When God Doesn’t Seem to Care

How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psalm 13:1-3, N.I.V.)

A pastor was in his study working intently on a sermon when he heard his study door creak open a bit. He was surprised by the intrusion because he’d left strict orders that he wasn’t to be disturbed. Apparently, his young daughter hadn’t received those orders.

As she began to enter the room, the father scolded her by saying, “Stop right there. I’m busy and don’t have time to play. Please leave and close the door as you go.” Realizing she was on the brink of being in real trouble, the child spun around and hurriedly slammed the door behind her. Unfortunately for her, one of her fingers didn’t quite clear the door and got mashed in the process.

Screaming and crying followed, which compelled the father to get up from his desk and walk over to the child. Without even glancing at the mashed finger, he called for his wife to come and tend to their daughter. The mother came running and escorted the little girl to the bathroom where the medicine cabinet held the needed supplies. As the mother worked on the finger, she asked the child, “Does it hurt much?” To that, the daughter answered, “Yes, but what made it worse was that daddy didn’t even care.”

It’s bad enough to have to go through a difficult experience. It’s something else altogether when you feel like God doesn’t even care. I can hear this feeling in David’s question, “Will you forget me forever?” Of all the things I love about David’s Psalms, my favorite thing is that he doesn’t mind being down-to-the-bone honest when he talks to God. David was feeling abandoned by the Lord, and he told God so.

I myself have been there. I’ve had my share of mashed fingers that God couldn’t have cared less about. (At least that’s how it seemed to me.) Like the little girl who entered the study when she shouldn’t have, I’ve brought some of these mashed fingers upon myself. No question there. Other times, however, my enemies have pulled out hammers and given me mashed fingers I didn’t deserve. David had this kind of situation in mind when asked, “How long will my enemy triumph over me?”

Where David leaves me behind and goes off to some lofty place that I have trouble finding is summed up in the last two verses of the Psalm. There, he says to God:

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me. (Psalm 13:5-6, N.I.V.)

Did you catch that? David’s answer to him feeling completely abandoned by God was to trust in God all the more, find his joy in God, and sing of God’s goodness. You talk about a difficult prescription for treatment! Let’s say that someone has broken your heart by severely disappointing you. What should you do about that? David’s prescription amounts to you forcing yourself to continue to show confidence in that person and continue to give that person chance after chance to come through for you.

David’s basis for this irrational course of action was God’s past goodness toward him. As David puts it, “…for he has been good to me.” These words don’t mean that David was forgetting about his present situation. He still felt forgotten, abandoned, and even betrayed by God. But what got him through all that and allowed him to keep looking to God was God’s long-term track record with him.

When David looked at the totality of his life, he could see the lengthy list of good things that God had done for him and the favorable position to which God had brought him. Was the “bad” he was currently experiencing real? Absolutely. Was it painful? Definitely. All told, though, David had to admit that the “good” in his life far outweighed the “bad.”

In golf, you can have a few rough holes and yet still have a good overall round. In tennis, you can lose a lot of points and yet still win the match. In football and basketball, you can lose a quarter and yet still win the game. In baseball, you can strike out and yet still have a good day at the plate if you get some hits in your other times at bat. The key in all of these situations is to keep a proper perspective. Don’t let the unpleasant minority moments rob you of the joy provided by the pleasant majority moments.

Of course this is easier said than done when your finger just got mashed and God seems thoroughly unconcerned about your plight. Therefore, I’m not saying that David’s prescribed treatment is always easy to put into practice. Still, I can tell you from my own experience that it does help. It really does.

As for why God doesn’t always come rushing to our aid and comfort when we get our finger mashed, well, that’s another post for another time. Perhaps He is trying to purge us of our childish mentality. Or, perhaps He is trying to build trust in us. Whatever His reasons are, I’m sure He has them and we’ll just have to leave them with Him.

What we can say for sure is that God does LOVE us. Jesus (God the Son) dying on the cross so that anyone who believes in Him as Savior can have all their sins forgiven proves that. Also, isn’t it interesting that David doesn’t say of God, “But I trust in your unfailing self…” Instead, he says, “But I trust in your unfailing love…” Getting back to my opening illustration, that father never stopped loving his daughter even though the daughter couldn’t feel his love in that specific situation. Feeling, you see, is not necessarily reality. I would encourage you to keep this in mind anytime you are hurting and God seems unconcerned about your pain. Just because you feel unloved by Him doesn’t mean that you actually are.

