God is with us — before, beside, and behind (Part 2)

Today we continue our meditation on Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”. We’ll walk through verses 4 to 6, exploring how steeped the Psalmist is in the knowledge of God as comforter and protector, as the Good Shepherd who continually surrounds us with his goodness and mercy.

(For the reflection on verses 1 to 3, see Part 1 of this two-part post.)

Verse 4

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

I wonder if this is the most frequently quoted verse in Psalm 23? We hear it so often, referenced in so many different contexts, quoted in music both religious and secular. (Any 90’s hip-hop fans here?) Artists and authors alike have tried to imagine what this dark and fearful place might look like: the valley of the shadow of death.

Perhaps such a place does feel like a real location to you. For those who have walked the path of grieving for a loved one, or come face to face with mortality themselves, this poetic turn of phrase is wrenched out of the world of metaphor and instead becomes terrifyingly literal. But whatever imagery it conjures in your spirit, we are certainly all familiar with walking through a time of darkness — of fear, grief, confusion; not knowing quite where we’re headed, what dangers are on the way, or when the light will be visible again.

And the poet tells us, fear not. God is with you, whatever you’re walking through right now. The road may be a hard one, and the difficulties may be unavoidable, but the Comforter is right there beside you — he won’t ask you to go anywhere that he won’t go himself. God has walked right through those depths himself and God will not leave you to walk through this valley alone.

Verse 5

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.

God lays a table for us in the wilderness.

Don’t you love this image? A meal, a table laid out for us, in the most unlikely of places — in the midst of enemy territory! Here where we expected no good thing, here where we prepared ourselves to be attacked and beaten down, instead we’re given a feast. Not just the bare-bones necessity of what we need to survive, but an abundance of delight.

This feast, this “running over” of good things — it might not be in the form you expect. It might not be material possessions, or financial security, or career success. It might not be the kinds of things the world would hold up as worth much, even. Maybe it’ll be in the form of treasured friendships, of people coming into your life that you’re able to call family. Or maybe your feast will come in the form of the joy you receive from seeing another person’s life changed and renewed — the kind of lasting joy no one can ever take from you.

“I do not give as the world gives,” Jesus told his disciples once.1 But the kind of gifts that come from Him end up being better than what we expected, and better than what we thought we wanted. Let’s be present in the moment enough to receive these gifts. Let’s quieten our souls enough to recognise them for the blessings that they are.

Verse 6

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

What a promise this is! When you walk through those dark places, feeling as vulnerable as a lone sheep followed by a predator, know this: at your back are the dual blessings of God’s goodness and mercy.

You’re not alone. You’re covered by your Shepherd and your Protector. So go on: let that knowledge inspire you to take those risks you can feel the Spirit calling you towards! Let it give you the strength and the courage to step out in faith; to tread those hard roads of truth and justice and love. While the going may get rough, Goodness and Mercy are right there at your back, every step of the way. And know that when it’s all done and dusted, you have a place with God, safe in His house, for all eternity.

When we operate out of this kind of security and faith in our future, we can have the courage to let love motivate our actions in the here and now. We can live with the kind of freedom and fearlessness that sees the potential for God’s Kingdom to be built, and takes steps to make it happen.

Before, beside, and behind

The Lord is my shepherd. He goes ahead to lead me, walks beside as my comforter, and follows behind me with goodness and mercy. Before, beside, behind; guiding, comforting, protecting. God keeps on surrounding me with His love wherever I go. Nothing — neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation2 — can separate me from the love of God.

Let’s store these words in our hearts, as Psalm 119 says. Let these promises of God’s nearness carry you through this day and beyond.

The Lord is my shepherd. He goes ahead to lead me, walks beside as my comforter, and follows behind me with goodness and mercy. Click To Tweet

What’s your favorite part of Psalm 23?
What helps remind you of God’s nearness?

