THE SHEPHERD WHO BRINGS CONTENTMENT
Have you ever gone white water rafting? I haven’t, but I have a number of friends who have. I’m sure you all have seen pictures or videos of people white water rafting. It is non-stop thrills. The water is rushing extremely fast. There are lots of large rock and boulders in the river that the rafters must avoid. There are sudden dips and drop offs, whirlpools to avoid. Water is spraying everywhere. Sometimes a person falls out of the raft, or the whole raft is overturned. It’s a heart-stopping adventure.
But while it offers lots of thrills and excitement, as well as some fear, I don’t think anyone would want to spend their entire life doing that. The ride lasts for maybe 30 minutes, and then the waters become calm. At that point, the riders are glad for the thrilling adventure, but then they are glad to have the rough waters behind them and they can relax.
Perhaps you have gone through periods when it seemed like your life was like white water rafting. There was turbulence all around. You didn’t know what was around the next bend. Maybe you lost your job. Perhaps an important relationship ended. Maybe you faced a severe health crisis. Your life was falling apart. Fear and anxiety filled your heart.
Or maybe you were simply caught up in the rat race. You were in the fast lane of your career track, but that meant long days with little sleep, the endless pressures of constant deadlines which left no time for anything else. You were breathlessly trying to keep up with your friends in terms of job promotions, the kind of car you were driving, the places you were vacationing, the parties you were attending. Life was just a blur as everything was moving so fast. There was something exciting about it, but like white water rafting, you needed to come to some quiet waters, to the place where you could rest, refocus, and recharge.
We’re continuing our study of Ps. 23, and the passage we will focus on today is, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me like down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters.”
According to David, under the Shepherd's care, we shall not lack. The obvious question is: What shall we not lack? Well, it doesn't have to do simply with material goods. David himself experienced times when he lacked such things. He spent time living in a cave while his enemies pursued him. Certainly, he would have preferred to be sleeping safely in a comfortable bed in a secure house, but for a period of time he lacked those things.
And the apostle Paul wrote in Phil. 4:12, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." Sometimes Paul had to endure hunger – not the hunger we may feel an hour before dinnertime, but sustained hunger; for long periods of time he didn’t even have the food he needed. As followers of Jesus we are not promised that our bank account will always be growing, our closet will always be filled, our table will always be overflowing. Adversity can strike any and all of us.
So what was David getting at when He affirmed he lacked nothing? Actually, a number of things, as is clear from the rest of the psalm. We will not lack guidance, for the Shepherd guides us along the right paths. We will not lack safety, for He is with us in the darkest valleys. We will not lack provision, for our Shepherd prepares a table for us. We will not lack an eternal home, for we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. In the coming weeks we’ll consider all of these.
For today I will focus on just one. To know God as our Shepherd and thus we lack nothing means we will not lack rest. By rest I mean a deep sense of peace, contentment, and assurance. Even if the circumstances of our life are similar to white water rafting, we are not anxiously striving but our souls are at peace, at rest, for we know we are under our Shepherd’s faithful care.
"He makes me lie down in green pastures," writes David. We can easily miss David’s point here. When we think of sheep and green pastures, we picture the sheep feasting on that lush green grass. But notice David did not say, “He feeds me in green pastures,” although God faithfully provides for our physical needs which helps us be content and at peace. But He said of the Lord his Shepherd, "He makes me lie down in green pastures."
Lying down - that speaks of rest. Rest not only means we cease from activity, but it means our souls are at rest. We are at peace. We are not filled with anxiety and worry. We are not overcome by fear or distraught by uncertainty. No, our souls are at rest. Peace fills our hearts.
Rest is something that probably most of us could use more of. We live in a fast-paced, hectic, demanding world that constantly tells us we need to accumulate more and achieve more. We would like to stop for a moment, to rest instead of wearing ourselves out, but we're afraid if we stop we will get behind and we'll never catch up - with work or with others, or with expectations.
With so much to do, so many expectations to meet, so many demands to satisfy, so many people to please, so much ground to make up to achieve a certain social status, we may find ourselves tired - not only tired physically, but worn out mentally, drained emotionally, running on empty spiritually.
We're not getting the physical rest we need, and we don't have that sense of inner tranquility and peace because all these other things crowd God out of our lives, and thus we miss out on His peace and security and confidence. Regardless of the reason, we all can probably use more rest - yes, physical rest, but more importantly a rest of spirit, an inner tranquility.
The good news is that our Lord graciously offers us rest. Our souls can be at rest because we have a Good Shepherd who has our good in mind. We can have a sense of peace and security that outward circumstances cannot threaten because our peace and security are rooted in our Good Shepherd, who is wise, loving, and mighty. But sometimes, because we can be rather stubborn, we resist the rest He offers. Thus, the Lord not only offers us rest but at times will make us rest - for own good. That’s what David said in this psalm, "He makes me lie down in green pastures." Sometimes God has to make us rest.