Posted in Adversity, Attitude, Children, Christ's Death, Comfort, Complaining, Depression, Disappointment, Doubt, Encouragement, Faith, Fatherhood, God's Love, Honesty, Parenting, Pastors, Persecution, Personal, Prayer, Problems, Suffering, Thankfulness, Trials, Trusting In God | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why Sit Here Until We Die?”

“Why sit here until we die?” That question is at the heart of one of the Bible’s most incredible stories, 2 Kings 7:1-20, and it’s a question that still has relevance in a multitude of situations today. Let’s talk about the story.

The army of Ben Hadad, the King of Syria, has laid siege to Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel. Either as a result of the siege, or perhaps in addition to it, severe famine conditions now prevail in the city (2 Kings 6:24-25). People are literally dying of starvation. A donkey’s head is selling for eighty pieces of silver, and a pint of dove droppings (commentators believe this was a nickname for a certain type of plant) is selling for five pieces of silver (2 Kings 6:25). Some of the citizens are even resorting to cannibalism (2 Kings 6:26-29). Yes, the situation has gotten that extreme.

As bad as the conditions are inside the city, they are even worse for the lepers who are forced to live in designated areas outside it. So, there comes a day when four of the lepers who live just beyond the city’s gate engage in a serious conversation. The conversation begins with the logical question, “Why sit here until we die?” (2 Kings 7:3). Then they discuss their possible courses of actions.

One option is to stay where they are and die there from starvation. A second option is to enter into the city and die there from starvation. Since neither of those options offer any glint of hope, the lepers decide upon a third option. They will make their way out to the Syrian army, surrender, and hope the Syrians will not only mercifully spare their lives but also pity them enough to give them something to eat. Even if the Syrians kill them, nothing will really be lost because death seems inevitable anyway (2 Kings 7:4).

At dusk, as darkness falls, the lepers make their way to the Syrian camp. But when they reach the outskirts of the camp, they are surprised to find no one there (2 Kings 7:5). What the lepers don’t know is that God has just seriously messed with the Syrian army.

What has God done? He has caused the Syrian soldiers to falsely hear the noises of a massive approaching army’s horses and chariots. Upon hearing those noises in the dark, the Syrians have deduced that Israel’s King Jehoram has hired an allied army of Hittites and Egyptians to go to battle against them and that the allied army is about to attack (2 Kings 7:6). Despite the fact that the Syrians haven’t actually seen an army in the darkness, they have certainly heard it and have consequently dropped everything and fled their camp in fear (2 Kings 7:7).

The Syrian soldiers have left behind tents, horses, donkeys, clothing, silver, gold, and plenty of food and drink. Can you imagine the sight of four emaciated lepers, their skin barely hanging from their bones, having free run of the entire Syrian camp? The lepers go into one tent and there they eat and drink. They go into another and there they claim silver and gold. They go into another and there they claim even more silver and gold (2 Kings 7:8). They are like kids having free run in a candy store!

The bounty is so great that the lepers actually begin to feel bad for their selfishness. This prompts them to leave the camp and report the situation to the gatekeepers of Samaria. Because King Jehoram suspects the whole thing is a setup to lure his citizens out to a slaughter, he sends a couple of soldiers in chariots to survey the situation firsthand (2 Kings 7:11-15). When the soldiers return with the news that what the lepers have said is true, the citizens of Samaria stampede out to the camp and plunder it (2 Kings 7:16). They actually trample to death the officer that King Jehoram has placed in charge as Samaria’s gatekeeper (2 Kings 7:17-20).

You talk about a story! But let’s get back to those lepers and their question, “Why sit here until we die?” How many individuals should be asking that question right now? How many businesses should be asking it? How many schools should be asking it? How many churches should be asking it?

I mean, it’s one thing if you are doing what God wants you to be doing and He hasn’t given you a peace about changing. In that case, you need to stick with what you are doing and trust that God has a plan. On the other hand, though, if the only reason why you aren’t making a needed change is because you are being foolish, illogical, cowardly, or just downright stubborn, then you can learn something from those four lepers. Think about it. If no one else comes off looking good from this story, those lepers do. This in itself proves that God was pleased with not only their actions but, perhaps even more importantly, the attitude that led to their actions.