The Lord is my shepherd (Part 1)

I’ve written a fair bit about the Psalms on this blog. Many of them are are a go-to place for when I feel distant from God, or can’t figure out what to pray. One of the most well-known — in fact, probably the most well-known! — is Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”.

I remember first learning this psalm in music form as a child, and internalising its simple message of God’s love and protection. Having heard it said many times since, it’s one of the few chapters of Scripture I can say from heart, without even thinking about it. I’m sure the same is true for many of you, as well.

But as many times as I may have heard these six verses, I never seem to get tired of hearing them again. There’s something about this poem; this earnest yet uncomplicated prayer. It has a rhythm to it of familiarity and comfort. Its simple language and soothing cadences somehow serve as a balm to our weary souls.

“The Lord Is My Shepherd” is still one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry I know.

Will you walk through this Psalm one more time with me? I know you know it well. Let’s meditate on it, and remind ourselves of its simple, heartfelt beauty. Let’s take the time to sink deep into its peaceful imagery, and allow its eternal truths to weave themselves into our being.

Verse 1

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.

What does it mean to be God’s “sheep”, and for Him to be our shepherd? The imagery here is of a relationship of utmost trust. There is a call to lay down our fears and our responsibilities; to let go of that constant anxiety of being in control, or at least of believing that we need to be.

With God as our shepherd, we have no need to worry. We are taken care of, as by a loving parent. Rest, now, this verse says. Time to get off the unceasing treadmill of this world’s relentless demands.

Take a breath. The Shepherd’s got you.

Verse 2

He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.

Sometimes we need to be made to lie down, don’t we? We need someone to take us in hand, and say, it’s time to stop. It’s time to breathe, to slow down, to focus on this present moment and enjoy your surroundings, instead of rehashing the past and fretting about the future.

When was the last time you connected with nature? The other night I took a long walk at sunset. Now, normally when I go for a walk, it’s with my dog, which brings its own set of joys, as any dog-owner will attest! But on these walks, my focus is on my dog, who is the purpose for the walk. This walk the other night, however, was different: it was purposeless, just an aimless wandering.

Somehow that purposelessness changed everything. It meant that I noticed my surroundings more: I noticed the freshness of the air, and the birds making their evening noises. I noticed the stunning beauty of the sunset turning the sky pink and orange.

And I felt God’s presence, more tangibly than I had in a long time. I could sense God there with me, in the cool of the day, walking alongside me and enjoying His beautiful creation with me. Enjoying my enjoyment, and pleased that I was taking the time to experience it.

It’s an inescapable truth that God’s presence is so much more tangible when we allow ourselves to experience His creation. In a world that increasingly works to separate us from nature and all its uncontrollable messiness, sometimes we need to make a deliberate effort to seek it out again.

Verse 3

He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

When we make that conscious effort to just be in God’s creation, then God starts working His restoration in us. When we allow ourselves the time and space to be present, to notice our surroundings and let go for a little while of the dual anxieties of what happened and what’s next, then a strange thing starts to happen, as our souls are restored to be in line with God.

Things start to become clearer as a result. Decisions that seemed confusing and murky suddenly gain sharpness and clarity. Where problems in our lives seemed intractable, God’s direction suddenly becomes obvious, and the pathway forward is unambiguous.

It’s a natural instinct for many of us, when faced with stress and tough problems, to double our efforts in tackling them head on, racking our brains for a solution and a way forward. But when it seems like we’re banging our heads against a brick wall, the answer is often to do the opposite.

Take a step back. Stop, rest, breathe. Let God quieten your soul enough that you can hear His voice piercing through the din of everyday life. Then let Him do the leading, so that you can say along with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Take a step back. Stop, rest, breathe. Let God quieten your soul enough that you can hear His voice piercing through the din of everyday life. Click To Tweet

Read part 2 of this post, walking through verses 4-6.

