the over-quoted psalm: part I
I am not a theologian. But I have learned a thing or two about Psalm 23. People quote it all. the. time. Don't they? It gets to the point where you're just like okay...please just stop.
Most of us don't even know what Psalm 23 is actually about.
I read a book about this Psalm a few years ago, and I thought I would give cliff notes on it. Basically, Psalm 23 describes God as a shepherd caring for His flock. Simple enough, right? Well, not so fast.
This author went on to explain what was involved in caring for sheep during the time the psalmist wrote this piece (the author himself was a shepherd in Africa, so I figured he knew what was up). So, I am just going to go through the psalm verse by verse and comment on how it has helped me + what the shepherd author said.
Vs. 1: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
There have been many times in my life where I felt I was "wanting." Just to be clear, the old meaning of the word "want" in this context is to need. So, the Lord is my shepherd, I will not need anything. Lots of us feel like this isn't true. I often feel like I need things the Lord has not provided me with. In times of my life where I felt like there was something I should have or something without which I was incomplete, I remembered this verse. This verse tells me that regardless of how I feel, if I truly needed something, my Shepherd would give it to me. That gives me a lot of peace, and I hope it does you too.
Vs. 2: He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
Few people without sheep know this, but sheep are so stubborn that sometimes they just won't. lie. down. They won't. Some sheep have died because they didn't lie down. Basically, the sheep worked itself to death. Shepherds have to keep an eye on their flock and when they see one that should be sleeping, but is standing instead, they have to make the animal lie down. Literally. This is very much like the human race. We are busy Marthas, doing our very best to stay very busy because we should be busy, right? Well we have been blessed with a Shepherd who makes us lie down. Have you ever gotten sick after working too long and too hard? That is your God-given body's response to refusing to lie down. Sometimes we are so busy running around the house that we forget to sit at His feet. And just knowing that He wants me to rest assures me of His love.
Still waters. They are more than just an aesthetic. If you haven't caught on already, sheep are clumsy and rather stupid animals. They do not pay attention to whether the water level is high or not or how fast the current is. They just want water. Shepherds have to take care to guide their sheep to still waters which won't drown them. Again, this is the Lord caring for us, even when we see something we think we need. "Look! Water! Let's go!" Except it is a river in flood season with a strong current. And that is when God gently says "No, not this river. I will find another river for you." Have you ever felt worthless after not getting a certain job or being passed over for a promotion? Well, unless you're just incredibly lazy, that could be your raging river. God knows what is best for us, and sometimes He steers us away from things in life which would sweep us away and obliterate us. All we see is water, but He sees the whole picture.
Vs. 3: He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Restoration is a huge theme in the Bible. Israel explored all the possibilities of restoration...multiple times... Most people see this first sentence and think "Oh okay, so God makes my soul feel like it has been at a spa day, I get it." Well, yes and no. As I have drawn closer to the Lord and stopped fighting His reformative power, I have found myself being "righted." We all know those people who seem really twisted and illogical, do cruel or nonsensical things, and just cause pain and frustration. When we talk about these kinds of people, we usually say things like "I have no idea what is going on" "This doesn't make sense." These twisted people, by definition, are wrong. God and His Spirit work within us to make us right again. Sin is like cancer. It really is. Think about all the things sin encourages us to do: lie, hide, cheat, run away, be unkind to others, be miserly, blame-shift, confuse others so they don't find us out, etc. And all of that can start out from one tiny sin. In Christ, God offers the best makeover available. Our minds and hearts start to be righted. We aren't constantly irritable anymore, we don't respond as sharply as we did, we stop associating our self worth with the words and actions of others, and we start basing our identities on the Person who created them. As God "rights" my mind and heart, I am much more at peace. When I lose friends or family because I will not participate in their "wrongness," I do feel pain, but I do not feel great loss. In my journey to be right, I do not want to hold onto that which is wrong.
He leadeth me. This is also a well known theme of Christianity. Sheep like to wander off. Hence the parable of the 99. He leads us, making sure the ground ahead is safe and level and we are not going to fall down a cliff. In this life we have so many choices. We have many paths to take in education, work, and family. I have been overwhelmed many times in my life by simple decisions like where I should live, where I should grocery shop, or which pets I should adopt. These are circumstances where one could argue there is not an obvious right or wrong. However, the more "right" our minds and hearts are, the better we make decisions. This is part of the God-given wisdom imparted to us through His Spirit. And much of the time, decision-making is made easier by surrounding ourselves with people who are also being led by the Shepherd. Everyone has heard the Disney theme "Follow your heart," and most Christians would immediately advise against that. However, let us not forget we are new creatures, with new hearts, who want right things. Obviously this is not true 100% of the time, but the percentage should keep climbing throughout our lifetimes. Therefore, when I am faced with a decision, I have faith that my decision will be right as long as I ask for godly advise and do not shy away from the guidance of the Spirit.
VS. 4: YEA THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I WILL NOT FEAR, FOR YOU ARE WITH ME.
We live in a time when people do not want to grieve. They do not want to be sad and they do not want to see sadness. I firmly believe this is man’s way of trying to deny reality and create his own heaven on earth (spoiler alert, it’s all gonna burn). Those of us who have walked with Christ for a while have learned that dark, deep valleys do come our way, and we cannot stop them. Many superficial Christians believe we can just avoid the valleys or pretend not to see the valleys. These folks will never learn from the life experiences God throws at them, and as a result they are most likely not saved. This verse does not talk about dodging the valley or finding a way around the valley or complaining to God and getting rescued from the valley. This verse discusses the fact that though we must walk through, we do not have to do it alone. The Creator of the valley intends it for our good, and He will not abandon us while we traverse it. Does this mean we have to find it a pleasant experience? Not necessarily. But it means we can take comfort when we feel forsaken in the dark.
I believe modern Christianity loves pretending there are no valleys if you are Christian-y enough. Why are you still grieving the loss of a loved one? You’re a Christian!! We are also human beings, not yet made perfect, with fallen minds and tired hearts, waiting on our Lord to take us up to glory. We are not feeling-less robots. Even Christ cried for Lazarus. CRIED. God of all creation, Maker of the earth, CRIED for a man He befriended on earth. If Christ saw fit to cry, then I would even say it is right to cry for losses. What happens when we do not grieve? Well, we develop highly detrimental psychological complexes, for one. But we also feel separated and alienated. The people who should be comforting us are telling us to pretend nothing happened. It’s like being traumatized all over again. I think this is a ploy by the devil to separate Christians from one another. I do not want to associate with those people who do not comfort, validate, and console me when my heart is breaking. I also think it is a way for people to “look” Christian, without truly changing inside. If I see someone crying, my first instinct is to comfort them and see if I can help. That is Christ in me. That is a regenerated response to grief. But if I am trying to look Christian, I may say “You should not be worrying!” “Be joyful, this is all God’ doing.” “This must have been God’s will; perhaps you should….examine yourself.” So, instead of comforting and showing kindness, people who want to look Christian blame the victim and derail our God-given emotions.
The biblical truth is that we are all going to go through valleys. Whether we spend our time there searching for a way out or learning and growing is up to us. Searching for a way out usually leads to feelings of hopelessness and shame, while sitting in stillness teaches us about the One who is in the valley with us. God is the author of all emotions we are capable of, He gave them to us. After the fall, we have not always used them for good, obviously, but we are created by God and He saw us as good. Allowing ourselves to explore grief or sadness in the light of redemption and love will strengthen us and enable us to serve others. That is what the valley has taught me.