Posted in Addiction, Attitude, Change, Choices, Church, Contentment, Courage, Decisions, Desires, Discernment, Faith, Fear, God's Timing, God's Provision, God's Will, Inner Peace, Needs, Problems, Trusting In God | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Easter’s Surprise

New Year’s Day is January 1st. Valentine’s Day is February 14th. Independence Day is July 4th. Halloween is October 31st. Christmas is December 25th. But Easter? Uh……

Easter is that rare holiday that is unpredictable in regards to when it falls on the calendar. At least it’s unpredictable to anyone who doesn’t keep up with the moon. For the record, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring (vernal) equinox. That setup goes all the way back to the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325.

The thought process the Council of Nicaea used to arrive at that annual date was centered around the yearly Jewish Passover. That first full moon of the spring (vernal) equinox is also known as the Paschal (Passover) moon because that moon was the date of the Passover in the Jewish Calendar. Well, the Bible tells us that Jesus ate the Passover meal with His chosen 12 disciples the night before His crucifixion. That was the famous “last supper” in which He instituted The Lord’s Supper as part of the meal. Okay, since the Bible also tells us that He was crucified the next day, the following Sunday must have been resurrection Sunday, the Sunday we now call Easter.

Getting back to the lunar side of things, the word “equinox” means “equal night” and is a reference to the fact that the spring (vernal) equinox is the yearly date when night and day are nearly the exact same length all over the world. This means that Easter can fall anytime between March 22nd and April 25th. The last time it fell on March 22 was 1818, and the last time it fell on April 25th was 1943.

Of course it doesn’t help that some parts of the world use the Gregorian calendar and other parts use the Julian calendar. Those calendars differ by thirteen days. This has created the concepts of a Western (Gregorian) Easter and an Eastern (Julian) Easter. Typically, Western Easter and Eastern Easter are one week apart, even though there are certain years where the holiday falls on the same Sunday.

The interesting thing about all this is that Easter basically becomes something of a surprise each year in that us common folks have to check the calendar to find out exactly when it falls. In this way, we are like the apostles and all the rest of Christ’s followers. That first Easter was certainly a surprise to them.

Despite the fact that Jesus had forewarned them that He was going to be put to death and then resurrect, they really didn’t believe any of it. Even when the part about Him being put to death occurred, they still didn’t believe that the other part would happen as well. Early on that glorious Sunday morning, however, the process of convincing them officially began. We might say that the empty tomb was Christ’s way of saying to all of them, “Surprise!”

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By His Stripes We Are Healed?

Religious television programming has been dominated by preachers of the Charismatic/Pentecostal persuasion since the first day satellites started beaming such programming into our homes. Consequently, because one of the tenets of Charismatic/Pentecostal doctrine is that it’s always God’s will to heal, it’s not surprising that more Americans than ever now know the closing of Isaiah 53:5:

…And by His stripes we are healed. (N.K.J.V.)

The popular line of preaching that has sprung from these words is that physical healing was provided for in Christ’s atonement. In other words, Jesus didn’t just die on the cross to ensure the Christian’s eternal, spiritual healing, He did it to also ensure the Christian’s earthly, physical healing. Therefore, if a Christian gets stricken with any kind of sickness or disease, all that Christian has to do is claim his or her healing by faith in Jesus’ name and watch God work.

And so the phrase “By His stripes we are healed” can now be found all over the place. We see it on church signs. We see it on t-shirts. It shows up in our Facebook feeds time and time again. It’s as if, at least in this one area of doctrine, the Charismatic/Pentecostal preachers have converted Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and all the other denominations to their side.

But are we right to interpret “By His stripes we are healed” to mean that the Christian is guaranteed earthly, bodily healing by Christ’s death on the cross? No, we aren’t. “Says you,” I can hear the Charismatic/Pentecostal folks replying. Well, if you will permit me, I’ll give you the Biblical reasons for my contention. Ready? Here we go:

Reason #1: The Bible wasn’t originally written with chapters and verses. Those were added in later. This means that the words that immediately follow the Isaiah 53:5 words “…by His stripes we are healed” flow naturally out of the thought and explain it. And what do the words of Isaiah 53:6 say? They say:

All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (N.K.J.V.)

