Conversatio Divina

Part 7 of 18

If the Lord Is My Shepherd, Does That Make Me a Sheep?

Pauline Sawyers

01.  Introduction

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He 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.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Psalm 23 (NIVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™)

I had recited Psalm 23 many times. I think I believed it was true for me. Then one glorious year, I lived it.

I had been restless at work for some time. I knew something wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I requested different work arrangements to delay the inevitable, but after each request I knew the problem would still be there. As I prayed, conviction grew within me that I needed to leave my job and write. For years I had been working on a book about the spiritual significance of gender. Now a tension was building: I wanted to work on the book full-time. It didn’t seem feasible. But the Lord waited.

I did, however, leave my job and planned to take a year just to work on my book. I had $3,000 saved for emergencies, and I took $7,000 from my home equity line of credit. I planned to do my taxes in the spring and anticipated that the expected refund might last me another month. Then, I thought, if necessary I could do some part-time work. But notice how I left God out of the equation. No sooner had I left one job then I was scheming how to get my next. I was so busy preparing for this transition that I almost forgot about the book! But the Lord just waited.

I knew I needed to let go and prepare myself mentally and spiritually to receive what the Lord had in store for me. I wanted to empty myself of me and listen only to him. I did a few things to facilitate a restful attitude. The first was to get rid of my television. This was followed by my Internet access. I even had the phone disconnected for several weeks. And since I lived alone, I had to leave the house in order to talk to someone. Isolating myself temporarily in this way meant I was alone with my thoughts. Because I wasn’t busy rushing here and there, trying to meet deadlines or get through my list of things to be done, I was more able to be still and know that God is God. The solitude made a big difference in my ability to be attentive to God’s leading.

I experienced four different kinds of rest: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Physical rest came first, but I tended to experience all four at the same time, and after a while I couldn’t tell them apart. Physical rest came in not having to be up at any particular time and not having to go to sleep at any particular time. I was free to follow my body’s natural rhythms. I found that as it darkened outside, I became less active. As day dawned, I was inclined to awaken. I didn’t use an alarm clock because there was no need for it. Not having been jarred out of sleep, I awoke gradually, more rested and in a better mood. Often I lay in bed listening to the birds singing.

02.  The Lord Is My Shepherd

The very first lesson I had to learn during my year of spiritual retreat was that the Lord is in control. It is a lesson I am still learning. I spent so much time planning and scheming how to survive financially, I forgot that it was all futile without the Lord’s intervention. This was at once the most difficult and most profound lesson to be learned. It began with an acceptance of the truth in Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.”

Actually, there were two lessons here. The first took several months to learn. Without the Lord’s guidance all of my striving would fail. All of my attempts to support myself were completely dependent upon him. Once I reached the end of my resources, I realized I had no choice but to trust God for the outcome. As I learned that lesson, it gradually dawned on me that there was an even more profound lesson to be learned: not only would the Lord take care of me and grant success to my striving to provide for myself, but my striving itself was unnecessary. The Lord had already made abundant provision for my sustenance during this time. I did not experience full rest until I allowed myself to be carried in the arms of my Shepherd, not striving. It was this attitude shift from “God will bless my efforts” to “I don’t need to strive at all” that allowed me to experience true rest. And that spiritual rest was a simple trust in God’s provision that freed me to focus on spiritual matters.

It is significant that the phrase “I shall not be in want” is in the future tense. The passage seemed to be saying that the Lord is taking care of things, so I don’t have to worry about the future. A simple, childlike faith in God was necessary. A child can play all day long and not worry about where the next meal is coming from or what he or she will wear the next day. Children can enjoy themselves now because they trust that whatever they need will be provided.

03.  He Makes Me Lie Down in Green Pastures

I reconnected with nature by spending as many of the daylight hours as possible outdoors. I frequented state parks and local parks. I rekindled my gardening hobby, spending some portion of each day gardening. During that time, nature seemed to speak to me of the Lord’s provision. I marveled at the miracle of a dry seed germinating into a new plant. I wanted to take some credit for the growth of each plant, but remained mystified as to how the plant just seemed to come alive without any particular power on my part. Even looking at the ants and other insects taught me valuable lessons of life. Mostly, I learned that all nature seemed to go about its business without worry about how to survive.

There was tranquility in simply being still and observing what was going on around me in nature. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. This was the gift of mental rest. Just as I did when I was a little girl, I would lie down on the grass facing the sky and watch the patterns in the clouds. The grass was soft under my feet, almost like carpet. The wind rustling through the trees I found refreshing; a light, cool breeze against my face, soothing. The sound of running water was energizing. The reflection of the sun off a lake looked like thousands of little diamonds sparkling and dancing against the contrasting darkness of the lake. I was rich! I was so content I don’t think I would have been happier if they had been diamonds. Each of the elements of nature seemed orchestrated to restore and refresh my spirit: God’s tranquilizers.

04.  He Guides Me in Paths of Righteousness

This one I had difficulty seeing at first. What was meant by “paths of righteousness”? Wasn’t I already walking on the narrow path of the Christian life? I’m not sure, but maybe the tranquility I experienced in nature enabled me better to hear and obey the voice of God for my life. I was more solicitous of the things that might be pleasing to God simply because I was less focused on the usual cares and concerns of life. In addition, I was so content that my usual stubbornness softened into a willingness to obey. Doing the right thing became the way I expressed my love for God, just as he had expressed his love for me in all of my love languages.

It is interesting to me that I gained a deeper experience of rest than ever before in my life. As a Seventh Day Adventist, I thought I knew what rest was—especially spiritual rest. We rest from our work every week on the Sabbath in order to commune with the Lord and deepen our relationship with him. But too often, though I ceased my usual weekly work, my Sabbath rest was encumbered with many church activities. I was just as busy on the Sabbath as I was on other days. The Lord guided me to see that I wasn’t always communing with him on Sabbath as I could be. There were many other areas of my life the Lord guided me to reexamine, things I thought I was doing “right.”

