“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” I don’t know about you, but I can confidently say that this was one of the first chapters of the Bible I had memorized as a child. I have heard or read it a million times. I’ve seen it cross-stitched on many a wall-hanging. And to this day I could rattle it off with no problem at all. Actually, I think it was so familiar to me that it was passé. So much so that my mind would wander when I was saying it, let alone reading or hearing it.
I had the great opportunity to do a study with other women on this Psalm. We delved into this led by Jennifer Rothschild (Psalm 23: The Shepherd with Me). I’m so thankful that God put it in this stage of my life- as I’ve been struggling so badly with mental illness, I’ve needed a refresher on this song of comfort. As I’ve been dwelling deeply in this Psalm for the last two months, three major themes have struck me.
My God is Personal
I think one of the reasons that the 23rd Psalm resonates so well is because it is so personal. I mean, just take a moment to look at the pronouns. My Shepherd (v. 1). I will fear no evil for You are with me (v 4). In each and every verse, the Lord and I are together.
There is such a closeness in the image of the Lord as my Shepherd. As I live among the Navajo, I was blessed to have a shepherdess in the study with us. She shared with us how intimate a shepherd’s relationship was with the sheep. I tend to think of all interactions with animals basically like cowboys wrangling cattle, but the way she explained the interactions of sheep with their shepherd was way different from that. The sheep know their shepherd. They are comfortable with their shepherd. When a stranger comes around, they know it immediately and don’t like it. It’s hard for shepherds to go away for a weekend because the sheep just won’t eat as well when the shepherd from next door is feeding them (so different from me who will eat much more when I’m in a situation I don’t like). The sheep trust their shepherd, and he or she cares deeply for their wellbeing. I’ve seen missing-sheep posters up at the post office with detailed descriptions that mean nothing to a city girl like me. These shepherds know each individual sheep in a way that astounds me.
And that’s the description of our God! Our Shepherd knows each of us personally even as we are a part of His beloved flock. He is intently interested in our wellbeing, finding the best ways for us to go, guiding us toward our sustenance, forcing us into periods of rest, bringing us back and making us whole again when we make our mistakes (vs. 2 & 3).
In this stage of my life where I just can’t do the amazing planning that I once was killer at, I’m so comforted remembering that my personal God is bringing me to what is best for me. He knows so much better than I where I need to be.
My Path is Planned
Not gonna lie, my journey with mental illness has not been easy. It has not been straight. Lots of times it has seemed like I’ve been on the wrong path; dude, right paths shouldn’t hurt this much! I’ve wanted so badly to get off of it.
The imagery of walking through The Valley of the Shadow of Death has really hit home with me. I live among cliffs and valleys, and I take my kids on hikes in them. I lead them along a path. And in general, they really don’t like it. Sometimes, they figure that instead of following the path I’m leading them on, scrambling up the sides of the valley is a better way to get out of it. In general, that makes a big ole mess. It uses a lot more energy, loose rocks and dirt get thrown on everyone else who is walking along with them, and they don’t actually get out of the valley.
I think a lot of times I try to do that too. To escape the pain of the valley, I try to find ways to scramble out. Rather than taking comfort that God is with me (v 4), I do things to get out of the pain of my path. And that is more than futile. Not only am I spending a lot of energy on things that are not ultimately going to help, I’m also unintentionally hurting those who are close to me on this journey (my husband and children mostly).
I’m so thankful that God brings me back to the right place. Our group’s shepherdess talked about how when one of her sheep was wandering off, she would throw her rod ahead of its path to rattle it into stopping. Rather than using this stick to hit the sheep for going off course, she would make it stop in its tracks long enough for her to guide it back where it should be going. I’m pretty sure I’ve deserved being hit in the ways I’ve strayed from God’s standard while my emotions and thoughts have been in such disarray; how comforting it is that God in His mercy chooses instead to get my attention and restore me.
My Path is Good
This chapter ends with such victory. It’s both an encouragement to show me what I have to look forward to as well as what I have current access to. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life (v 6)! This isn’t a promise for all the rest of the days of my life- it’s for all of them. Including this one. The extreme benevolence and restoring power of my Savior is following me today. Following me even on the days that feel the worst- that I’m most desperate to scramble out of.
This verse has been a good reminder to me that instead of running from my pain, to pause so goodness and mercy can bump into me. To trust that what God says is true. That His Name, the honor of it, is at stake, so He’s going to do what He says. He’s going to be a Good Shepherd leading me to green pastures and still waters restoring me to the right path and being with me through everything. It’s a conscious choice- to declare that God is good even when things around me don’t feel good. And through seeping myself in this psalm, it’s been a choice I’ve been encouraged to make.
Because my Shepherd is with me.