You see, there’s nothing there about earthly, bodily healing. To the contrary, these words are all about our spiritual condition rather than our physical condition. Isaiah doesn’t say we are all like sheep who have fallen into a ditch and become physically damaged; he says we are all like sheep who have gone astray. He doesn’t say we are all like sheep who have come down with a disease; he says we are all like sheep who have turned to our own way. The context of the passage has absolutely nothing to do with earthly, bodily healing.

Reason #2: Along the same lines, the prophet Isaiah himself uses the opening of his book to explain just exactly what type of sickness he is attributing to Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel. Isaiah quotes God as saying of the people of Judah, “…they have rebelled against Me” (Isaiah 1:2). God then goes on to say they are a people “laden with iniquity” who have “forsaken the Lord” and “turned away backward” (1:4). He says, “The whole head is sick” and “the whole heart faints” (1:5). He says they have no soundness “from the soul of the foot even to the head” (1:6). He says their “wounds and bruises and putrefying sores” have not been “closed,” “bound up,” or “soothed with ointment” (1:6).

Do you see how Isaiah is quoting God and speaking of Judah’s sickness in a figurative, metaphorical sense as opposed to a literal one? He’s saying to the people of Judah, “God says that you are a people sick and diseased with sin.” In light of this, when we get to Isaiah 53:5, which deals with the healing that Judah’s coming Messiah (Jesus) will provide, the reference can’t suddenly switch and start referring to bodily healing rather than spiritual healing. That just isn’t in keeping with what Isaiah has been saying all along to those people.

Reason #3: In 1 Peter 2:24-25, the apostle Peter references the words of Isaiah 53:5-6. He says concerning Jesus:

who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (N.K.J.V.)

Here again we find that the healing provided for by Jesus’ stripes has to do with sins, not bodily sicknesses. Notice that the verses say that Jesus bore our sins, not our sicknesses, in His own body. That is an important distinction to make.

Actually, there is no mention whatsoever by Peter of physical healing either in these verses or the verses that surround them. The immediate context of the entire 1 Peter 2:18-25 passage has to do with Christian slaves submitting to their masters as a way of emulating the way Jesus submitted Himself to His unjust arrest, trial, scourging, and crucifixion. That’s a far cry from being a passage about bodily healing.

It is also worth noting that Peter, writing under the inspiration of God, changes the tense of the Isaiah 53:5 passage. He says of Jesus “by whose stripes you were healed” rather than “by His stripes we are healed.” This subtle change means that the healing spoken of in Isaiah 53:5 has now happened. It isn’t an ongoing thing. Peter doesn’t say of Jesus, “by whose stripes you will be continuously healed.”

Reason #4: In Romans 8:18-25, the apostle Paul says that all of creation “was subjected to futility” (by mankind’s fall into sin) and that it will one day “be delivered from the bondage of corruption” (8:20-21). He then compares this bondage of corruption to the “groans and labors” of “birth pangs” (8:22). While each Christian might rightly assume that his or her body is a part of creation, Paul leaves no doubt that this is a correct assumption when he says that each Christian is “eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (v.23).

Notice that Paul specifically says that the Christian is waiting for the time when his or her body will be redeemed. This shows us that while the Christian’s soul has already been fully redeemed (bought back from sin), the body hasn’t. We’re all still waiting on that. In the meantime, our bodies are susceptible to sickness and disease. They are still adversely affected by the Fall just as creation itself is still adversely affected by it.

Reason #5: There are multiple New Testament passages that clearly show that it isn’t always God’s will to heal. Consider the following:

  • Paul left Trophimus, one of his ministry companions, sick in Miletus. (2 Timothy 4:20)
  • Rather than tell Timothy to claim his healing by faith, Paul advised him to drink a little wine for the sake of his stomach and his frequent infirmities. (1 Timothy 5:23)
  • Paul himself evidently suffered from some type of ailment with his eyes. (Galatians 4:13-15; 6:11)
  • Even Jesus didn’t heal every sick, blind, lame, paralyzed person with whom He came into contact. In the story of Him healing at the Pool of Bethesda, He only healed one. (John 5:1-15)
  • If Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was some type of physical ailment, God refused to heal him of it even though Paul asked Him to do so on three occasions. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

As you can see, these passages simply don’t fit with the whole “by His stripes we are healed” line of preaching that is going out incessantly over the airwaves. I don’t say this with any joy. After all, why wouldn’t I, as a Christian, want to claim a promise of guaranteed healing anytime I get sick? That certainly would make my life, not to mention my preaching, a lot easier. But facts are facts, and a wrong interpretation is a wrong interpretation, no matter who is preaching it.

