We are about to begin a series called Wrestling with God and we are seeking to make sense of some of the suffering we experience and what the Bible teaches about the difficult moments we face in life. We are intentionally going to navigate this discussion slowly, as this is a very complex and sensitive issue for many.
We take a look at all of the tragedies in the world whether at the hands of people inflicting pain or natural disasters that devastate entire cities leaving the people homeless and financially strained. Even in our personal lives, we all face moments of grief. These difficult times could be brought on by the loss of a loved one, a betrayal of a friend, a financial crisis, or a number of other scenarios.
What I want to do here is simply look to one passage in Scripture and make some affirmations as to what the Bible teaches about the tensions we face in this life. This is important because at some point in time we will all go through or feel the weight of the brokenness of this world and experience suffering, loss, evil, and grief. Because we all go through painful moments in life, we all will develop a belief system and a worldview to try and help us make sense of why things are the way they are.
So with that, I am going to read Psalm 23 and just make a couple of observations about what we can learn from this text.
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Even 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.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
The Flow of the Text
Psalm 23 is depicting a journey from one point to another. The shepherd is leading the sheep from one destination to another. It seems that the Psalm moves from journeying with the Shepherd to dwelling with the Shepherd. This Psalm does a great job capturing the journey we face on this side of life as we struggle to follow God’s leading and seeing who God is in the midst of our journey.
So before we get too involved here, I want to ask a simple question. What are some valleys that you have gone through, and what were some tensions that you encountered with your faith and vision of God’s identity? I think if we are being honest, we find that our vision of who God is tends to shift every now and then. Some for the good and some not.
A moment that reshaped my whole family dynamic happened three years after my parents divorced. Both of my parents had remarried and seemingly out of nowhere I acquired new siblings who grew up in a completely different environment than what I used to. Ultimately, I stayed with my dad and one of my brothers, Shane, stayed with me. Once my dad remarried we moved to Colorado, while my other brother Jason stayed with my mom in Texas.
So three years had gone by and we were camping in Read Feather Lakes, Colorado for labor day weekend. It was about three o’clock in the morning when we heard heart stopping hard hitting knock on our door. It was my aunt who had traveled for four hours to tell us that Jason, my brother in Texas, was killed in a car accident. This moment redefined our whole family life, which turned into nearly thirteen years of a valley to family tensions and pain. My perspective of God began with, “What kind of God would allow this? He is not good.” Of course, over the years, with a lot of grief, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, I began to see things differently. But the majority of my family struggled on. This is a longer story, but suffice it to say that this was my first real valley.
So, what about you? What has been your journey?
Learning from the Text
I think what I love about the Bible is how honest it is about the tough things of life. It doesn’t offer solutions to all of our skepticisms, but it does affirm the reality that we face in a broken world.
Psalm 23:1-3. Before the psalmist ever gets to the hard stuff he wants us to know that God is a God of provision, life, and restoration. The imagery used here about green pastures and still waters are used elsewhere in Scripture to signify life and peace. When our souls grow weary, as they often do, he is the One who renews and refreshes us. In John 10, Jesus says, “the thief come only to steal, kill, and destroy, but I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). It is no coincidence that this the section in John where Jesus announces that he is the Good Shepherd. He would prove in the next chapter that he is the God of life as he restores the life of Lazarus. So Psalm 23 affirms the life-giving nature and the leading hand God as we journey through this life.
Psalm 23:4. This verse is sandwiched between two positive images of God, and even in this sole verse on the shadow of death, the psalmist speaks of the comfort of God. The first part of verse four is telling, as it says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Notice it says “walk through” not “walk around.” This psalm affirms that the dark moments of life, even death, must be walked through, not around. Other worldviews tell us that suffering is an illusion, divine fate, the consequence of a former life, or through human efforts suffering can be avoided. None of those really live up to our reality. It doesn’t matter how much humanity advances in intellect, medicine, or technology, not all suffering can be eliminated. The Bible tells us that suffering, pain, grief, and tragedy are real and are a part of living in a broken world. In a broken world, things break. The baby brother of Jesus affirms this when he says in James 1:2, “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds…” He says “when” not ‘if.” The verse goes on to say that the Shepherd comforts because he will fend off the enemies. The rod and staff were used against predators and those who would seek to steal the sheep. Comfort that God is working as we are walking through the valley is the central affirmation here.
Psalm 23:5-6. The Shepherd gets his flock to the desired destination, no matter what. Here we see that a table is prepared for the tired traveler. The concept of sitting at a table was of great significance to God’s people during this time, as to dine with someone at a table was to nearly say that I have entered into a convent at with you. That is why the religious leaders were so outraged that Jesus would dine with sinners. He desired and still does desire a covenant with those who are far off. As this verse says, the presence in the midst of our peril is possible with God. The psalmist goes on to say that God anoints his head with oil. This was a practice where oil was used with healing and symbolic significance. This might mean that the traveler was wounded on the journey. This is another affirmation, that in this life we will have trouble (John 16:33), and we will likely get bruised on the journey. But, God is our healer, whether on this side of life or the next. Our destination in this life is not death, but life after death. We look forward to the renewal of all things. It is easy to fall into the trap of focusing only on the now. Now is important, but what’s next motivates how we live here and now. The final part of this verse is that the traveler will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. To dwell means to take up a permanent residence, and this is only possible because our Good Shepherd has chosen to care for his people and invite them into his house. Again, when Jesus claimed to be the Good Shepherd, he states that no one will snatch his flock from his hand. We have confidence in our position before God, as he leads us through difficult days (John 10:28).
Recap – One affirmation of the difficulties of life and three affirmations about God.
Suffering, evil, and grief are real. They must be walked through not around.
God is our provider and sustainer who gives life and revives our souls.
God is always working as we are walking through this life, even in our darkest moments.
God is a God who comforts us in the midst of grief.
God has made a place for us at his table where we can dwell with him as he dwells with us.
I want to go ahead and invite you to share your stories with us of how God has used your tough moments in life. We would love to see how God is shaping you and encouraging you. Also, if you are in a season where you are struggling to see or sense God’s presence, we would love to hear from you as well.