Sumter Pastor Clay Smith: Bullwhip or yoke...


Once, we were working cows with an uncle of mine (when I tell this story, you will understand why I'm not sharing his name). His horse was acting up. By "acting up," I mean he wouldn't stand still so my uncle could put his foot in the stirrup. The horse would circle around my uncle as he raised his leg toward the stirrup, leaving my uncle standing awkwardly on one foot. Being the naturally empathetic cow crew we were, we asked him if he was going to stand like that all day or if he was going to get on his horse.

I'll never forget what happened next. My uncle took the wooden end of his bullwhip and began to beat the horse's head. The horse's eyes bulged with fear, his ears stood straight up, and he tried to back away. My uncle had a firm grip on the reins, held the horse in place, and kept beating him over the head, yelling at the horse for being an idiot, hard-headed and stubborn. The other members of the cow crew clammed up and turned their heads. After all, the horse belonged to my uncle. After a few more seconds, my uncle stopped beating the horse, came down his left side, mounted up, dug his spurs into the horse's side, and said, "Now move, you stubborn animal." Except he didn't use the word "animal."

It was no surprise that the rest of the day, the horse was skittish and non-responsive to the reins. If someone beat you with a piece of wood, you would be skittish, too. There was more yelling from my uncle, but the horse never settled down. I have never found yelling to be an effective way to settle anyone down.

There was an older man helping us that day. He had known my father. My father, in addition to his other interests, bred Quarter horses. When my brother and sister were growing up, there were always seven or eight mares, a stud horse and five or six colts around the barn. I have no memory of this, but I was told my father had a way with horses.

As we rode out to gather the cows that day, the old man rode up beside me. He didn't say a word for a minute. Then he broke the silence and said, "If your Daddy had been here, he would have snatched that bullwhip out of your uncle's hand and beat him over the head with it."

I was a teenager when this occurred, but I never forgot that day. I've been around horses all my life, but I can never claim to be an expert. But even then, I knew if a horse was giving you trouble, beating him over the head with a bullwhip handle was not going to make the situation better. The horse was obviously in an agitated state. Horses, like people, act out when they don't feel safe. That horse needed a gentle touch, a soothing voice, a moment to calm down. You can't hurry horses or people to a better place.

Maybe this is why gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit. When you walk with Jesus, he offers the gift of gentleness to you. He moves at the right pace for you. He offers you the words of comfort and grace that you need. Once you have received this gentle care, he wants you to be gentle with others. Gentleness does not mean you are weak; it takes great strength to be gentle and apply just the right amount of correction and encouragement in a relationship.

A new way of training horses has taken hold in the past few decades. Tom and Bill Dorrance were among the pioneers of what is called "natural horsemanship." It is based on older ideas that a good trainer must build a relationship with the horse, must understand how a horse responds, and must think like a horse so "… he will know what happened before it happens." The trainer moves at the speed of the horse, not at the speed of the trainer. Though some of these trainers reject the title, they are often called "horse whisperers."

Isn't this exactly what Jesus has done for us? He came into this world so we would know he "gets us." He understands our anxieties and fears. Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Jesus comes to us, not with the wooden handle of a bullwhip but with an easy yoke. Harnessed with him, we learn to be gentle and humble. If you think about it, his way makes sense. Bullwhip handles usually make things worse, not better. I'll take the easy yoke of Jesus any day.

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter. Email him at