The good news is that there is coming a day when all Christians truly will experience bodily healing in the fullest sense. That day will be the moment of the Rapture, when each and every Christian (whether alive or dead) will have his or her body changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:50-52). Jesus will step down out of heaven into earth’s sky and snatch up the bodies of all of history’s Christians to be with Him.

The dead in Christ will have their bodies resurrected first, and those bodies will be changed into glorified bodies and reunited with the souls that once inhabited them, Jesus having brought those souls with Him from heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16). Next, the bodies of living Christians will be caught up and changed into glorified bodies on the way up (1 Thessalonians 4:17). And all of this will happen in a split second as our bodies of corruption at last put on incorruption and our mortality finally becomes immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53-54).

Until then, however, we must wait for the bodily fulfillment of what Jesus did for us on the cross. This means that we are fair game for everything from colic to cancer, boils to blindness, fevers to fibromyalgia, appendicitis to arthritis, gingivitis to gangrene, and toothaches to tetanus. Someone asks, “But doesn’t God still miraculously heal?” Yes, He does, but He only does it in rare instances, which means that we have no scriptural right to expect Him to do so every time. That’s just not how us living in bodies that are still under the bondage of the Fall works. And, unfortunately, all the misinterpreting and misapplying of all the Bible verses in the book won’t change that. Sorry.

Posted in Christ's Death, Creation, Discernment, God's Will, God's Word, Human Life, Prophecy, Restoration, Resurrection, Scripture, Sickness, Sin, Suffering, The Bible, Truth, Waiting | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Strange Looking Bread & Fish

“Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:9-11, N.K.J.V.)

It’s one thing for the Lord to ask you to sit back, do nothing, and let Him handle a problem. It’s quite another thing when you do all that but He doesn’t handle the problem the way you want. If you think that won’t put a strain on your fellowship with Him, you obviously haven’t lived it.

The core issue is that God isn’t always after the same result we are. We focus on the temporary, but He focuses on the lasting. We focus on the earthly, but He focuses on the eternal. We focus on life’s rewards, but He focuses on heavenly rewards. We take a short-range view, but He takes a long-range view. We are only concerned with how our situation affects us, but He is concerned with how it affects others as well.

Jesus said that if an earthly father knows how to give bread when a child asks for bread, and knows how to give fish when a child asks for fish, how much more will our heavenly Father give good things to those who ask Him (Matthew 7:9-11). In light of these words, doesn’t it make sense that if God seems to be giving you stones when you’ve asked for bread and serpents when you’ve asked for fish, perhaps His bread and fish just look different from the bread and fish you were expecting?

Therefore, the next time you ask God for a specific request, but what He sends seems to be something very different than what you requested, go to Him in prayer again and say, “Lord, what you’ve sent here doesn’t look like the bread and fish I asked for, but I’m going to trust you that my bread and fish are in it somewhere. Please clear up my vision in the days to come so that I can see my request in what you’ve sent.”

You do this and what you’ll find is that you’ll begin to understand your situation from God’s perspective. Your objectives will start to merge with His and you’ll enter the process of figuring out His long-range goals in the situation, as opposed to everything being about your short-range goals for it. Will this be the immediate gratification you originally requested? I’d be less than honest if I said anything but no. However, I’d also be less than honest if I said anything but that my own walking with the Lord has taught me that He is rarely in the business of immediate gratification anyway.

Posted in Adversity, Attitude, Complaining, Contentment, Desires, Disappointment, Discernment, Discipleship, Faithfulness, God's Provision, God's Work, Impatience, Needs, Prayer, Prayer Requests, Problems, Suffering, Trials, Trusting In God, Wisdom | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Tip for Determining God’s Will

Like everybody else, I make about a zillion decisions each day. Some are as simple as, “Should I have a ham sandwich or a tuna fish sandwich for lunch?” Others are as complex as, “Should we list our house with a real-estate agent and try to sell it?” Some have to be made on the spur of the moment: “Can I beat that yellow light?” Others only get made at the end of a long-drawn-out process of investigation: “Which college should my kid attend?”

