Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing


Both Aesop and Jesus warned of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Too be sure, people who are selfish predators will try to fool us into thinking that they’re “one of us.” Witness the billionaire politician who claims to care about the working class. And Satan himself started as an angel of light (Lucifer, means light bearer). Temptation doesn’t look like a frightening monster, it looks like everything we want & think we need.

But I’d like to talk about reversing the metaphor- what Existentialist psychologist Viktor Frankl called being a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Frankl meant it as a way to encourage therapists following his style/philosophy of psychoanalysis/therapy to be open to adopting some of the ideas and methods of other “schools of thought” without completely abandoning his principles or adopting ALL of others.

But I see it as a perfect image of Christians being in the world, but not OF it (John 17:14-15 & Matt 10:16).

What does it mean to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing? Does it mean to pretend to be worldly and hide your faith? No. Although there is value to being humble, authentic and approachable- rather than inflexible, proud or judgmental, in other words, to be “all things to all people” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. But no, it doesn’t mean to compromise your principles or to try to look cool.

I feel that being a sheep in wolf’s clothing means to be shrewd as serpents (Matt 10:16). It means as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would say, being strong minded and soft hearted rather than soft-minded and hard hearted. It means not being so caught up in being right or reforming or controlling others that you fail to see how you can help others and encourage others.

Recently a friend shared a striking statistic, abortion rates dropped by 43% in a city which offered free birth control. This would be an example of loosening one’s grip on trying to enforce God’s rules in order to advance God’s ways. If it sounds like I’m promoting relativism or situation-ethics, I’m not- not exactly. But let’s face it, the spirit of the law is more valuable and effective than the letter of the law. This gets to the root of living by faith rather than works.

Lutherans often make a joke out of Luther’s famous quote, “Sin Boldly,” as if it gives us license to drink beer that Baptists and Methodists avoid. But that’s not the meaning, purpose or context of the quote. It doesn’t mean cheap grace, it doesn’t mean license to sin because Jesus already died for our sins. In part, it means that we don’t live in a sinless world yet, so unfortunately sometimes we can’t let perfect become the enemy of the good.

Mostly it means that we have free-will. God is not a tyrant. He created us with the liberty AND responsibility to make decisions for ourselves.

During the Protestant reformation, churches which had broken with Rome were sometimes paralyzed with fear of doing something wrong once they were freed from the tyranny of human tradition and dogma. Should priests get married? Should churches be spartan or elaborately decorated?

Luther wrote a letter to his friend Phillip Melanchthon in 1521 explaining how we should trust  God to forgive us if using our best judgement and trying to serve Him, we unintentionally or inadvertently sin.

“If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (Sin Boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign….”

This Summer I read a biography of German pastor and WWII resistance conspirator Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was recruited to become a member of the Abwehr, German military intelligence organization, within which he participated in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. How can a pastor deliberately engage in lying, undermining the government and planning murder? Aren’t those all sins? Didn’t that make him a hypocrite? I would argue, wouldn’t being complicit in the idolatry of nationalism, racism and militarism and genocide also have made him a sinner and a hypocrite?

Sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils is indeed not only a permissible choice for Christians, but the best choice available. I could start getting into philosophy and how Leibniz was right and Hegel, but this post has gotten out-of-hand long already. My children and students are always telling me “too-many-words!”

So let me just finish by sharing two great quotes from Bonhoeffer that speak to being a disciple, following the footsteps of Jesus Christ, rather than just a dumb sheep, blindly following a church or human leaders, clergy, televangelists, demagogues or others:

“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”



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