There is a tendency for many Christians to refer to those outside the kingdom of God as “lost,” but the context of this label is lost (no pun intended) on them, and sounds much more like an insult than a reference of love.
Jesus referenced lost sheep several times throughout his ministry
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.'”
Now, not everyone in his audience was a parent yet, so he used the shepherds’ reference so that everyone could relate to his point. Now I don’t know about you, but as both a parent and a child, I have been in the position of both “being lost” and “having lost,” in the sense of being separated.
As a child, I remember being at Disneyland with my family one summer. We were walking together amidst the crowds. At some point, I realized that I was no longer walking with my family, but amidst strangers. During the time that I thought I was with my family, everything was fine. I wasn’t afraid, and I wasn’t yet lostor rather, I didn’t realize I was lost. But the moment that I looked back and around to make note of their presence, and being unable to see them, I knew I was lost.
They were probably no more than 20 feet away, but because there was a great separation between us, I was no longer with them, and that was a horrible realization. But my terror was absorbed by the love, strength and understanding of other parents nearby who realized my predicament, and “led me” to the lost and found (poetically named) where a park announcement was made and my family was able to come and recover me.
Being apart from them was horrifying for me, but I never imagined what they might have been going through in my absence. All I remember is the overwhelming joy and relief I felt to be reunited with them again in that moment.
As a father, I have frequently experienced the momentary fear associated with not being aware of my child’s presence when in public places. Since they assume we’re omnipotent beings who can track their every move, they have great confidence in extending the distance between us in those situations. They just don’t understand… yet.
And I can recall many times when one child or another had wandered off to a place that they had set off to investigatesometimes in our own back yardyet we were unaware of their presence, and they did not respond to our calls.
And so, just as in Jesus’ parable above, the moment we realize that our little lambs are lost, we drop everything and search with great desperation to find them and bring them back into the fold. Nothing in all the world is more important than recovering our lost sheep.
Now it’s true that often our little lambs do not believe they are lost. They are exactly where they intend to be. Maybe they’re playing in the front yard, and they know that Mom or Dad is in the house “watching over them.” In the same way, the parent in the house assumes their child is playing in the front yard. And both parties are perfectly content in the situation. Until…
The child takes a moment to go verify the state of the universe, and goes inside to check in with Mom or Dad. They make up some excuse like “I’m hungry” or “I just wanted a glass of water” as a motive for checking up on them. But imagine their dismay when Mom’s not in the kitchen, or in the bedroom, or the bathroom. Do you think for a moment that the child will stop looking? Time will stand still as the frantic search begins for the recovery of their parents or somebodyanybodywho can secure their safety.
At first they make gentle, inquisitive calls. Inside their hearts, there is great turmoil. But just before desperation grips them, their search is rewarded with finding Mom’s presence in the back yard, watering plants.
Though relieved that they can discontinue their search, their playtime will continue in close proximity to Mom for the rest of the day. Mom’s oblivious to the nightmare their son or daughter endured in those few moments and doesn’t understand the child’s clinginess the rest of the day.
As long as we believe that our child is where we expect them to be, they are not lost. As long as a child believes that his/her guardian is where they expect them to be, they don’t feel lost.
But consider a boy who has been abducted as an infant, sold to the black market, and “sold” to another unwitting family with whom to be raised. That child may never know that he is not where he belongs. But the parents will never stop looking for their son as long as they believe he is alive.
But if that boy is black and grows up amidst a white family, he may have a growing feeling that he doesn’t belong there. It will become increasingly clear that he has another familyanother set of parentsto whom he belongs. When that realization comes, there is nothing that can stop him from seeking those who created him.
In the same way, all of God’s lost children are still on his list of “missing children.” While in his case, he knows where they all are, they may not recognize him as their Father because they have for so long lived the lie of their present state. But for many, they eventually start to suspect that they don’t belong where they areand begin seeking the home from which they were once takenand to the Father who has never stopped loving them.