It’s the “big” decisions, of course, that stress us out, keep us up at night, and drive us to prayer. These are the ones that have the potential to radically change the status quo and usher in major changes. While it’s true that sometimes our “little” decisions are actually “big” ones in disguise — as the old saying goes, “Big doors swing on little hinges” — some decisions seem “big” right out of the gate and stay that way right down the line because, let’s face it, they are.

Regarding these decisions, I hope you won’t mind if I share with you a tip that I’ve found very helpful over the years. Actually, this tip can be used to help you determine God’s will regarding any decision (“big” or “little”), but I myself usually just use it for “big” ones. The tip goes like this:

When you are faced with a decision, go to God in prayer and say this: “Lord, if You called me up to heaven right now and asked me, ‘What do you think My will is regarding this decision?’ here is what I would answer: ……”    

Now that I’ve given the tip, let me add in two important details about it. Detail #1 identifies the basic assumption that serves as the foundation for the tip. That assumption is: Not only does God want you to know His will regarding your decision, He has already been working on you to let you know what His will is.

Admittedly, God’s work in you must not be complete if you are still in decision mode. Still, though, the mere fact that you have already formed at least a working answer that you can give in reply to His question shows that He has been on the case a while. Again, the work isn’t finished and it’s not yet time for you to commit to any course of action, but God already has the bread in the oven.

Detail #2 plays right off the first one and has to do with the nature of how the tip works. What you need to know is that the tip is only helpful for the specific moment in time in which you employ it. What I mean is, just because you answer God’s question in a certain way on Monday, that doesn’t mean that you’ll answer it the same way on Tuesday. Sometimes just a little more information or a new set of facts can tweek your whole mindset and completely change the answer you give to God.

Because of this, the tip is not intended to be an end-game type of deal. Instead, you should think of it as being simply a mile marker on the journey that ends with you finalizing your decision. It’s just you saying to God, “Okay Lord, if I had to make my decision this second, here’s what I think is Your will.” Needless to say, if the answer you give isn’t truly God’s will, He knows that He has to do that which is necessary to bring your thinking into line with His. And He will always be faithful to do that.

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Thy Rod & Thy Staff They Comfort Me

The 23rd Psalm is all about how the Lord leads His people. My favorite part of the Psalm is verse 2:

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. (K.J.V.)

Green pastures and still waters, you gotta love those.

Verse 4, however, describes the sheep being led to a much different place:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (K.J.V.)

Finding comfort in the serene tranquility of green pastures and still waters? Sure, put me down for that. Finding comfort in the Lord’s rod and staff while He’s leading me through the valley of the shadow of death? Sorry, I think I’ll pass..

First of all, the place itself isn’t exactly inviting. I mean, it’s not called the valley of the shadow of life, is it? Second, when I hear the word “rod” or the word “staff” my mind doesn’t automatically associate either with comfort. Having studied this issue, however, I have to admit that I’ve learned that my mental association is incorrect.

I’ll start with the rod. A shepherd’s rod is more or less a club he uses to either defend his sheep against predators or to keep a wayward sheep from going far astray. The rod’s purpose is not to cruelly beat a sheep into submission to keep the creature in lock step or to wale away in discipline on it for having wandered from the flock. There’s certainly no comfort in either of those propositions. No, the rod is an instrument whereby the shepherd protects the sheep from enemies and protects the sheep from itself.

Author Phillip Keller grew up in the African country of Kenya as the son of missionary parents. By far his most famous book is A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. In that book, he writes the following about how he watched the shepherd boys of Kenya make their rods from young saplings and through much practice learn to wield them effectively:

The sapling itself is shaped to exactly fit the owner’s hand. After he completes it, the shepherd boy spends hours practicing with this club, learning how to throw it with amazing speed and accuracy. It becomes his main weapon of defense for both himself and his sheep. I used to watch the native lads having competitions to see who could throw his rod with the greatest accuracy across the greatest distance…The rod was what he relied on to safeguard both himself and his flock in danger.

With Keller’s description in mind, we can understand how a shepherd’s rod can bring comfort to a sheep. A poisonous snake is lying in the path of the sheep. The rod comes flying and WHACK; the snake is either dead or fled. A lion is stalking the flock and getting within striking distance. The rod comes flying and WHACK; the lamb doesn’t look so appealing anymore. Christian, don’t you love the idea of Jesus, your Shepherd (John 10:11-30), throwing His rod and keeping your enemies at bay in your life? Now we’re talking comfort!

