25.