Phillip Keller, who wrote the book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, was a shepherd for eight years. He writes that sheep do not lie down easily. Four conditions must be met for the sheep to lie down. First, because they are timid, they will not lie down unless they are free from fear. If for some reason they are not at ease, because perhaps they sense a predator near, they will not lie down. Second, due to their social nature, they will not lie down unless they are free from friction with other sheep. If there is tension, jostling, or competition among them, they will not lie down and be at rest. Third, they will not lie down if they are pestered by flies or parasites. And fourth, they will not lie down if they are hungry. So they must be free from fear, tension, aggravation, and hunger. Only the shepherd can make sure these needs are met.
Sometimes the shepherd must actually force the sheep to rest. Perhaps they are anxious, having heard the distant howls of wild animals. Or perhaps a stranger disturbs them. Even though they have eaten their fill and no danger is lurking, they will not rest, but it's essential that they do. So the shepherd will actually move among the sheep, take them one by one, and force them to lie down so they can get the rest they need.
And so God sometimes makes us lie down in green pastures. The reason God makes us lie down is that He knows we need rest. We’re anxious, worried, and always striving, so we need peace in our souls, but like sheep we often resist it, which is why God makes us lie down. We get caught up in this fast-paced world of heavy workloads and fast-approaching deadlines, of too many things to do and too many people to please. We become overwhelmed by fears and anxieties about our future, our health, our family, and the results of that are not good. Our lives become frantic and we are no longer centered. We allow what is urgent to dictate our lives rather than what is important. Worst of all, God gets lost in all our activity, and we feel cut off, blind to His presence and devoid of His power, for we are not nurturing our relationship with God and resting in His care and promises. So things like worry, anxiety, fear, and hopelessness rule our hearts.
Thus, sometimes God has to make us slow down, or even stop, so we can re-center and re-charge. Maybe we have been so set on charging ahead in our career that we haven't noticed it has taken over our very life; it's what defines us. And then one day the company has to cut back on its staff, and we're one of the ones let go. It could be that through that experience God is making us lie down, He's making us stop and evaluate our use of time, our goals and the cost of trying to achieve them before our life completely spins out of control. God wants us to re-orient our lives around Him, so He makes us lie down, for He has green pastures and quiet waters for us, places of nourishment and experiences of refreshment for us to enjoy.
The shepherd, wrote David, also leads his sheep to still waters because he knows the sheep will not drink from a running stream. They may be very thirsty, but sheep have a fear of moving water. Perhaps they have an instinctive awareness that if they were to fall into the stream, their woolen coats would become waterlogged and they would drown. So the shepherd either finds a quiet pool, or takes some stones and dams up a part of the stream so the sheep can drink and be refreshed.
That picture presents us with an interesting image of what God does for us. Sometimes God leads us to those quiet waters, experiences that bring a sense of tranquility to our souls – maybe a stress-free work environment, or relationships that bring renewal and refreshment to our souls, or simply a relaxing vacation.
Other times it seems that rather than leading us to quiet pools of refreshment, God leads us to the rushing streams, to places and experiences that may cause feelings such as fear, anxiety, confusion, or even panic to rise up within us. We may feel threatened in some way, as if a rampaging river is going to pull us in and take us under. But during those times, we must remember that God is our Good Shepherd, and just as the shepherd will take some stones to make a small dam in the flowing river so the sheep can safely drink and be refreshed, so God will take the circumstances that confront us and use them somehow to provide what we need.
Maybe God, much against our will, pulls us out of a relationship that is not healthy or is taking us in the wrong direction, and we feel like our life has been completely upended. Or maybe God leads us to a new job, but there we experience lots of tension and turmoil because of the work atmosphere. These are rough waters, not quiet pools of water, but maybe we need this so we learn to retreat to God more regularly, looking to God for direction, peace, and purpose. Then God will transform these turbulent waters into quiet pools as we learn to trust in God and surrender to what He wants to do in us and to us. The result of navigating through these rough waters is that we come to experience in new ways God's faithfulness, and then His peace and rest fill our hearts anew.
So David proclaims that God provides him with green pastures and quiet waters. But just what are these green pastures and quiet waters where we find rest for our souls? What is the reality behind the metaphors? Ultimately, it is God Himself. Jer. 50:7 affirms that God is our true pasture. In other words, God is our true nourishment. For we all have a built-in hunger for God, which only God can satisfy.
That’s why Jesus declared in Jn. 6:35, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry." As we abide in Jesus, He satisfies us with the assurance of His presence, the confidence in His love, the certainty of His faithfulness, and the knowledge of His good and perfect will for our lives. When we have all those, we are not hungering for things that ultimately will not satisfy, and our souls will be at rest.