Remember, though, that a shepherd also uses his rod to keep a wayward sheep from going astray. On this subject, Keller writes of his upbringing in Kenya:

I could never get over how often, and with what accuracy, the African herders would hurl their knob-kerries at some recalcitrant beast that misbehaved. If the shepherd saw a sheep wandering away on its own, or approaching poisonous weeds, or getting too close to danger of one sort of another, the club would go whistling through the air to send the wayward animal scurrying back to the bunch.

Here again we can see how a certain comfort can be associated with a shepherd’s rod. Whereas a shepherd will throw his rod with ill intent, even lethally, toward a predator, his intent will be totally different when his aim is toward one of his sheep. The goal in that situation is loving protection or loving persuasion rather than adversarial harm. It’s a case of the shepherd inflicting a bit of hurt upon the sheep in order to keep the sheep from carelessly or foolishly getting into more serious hurt. Does any one of us want to dispute the fact that the Lord, like a loving father who sets boundaries of safety for his child, has on occasion either rebuked us through His word or whipped us through circumstances to keep us away from truly serious harm?

So, all this covers the idea of the Lord’s rod providing us with comfort as He leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. But what about His staff doing the same? What is a shepherd’s staff anyway? And how can it be used to provide comfort? I’m glad you asked.

A shepherd’s staff is a long, slender, straight stick with a u-shaped crook at the top of it. Such an instrument, in the hands of a skilled shepherd, has a wide variety of uses. Keller, in his book, describes several of them. Here’s a compiled list:

  • A shepherd uses his staff as an instrument to gently lift a newborn lamb and lay it alongside its mother.
  • A shepherd uses his staff to reach out and draw individual sheep to himself for closer inspection.
  • A shepherd uses his staff to draw individual sheep that are shy or standoffish into the unity of the flock.
  • A shepherd uses his staff to guide individual sheep into the proper path.

In regards to the 23rd Psalm’s picture of the shepherd’s staff providing the sheep with comfort as the sheep traverses the valley of the shadow of death, it’s that last usage that best defines the staff’s role. The valley of the shadow of death is no place for a sheep to be exploring new paths or wandering around aimlessly. To the contrary, it’s a place where a loving shepherd will keep extra close guard on a sheep to ensure that the sheep doesn’t drift off course. Since death’s shadow is all around, it is imperative that the shepherd keep the sheep in line.

And just exactly what is “the shadow of death” in our lives? While it’s true that these words have been effectively used as the text for countless funerals, the word “shadow” actually implies that the valley isn’t necessarily a valley of literal death. Certainly it’s a valley of potential death, but it’s not a valley of certain death. The difference might very well be in how closely the sheep obeys the shepherd’s guidance and walks in the safe path while in the valley.

Understanding the valley this way, the valley of the shadow of death in our lives represents any difficult experience through which we must walk. Times of suffering? They qualify. Times of temptation? They qualify. Times of persecution? They qualify. Times of injustice? They qualify. Times of loss? They qualify. Times of disappointment? They qualify. Times of spiritual warfare? They qualify. Times of fear? They qualify. Times of stress? They qualify. Times of confusion? They qualify. Times of perplexity? They qualify. Times of anxiety? They qualify. Times of depression? They qualify.

These are all “valley of the shadow of death” experiences, and in each of them we would be well advised to find our comfort in the Lord’s guiding staff of wisdom and direction. You see, He knows the safe way through the valley. Not only does He know how to lead us into the valley, He knows how to lead us through it and out the other side. That’s why your best move, little sheep, whenever you find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death, is to feel for the great Shepherd’s crook around your neck and go with that flow rather than against it.

Now let me close out this post with one final word about the shepherd’s staff. Since I’ve already quoted so extensively from Phillip Keller’s wonderful book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, it seems only appropriate that I do so again. As you read Keller’s words, apply them to your own life and your own walk with the Lord. By doing this I think you’ll find great comfort in them:

Sometimes I have been fascinated to see how a shepherd will actually hold his staff against the side of some sheep that is a special pet or favorite, simply so that they “are in touch.” They will walk along this way almost as though it were “hand-in-hand.” The sheep obviously enjoys this special attention from the shepherd and revels in the close, personal, intimate contact between them. To be treated in this special way by the shepherd is to know comfort in a deep dimension. It is a delightful and moving picture.

Well, I suppose all I can say to that is, yes, it certainly is.

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