Who am I? The quest to understand our identity

Have you ever taken a personality quiz of some kind? You know the sort — detailed questionnaires designed by psychologists to help you better understand your own identity. I bet there’s a fair few of you reading this right now who already know your Enneagram number. Or maybe you’ve done a StrengthsFinder test, to try to get some insight into what your ideal career should be. I tried the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator a few times myself — it used to frustrate me that I’d get a different category every time I took the test. Whether I’m a T (thinking) or F (feeling) seems to depend largely on my mood at the time. Same with S (sensing) versus N (intuition).

These kinds of tests have their advantages. To better know our strengths and our weaknesses can be very helpful — indeed, any increase in self-awareness is a good thing. In learning more about our strengths, we gain a better understanding of where we can work most effectively. We learn about how we can make the most impact and bring the greatest benefit to ourselves and to those around us. And in understanding our weaknesses, we can ensure we’re on guard against the kind of situations and circumstances that are likely to trip us up in some way, or prevent us from operating at our best.

Boxing ourselves in

But do such tests really categorise who we are? Can we really be reduced to a number, a series of four letters, a dot positioned on a chart of some kind? Surely we’re more complex than that. Surely putting ourselves in a neat little box like that is limiting the fullness of what we’re created to be.

Finding the right category to describe ourselves can be very satisfying. But what if you straddle between two categories, or three, or more? What if none of the categories in the test quite manages to articulate the particular gifts and strengths you bring to the table? Or what if, like me with the Myers-Briggs test, you fit into different categories on different days? (Of course, that’s probably because I’m an Enneagram 9…)

There’s something in all of us, I think, that loves to know what “box” we belong to. We love to have neat ways of sorting ourselves and everyone else into our proper classifications. Perhaps it’s our innate desire to belong to a tribe of some kind; to know who else is like us, and who is different. Perhaps it makes us feel more understood and accepted to know that someone else has come up with a technical-sounding label that defines us in some way.

Let’s be careful, though, that in the process of discovering our box, we don’t end up boxing ourselves in.

Our Ever-Evolving Identities

I was never a very sporty person. During high-school, I’m ashamed to admit, my mother used to write me sick notes to get me out of cross-country running days. As a teenager, and then later on as a young adult, I convinced myself that physical activity just “wasn’t my thing”.

Then, a few years back in my mid-thirties, I decided I needed to improve my fitness. I trained regularly on the treadmill at my local gym, following various interval-training plans to slowly improve my endurance, until eventually I could run 5km without a break. The first time I reached that five kilometer mark, I nearly collapsed in a puddle of sweat and exhaustion, but it felt so good! Not just because I’d achieved something new, but because I’d busted a false belief about my identity.

Sometimes we build up an idea of what constitutes our “identity” that brings with it restrictions and limitations. Sometimes, when we mentally place ourselves in certain boxes, we then let those boxes stop us from trying new things. We let our self-imposed categories convince us that we’re unable to pursue a certain path.

Identity in Christ — what does it mean?

As Christians, Scripture tells us our identity is in Christ. “It is no longer I who live,” writes Paul in Galatians 2:20, “but Christ who lives in me.” That’s a pretty radical take on describing who we are! What does this even mean?

Well, one thing that it means, which I want to focus on here, is that we are beloved children of God. Take a look at this passage from 1 John — one of my favourite books in the Bible:

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

1 John 3:1-2

God has called us his children. God has called us loved by Him. This is, fundamentally, who we are — this is our deepest, truest identity. That has a far more profound significance than any result on a personality test.

By all means, go ahead and find out if you’re a 4, or an 8, or an INFJ or a ENTP. But in all that self-analysis, always remember that who you are goes beyond any of those boxes. Who you are is a beloved child of God.

Whether you're a 4, an 8, an INFJ or an ENTP, always remember you're a beloved child of God. Click To Tweet

What’s your Enneagram number? Your MBTI personality type? Do you enjoy these kinds of tests, or do you find them limiting? Share your thoughts below.