Excerpted from Power Made Perfect in Weakness, a Lenten Guide for Lectionary Year A from the North Carolina Council of Churches.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I 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 goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.
Psalm 23 are words of trust that many of us are familiar with. This psalm is so prevalent in our lives because it is comforting, while challenging us, and continues to teach us new ways of seeing God’s presence in our lives. Perhaps one of the most utilized psalms since its origin, and the most referenced psalm in suffering, this psalm is a beautiful reminder of God’s care for us. And it also serves as a tune-up for where we actually put our trust. Psalm 23 empowers us, to not live in fear, and challenges us to live fully into who we are created to be.
The Psalmist offers grounding for life’s most challenging seasons. This psalm is referenced by those that are in the pits of life, needing reassurance that we can, in fact, trust God. And that we do not have to fear evil, because God is with us, and we lack nothing. However, we do not have to be near death for this passage to remind us of God’s presence in our lives, neither does it have to only be reserved for seasons of fear and anguish
The Psalmist offers insight on what stress, worry, fear, sadness, grief might look like when we turn to God in our pain. It is hard to look comparatively at a psalm, against how we each deal with our own pain, but this psalm serves a model and reminder of what life can be, even in most troubling seasons, if we trust God.
While this psalm is often used to treat or address sadness and fear, it also serves as a reminder that one cannot avoid hardship on earth, which is why we need God. Even though God is our shepherd, leading us to rest in green pastures and calm waters for respite, we are reminded by the Psalmist that God has prepared a table before me in the presence of my enemies (v. 5). This is symbolic for provisions, giving us what we need, because there will be enemies. That is a certainty of life: that there will be seasons, even people, that hurt us. But God gives us the tools to make it through the valleys of life; we read in verse 1 that “I shall not want” meaning that I lack nothing.
In our consumerist culture that is also driven by a scarcity-model and anxiety, it feels unfathomable that we already possess everything that we need to trust God. With this, the psalm reminds us that God will restore our souls (v. 3), God leads us (v.3), and that God is always with us (v. 4). The hard part of acknowledging this is that all of these tools are not any of our doing, but rather God’s presence in our life. Our participation is trusting this so that we can be helped. This takes humility and trust.
The Psalmist’s words “I shall not want” (v. 1), meaning that we lack nothing, does not mean that there are faithful people in our world, who are severely marginalized, and lack dignity from oppressors and unjust systems, and they have everything they need in life to prosper. There is radical harm and evil that happens in our world through corruption, and insidious sins, like racism and economic inequality that constantly strip people from what they need. This verse might be incredibly hard to hear, for those living on the front-lines of trauma – that we all lack nothing. And any preacher or well-meaning person using this psalm should hold that difficulty. The Psalmist does not mean that the reader is not hungry, silenced, sick, deported, or have what they need, and they should automatically not worry. Rather, the Psalmist is saying that God is with us, even in the inevitable pain of this world, steering us through the darkest valleys, sustaining us to the next meal and point of hope. We may not have all that the world requires of us, but God is always with us, and we can trust, that despite all of life’s pains, God offers wholeness and “goodness and mercy” (v.6) that may not be what the world calls “good” but it is a presence that actually sustains and comforts.
The theme for this year’s Lenten Guide is “power made perfect in weakness”. This theme goes with all of the readings of Lent but especially Psalm 23. I read this psalm and it emphasizes what trust in God is; that God is always with me, and that I lack nothing. But to have a faith like the Psalmist requires forfeiting control and avoidance of anything that might be inconvenient or hard. In giving God our trust, we are then empowered. We are empowered to live more fully into the persons we were created to be. This psalm invites us to channel our worries into living in the moment, be present, and trust that even though pain will come in this life, that pain is not the destroyer of our lives. We can be empowered to not be paralyzed and instead seek therapy, find the right medication for mental health concerns, hike the Appalachian Trail, or take that job in a different part of the country because we won’t let fear rule. When we turn to God, we are empowered in our weakness. It is then, in our humility and trust, that we fully live. Amen.