Driving to work yesterday, it began to dawn on me that I have been struggling with a lack of contentment. Webster, in the 1828 edition of his dictionary, defined contentment as “a resting or satisfaction of mind without disquiet” and reminded us that “Godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Timothy 6:6)”. When I say that I have been struggling with contentment, I mean the type of contentment defined by Webster, I have not had a satisfying and restfulness week. This is, in my mind, a great sin. It is sin because it is the expression of a lack of trust in God. It is great because to not trust God is to malign his character and to elevate my knowledge of what is best for me above his. Therefore, my lack of contentment is nothing less than an arrogant accusation against God that he does not know what is best for me, and an attempt to supplant his authority over my life with my own delusion of wisdom. Although some might argue that this is a private sin, the effects of this sin are very public. It is for this reason that I am making my confession publicly.
Thankfully, God did not allow me to stay in a state of discontentment. As soon as he showed me my sin I felt a sorrow in my heart; but sorrow is not enough as Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 7. It wasn’t until this morning that I had true godly sorrow. The kind that Paul tells us leads to repentance not to be regretted. If you have ever been in this situation you may recognize the difference between sorrow and godly sorrow. Plain, ordinary sorrow does not lead to repentance. It can lead to changed behavior, but it cannot lead to a changed heart. When God revealed my lack of contentment to me I had a change in behavior. I spent a good part of the day thanking God for the things he has blessed me with and for the struggles he has given me to work through, However, while I was able to change my behavior I was unable to change my heart. I was doing the right things- thanking God, but my heart was still far from God. What changed that guided my heart to true Godly sorrow leading to repentance? The key was always right before me, locked up in the recesses of my mind from long ago. As I started my car this morning and pulled away from the house God impressed Psalm 23 upon my heart. It is a Psalm that I memorized as a child because my Sunday School teacher was offering a chocolate bar to any children who could commit it to memory. Little did I know that it would play such a precious role in my life some 33 years later.
Most people associate Psalm 23 with funerals; and so, as God began to work his word into my heart he also began to put to death the restless spirit that I had come to possess. He did this first of all by reminding me who he is, then by reminding me what he does, and finally by reminding me why he does what he does.
The LORD is my Shepherd
Psalm 23 begins by reminding us of a very important concept in coming to trust in God. The LORD is our Shepherd. To fully grasp this we must first look at who it is we are speaking of. It’s quite clear, but in case you miss it let me remind you.
The . . . a definite article. Not any lord. Not even any god. but THE LORD.
LORD, written in all capital letters in our English translations is the way that our translator chose to depict the Hebrew word Yahweh (formerly Jehovah). That is, the name that God chose to reveal to Moses when Moses first met him. This should not be overlooked. It’s a big deal. The only analogy I can think of is if you bumped into the Queen of England and said, “I’m sorry Your Majesty”! To which she replies, “Call me Elizabeth”. It’s like that, only a bigger deal because this is the one who even the Queen will bow down to. So when we see LORD, we should know that the author is making a statement about a very specific God who chose to reveal his personal name to us. It’s not just any god, the LORD is the God of the Bible as he has revealed himself to us in all his holiness, power, and love.
It is this God, Yahweh, who is my Shepherd. A Shepherd’s role is much bigger than simply walking out to the hillside with a flock of sheep. The shepherd was charged with protecting the sheep, providing for them, and guiding them. This is what we are promised in the first line of Psalm 23- The God of creation who made the world with an utterance, who upholds all things by the power of his word, who is our Father, Spirit, and Son at the same time, who revealed himself as a personal God who is calling a people to himself… this God, Yahweh is my provider, my guide and my protector and He has my best interest in mind when he guides me and provides for me and protects me. It is a wonderful thing to know that the Heavenly Father, The Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ … the LORD… is my shepherd.
This knowledge of the LORD as my shepherd has profound consequences. Chief among these is the promise that I shall not want. ‘Want’ is a funny word. We typically use it today as a synonym for ‘desire’; and the word does mean that. However, it means a lot more than that and in the context of Psalm 23, it means that we will now lack anything. If we truly lack nothing then we desire nothing because we have no lack of anything. This is what the Psalmist is saying- because the LORD is our guide, protector, deliverer, and provider we lack nothing. If we lack nothing we have no need to be discontent. So why is it that we so often fall into the trap of wanting things of which we have no want? Why do we desire things that we do not lack? The answer comes back to our sin. We do not really believe that we have no lack. Are there things I don’t have? Of course. I don’t have a car that is quiet and comfortable for my two hours of commuting every day. As a result, I have aches and pains. But my Shepherd, the LORD, is the same one who formed me together in my mother’s womb and therefore he knows my needs much better than I ever can. “Can that which is molded say to the one who has molded him, “why hast thou made me thus?” No, my perception of my needs does not define my needs.
Some of us lack contentment due to trials and hardships in life. I can relate to this. It’s easy to be tempted to think that adversity is a sign of lacking something. However, James tells us in James 1 that these trials are intended to produce joy because we know when our faith is tested we gain patience. Patience, he goes on to say should be allowed to have its perfect work so that we may be complete lacking nothing. So these trials which our Shepherd leads us into are not intended to tell us that we are lacking, but to demonstrate that we in fact lack nothing. That’s similar to what David is saying in Psalm 23. Despite trials, we trust in God to be our Shepherd knowing that we lack nothing.
The Psalmist goes on to say that “He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters, He restores my soul”. You may object to this. You may be tempted to think, as I was, that the things which we have are not enough and we need something more. But here’s the thing, Psalm 23 paints a picture of these things God has given you as green pastures. Yes, that means your car that is falling apart parked in front of your house that is too small and driven by your husband who never helps around the house is all a part of that which God has provided for you. Believe it or not, these are all a part of that incredible landscape described by the psalmist as “green pasture” and “still water”. God intends to use them to restore your soul.
Paths of Righteousness
Contentment is not relegated to the world of things. In fact, for many people a lack of contentment is often felt because we don’t feel righteous enough. The burden of righteousness is a big burden to carry. Perhaps this is why we were never intended to carry it in our name. The same Shepherd who makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters is also the Shepherd who leads us in paths of righteousness- and this he does for his name sake. As Christians we should be able to rest in Christ’s perfect righteousness. His perfection imputed to us gives us rest. It restores our soul. It leads us into paths of personal righteousness as we begin to desire the things which please our Shepherd.
Fearing No Evil
All of this is why we can have assurance and be content in this life. Our lack of contentment for things, in dire circumstances, and in pursuing righteousness are all signs that we have been struggling find contentment in ourselves and not in our Shepherd. This Psalm ends on s beautiful note. We aren’t promised that we will not have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but we are promised that as we do, we will be led by our Shepherd and because of that we will fear no evil. Our Shepherd’s rod and staff become a sign of his presence and a comfort to us. It is when we realize this that we can say along with the psalmist, “My cup runneth over” despite the fact that we still have the same things, are still in the midst of the same trials, and still seem to be as imperfect as the day we were born. When we rest in the contentment gained from trusting our Shepherd we can proclaim Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”.
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