Learning to trust the Shepherd

Psalm 23

Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known portions of the Bible. It is often read at funeral services and other important occasions. Many people have committed the psalm to memory. You sometimes see verses from Psalm 23 displayed decoratively in people’s homes or tattooed onto their arms. It is a very popular psalm.

The reason Psalm 23 is so popular is because it is beautiful. In this psalm King David describes a relationship with God that is so intimate, safe, and secure that it makes people hunger to know God the same way.

The problem with Psalm 23, however, is that even though we may know the words to this psalm, we often struggle to experience its reality in our lives. We know we are invited to trust God, but we frequently find ourselves filled with anxiety, fear, anger, or worry. So this beautiful song about trusting God raises the question: How do we do learn to trust him?

My friend David Bisgrove has pointed out that Psalm 23 invites us to make three statements about ourselves in relation to God. The more these statements come to reflect the way we feel about who we are before God, the more we will be able to trust him. The three statements are: “I am lost,” “I am led,” and “I am loved.”

1)  I am lost.

The psalm begins by stating, “The LORD is my shepherd.” What does that statement reveal about me? If the Lord is my coach, then I am an athlete – swift and strong. If the Lord is my captain, then I am a soldier – brave and true. If the Lord is my teacher, then I am a student – ready to learn. But if the Lord is my shepherd, what does that make me? That makes me a sheep. Sheep are reputedly among the dumbest, slowest, and most defenseless animals you can find. King David says, “That’s me! The Lord is my shepherd. I am a sheep. I am weak. I am slow. I constantly wander off and get lost.”

My friends in the 12-step movement tell me that the first step toward recovery is to admit that you are powerless over your addiction and that your life has become unmanageable. In other words, the recognition of our own helplessness is the place restoration begins. This is also true in the life of faith. The first step toward becoming a real Christian is to admit to God that you are helpless, that your life is unmanageable, and that you need him to rescue you. This is what Jesus meant when he called people to repent. Biblical repentance does not mean saying, “I am a sinner, and I will try harder.” It means saying, “I am a sinner, and I give up. I cannot fix myself. I need God.”

People who learn to trust God make these kinds of statements about themselves all the time. They joyfully accept their weakness and brokenness. The admit that they are sheep. The more ready we are to see ourselves as sheep, the more easily we will see God as our shepherd. Admitting that we are lost is the first step toward a life of trust.

2) I am led.

When I say, “I am lost,” I acknowledge that I am not in control. When I say, “I am led,” I affirm that, though I am not in control, God is. He is my shepherd.

The primary responsibility of a shepherd is to lead the sheep. Shepherds watch over their flock, making sure that each animal is safe and well fed. As our shepherd, God watches over us with that same kind of vigilant care. David says, “The LORD … makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.” God was a constant presence in David’s life, sovereignly watching over his servant’s every step.

It is encouraging to observe that God does not only lead and protect us in good times, but also in bad times. In verse 4, David says to the Lord, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” I had a friend years ago who liked to say that her favorite word in that verse is the word “through.” God does not just lead us to the dark valley, and then abandon us there. He leads us all the way through the valley. He brings us safely to the other side.

It is interesting to notice in the psalm that, as soon as David mentions the dark valley, he no longer refers to God in the third person (“he”). When he gets to the dark valley, David starts to speak to God in the second person (“you”). It is as if to say, in times of difficulty, God ceases to be an abstract presence we merely talk about. God becomes a real person we talk to. He reveals his presence to us in the dark valleys more intimately than anywhere else.

What dark valleys have you been facing lately? Ask God for faith to trust that he is with you and that he will lead you through your hard times until you leave the dark valley behind.  

3) I am loved.

In verse 5, David changes metaphors. He now speaks of God, not as his shepherd, but as his friend. God is a friend who invites David into his home, prepares a meal, and spreads the table so they can dine together. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

By describing God this way, David indicated that he saw God as more than his provider, protector, and guide. He saw God as someone who deeply loved him.

Do you see God this way? God wants you to. The gospel tells us that God longs so deeply for us to dine at his table that he sent his Son into the world to die as our Savior. Any God who loves you enough to do that for you will certainly never forsake you, no matter what you face or how you fail. You are loved.