The same is true regarding the quiet waters. The author of Ps. 42 wrote: "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." When sheep become thirsty, they naturally search for water. If not led by the shepherd to clean and pure sources of water, the sheep will drink from any water they find. Thus, they may end up with parasites or various diseases from drinking impure water. In a similar way, we sometimes try to satisfy our inner thirst for meaning and joy and purpose by drinking from polluted sources, from taking in things that harm us and even destroy us.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, our deepest thirst really is for God, for we were created for God, to be connected to God and receive from Him our sense of purpose and satisfaction. And that can be our experience, for also in Jn. 6:35 Jesus declared that those who believe in Him will never be thirsty. As we take time to nurture our relationship with God, our soul is nourished and our deepest desires are satisfied. That's why we read God's word and commune with Him in prayer; it's not simply to accumulate information or master a text, but rather to meet God.
How wonderful it is that God offers Himself to us in this way. Our problem, though, is that sometimes we think we can find better pastures on our own, and so we wander away from the Lord. I'd like to spend my day in the pasture of pursuing materialistic gain and acquiring worldly treasures; I want to drink from the waters of personal pleasure and selfish desires. Such pastures and waters may satisfy us for a period, but eventually we discover that inwardly we are still craving for something meaningful and lasting. And we discover that rest in no way characterizes our life because we are always seeking more.
And so the picture here is not simply of sheep grazing and drinking, but resting. God leads us to a place of rest, an inner peace and satisfaction of the soul. As we follow the leading of our Shepherd and abide in His green pastures and drink from His quiet waters, as we deepen our relationship with Him we find peace, satisfaction, contentment, and rest for our souls.
Then we can say with David, "I shall not want," or “I lack nothing,” which speaks not of God giving us everything we think we must have or that the world tells us we must have. No, this speaks of contentment. It means I am truly satisfied because my deepest needs are met. What a gift to be able to live with a sense of contentment. We don't need to pursue things just because others have them. We don't need to seek position and prestige just to make an impression on others. For we have a shepherd who is concerned about us and committed to what is truly in our best interest, and our lives are rooted in Him.
This doesn't mean we make no effort in gaining the things we need and making the most of the opportunities, abilities, and gifts God has given us. Of course, we do that. But we can trust our shepherd to be at work and He will not disappoint us. He will meet our needs. We can relax. We can be at rest. We can know peace in our souls.
When we know that we are perfectly, eternally, and unconditionally loved by Jesus, our souls are at rest because His peace fills our hearts, and we can let Him direct us to the things He would have us do and to the goals He would have us pursue.
We find a fascinating example of this kind of inward peace and rest from the Lord in an account in Acts 12. It has to do with the Apostle Peter being arrested. King Herod was getting fed up with the young Christian church and its growth. So he arrested and executed one of the apostles - James the brother of John. Herod decided he was on a roll, so he then arrested Peter with the same intent in mind. But this happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and he could not have Peter executed during the feast. So he put Peter in prison until after the feast when he would put Peter on trial.
It says in vs. 6 that Peter was chained to two guards, one on each side of him. As he was chained to the guards during the night before the trial was to begin, and knowing the fate that James met and the likelihood that he would meet the same fate, it says that Peter slept. Can you imagine that? Not only would that have been very uncomfortable physically being chained to two guards, but mentally and emotionally you would think it would be pure anguish and fear. You could only assume that you would soon be facing the sword just as James did. That’s not exactly a good environment for sleeping! These are rough waters!
Yet Peter slept, for he knew the Good Shepherd. He could sleep physically because His soul was at rest. He knew that Jesus would be faithful to him; He would not abandon Peter. And no matter the outcome of the trial, he could never be separated from Jesus and His love. He would either experience divine deliverance, which is what happened as angels came and escorted Peter out, or the angels would escort him into the presence of the Lord forever. Peter could be confident in all this, for he knew Jesus as his Good Shepherd, and thus Peter was at peace. He physically slept because his soul was at rest in the midst of what for many would have been very fearful, alarming, and terrifying circumstances.
Knowing that Jesus is our Good Shepherd allows us to rest, to be at peace even in times of difficulty, turmoil, and uncertainty. For He is faithful to His sheep. He is the Lord who by His power and sovereignty rules the world and provides us with what we truly need. We are safe in His hands forever, and being assured of that allows us to be at rest.
That is what David discovered. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." He was saying that knowing God in this deep and authentic way led to a profound sense of satisfaction in his heart and contentment in his soul. As long as he stayed rooted in his relationship with God, he was at rest. He was at peace. He was content. He was satisfied. And we can be too, as we center our lives in our relationship with the Lord, our Good Shepherd.