05.  Even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I Will Fear No Evil

This one didn’t seem to apply to me at all. I didn’t see myself in the valley of the shadow of death. Some thought I was in the valley of the shadow of death because I had no visible means of financial support—no income, no health insurance, nothing. Some felt it was foolish of me to place myself in a position where if anything went wrong, I could be financially ruined, or worse—homeless and starving. But to me, I wasn’t in danger because I believed God would take care of me one way or another. As the year progressed, so did my trust in him.

I wondered if living on savings were an indication of my poor faith. Perhaps I should be able to trust him even in the absence of any money at all. I felt as if the Lord were gently chiding me for trying to set everything up ahead of time so as not to be in financial want. If I took God at his word that “even the hairs of [my] head all are numbered” (Matthew 10:30), didn’t that mean God could sustain me in any circumstance? If I spent all my savings, could God sustain me without money? Didn’t he have a thousand ways to provide for his children? He created all the things we use for food, clothing, and shelter. And we didn’t have to pay him for these things. Perhaps I had made money into an idol and considered it more necessary than it was. Even if the Lord chose not to provide me with food, couldn’t he sustain me without food? “In him is life” (John 1:4). The Israelites were fed in the wilderness with manna, “the grain of heaven” (Psalm 78:24). Elijah was fed in the wilderness when he fled from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:1–8), so God could feed me too. But if he chose not to feed me, and I died, even that would not be a problem. I served a God who could raise me from the dead (John 11:38–44). So even if I were in the valley of the shadow of death, there was no need to be afraid as long as God was with me—and he was! I knew emotional rest. “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).

06.  Your Rod and Staff Comfort Me

I have never been sure what this phrase meant. I have heard that the Lord’s rod and staff refer to his discipline and guidance. The shepherd’s rod and staff were most likely used to keep the sheep on the right path. My mental image of the shepherd’s staff is the schoolbook picture of “Little Bo Peep,” whose staff had a curved end. The crook of the staff could be used to pull back a sheep that was moving in a wrong or dangerous direction.

Perhaps the Lord’s rod and staff were the various types of unrest I experienced during my spiritual retreat. For each type of rest I experienced, there was a corresponding sense of unrest that let me know the Lord was watching and was personally invested in my spiritual growth. Each kind of unrest was experienced in a negative light at first, as discipline usually is, but resulted in a deeper sense of rest than I could have known otherwise.

Physical rest was accompanied by daily physical labor outdoors. Mental rest was accompanied by the training of my thoughts to dwell on spiritual themes. Emotional rest was accompanied by a more intense experience of whatever I was feeling. Spiritual rest was accompanied by a deep soul-searching to discover habits and character traits that tended to separate me from God.

For example, unemployment, while it enabled spiritual retreat, was also a kind of spiritual discipline. Being unemployed was a very humbling experience for me. At first I was obsessed with devising means to earn money. I sabotaged my own rest by staying busy. Working had been one of the ways I maintained a sense of control over my life. It was a form of discipline—not working, not trying to be in control. I couldn’t control everything. I had to accept whatever came. I began to see just how compulsive I was about being in control of my own life. As I began to rest from my own striving, the Lord allowed me to see other aspects of myself that blocked my communion with him.

07.  You Prepare a Table Before Me in the Presence of My Enemies

I don’t have any enemies (that I’m aware of, anyway). But if I did have enemies, that year I wasn’t working they probably would have gloated. On the surface, it was a low point in my life: no job, no health insurance, depleted savings, a keen awareness of my faults and shortcomings . . . and I didn’t finish the book. But the crucifixion was a spurious victory for the Enemy.

The overwhelming majority of the people who knew I had resigned my position to write a book were very supportive. But some said I wouldn’t last. Others said my finances wouldn’t last. Some questioned my judgment. I questioned my judgment. Everyone watched as the Lord provided beautifully for me financially. Everyone watched as the Lord set me “on top of the world” by providing a sumptuous spiritual feast that transformed my life.

The rest the Lord provided for me was contagious. He hoped others watching would desire the same for themselves and seek the rest I had found.

08.  You Anoint My Head With Oil

In biblical times, one anointed the head of one who was receiving a special blessing or a special calling. Samuel anointed David as the next king of Israel. The Lord lavished the greatest blessing on me by gracing me with his own Presence. I felt so special. It seemed he was calling little me to tell me a big secret to which only a select few were privy. Of course, the Lord longs to share his Presence with everyone. Spiritual retreat allows us to move our ear closer to his lips.

09.  Surely Goodness and Love Will Follow Me All the Days of My Life

After that year with the Lord, it was easy to believe that whatever happened would be for my ultimate good. More importantly, the goodness and love I so craved was God himself. As long as we stick together, I will always have Goodness and Love in my life. The gift of his love surpasses every other earthly gift. And we already have it!

10.  And I Will Dwell in the House of the Lord Forever

My year of spiritual retreat was the best year of my life. No doubt David experienced it too. I am sure this is why he wrote Psalm 23. Since we don’t see many shepherds around in the urban settings in which most of us live, it is often difficult to relate to the Lord as a Shepherd. But David’s first career was shepherding. He found that the Lord took care of him better than he took care of his own sheep. That I can relate to. My background and training are in counseling. My spiritual retreat was like a year of free, unlimited therapy catapulting me toward self-actualization. I wish I could tell you the book is finished, but I found something better—a closer friendship with him. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


Pauline Sawyers is an associate professor of psychology at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. She still hasn’t completed her book, but she feels very rested.