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 paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
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 goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever. (Psalm 23:1–6)
Chances are, if you love God, you know this passage. Psalm 23 frequents the Christian life. We pray through, base council on, and memorize its verses. How could we not? God’s promises to us cascade David’s words. The passage lands sweetly on storm-tossed souls: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).
And yet, the outbreak of COVID-19 reminds many of neither his goodness nor mercy. Daily people die. Medical supplies dwindle. Doctors and nurses labor unprotected. With schools suspended, needy families lack access to free daycare and food. Small businesses hunker down for a financial winter.
As our fear grows, our doubt rises. Can God be as good, as merciful, as he says he is?
Word Versus World
Dear Christian: You must fight. We all must. We prayed through, based council on, and memorized passages like Psalm 23 for times such as these! Armed with a book chockfull of God’s promises, we battle the urge to fear the things of this world, rather than God (Matthew 10:28). We combat the desire to question his character. Doubt makes us “like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).
Thankfully, the tactic is nothing new. Christ founded and perfected spiritual warfare for us (Hebrews 12:2). During his life on earth, Jesus wielded the word as a shield against Satan’s temptation to fear our circumstances and, consequently, doubt God’s goodness and grace.
After fasting for forty days, Jesus was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Clearly, he did not stand in green pastures. Matthew goes so far to say that the God-Man himself was “hungry” (Matthew 4:2). We imagine Jesus in great want. And so, while Jesus likely stood faint, Satan charges him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3).
In the face of hardship, Jesus does not look inward. He turns outward. Upward. He responds, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). What Satan said couldn’t stick. His words were a splash of oil thrown at “the fountain of living waters” — God himself (Jeremiah 2:13).
He Promises His Presence
God does not promise Christians a detour around “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). In fact, he bid his Son to its pit (1 Peter 3:18–20). Rather, he assures us that even while walking its path, he is with us (Psalm 23:4).
Like Jesus in the wilderness, we say to Satan, our circumstances, or both: “‘God is with me.’ This truth is enough for me to be content right now. My feelings may not say so, and my thoughts tell me otherwise. But, I remind myself of what is real when I call his everlasting word to mind.”
God does not make it hard for us to rehearse the promise of his presence. It resounds throughout Scripture. Isaiah 43:2–3 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” We must preach passages like this to ourselves in times like these.
To be sure, our lives will contain perceivable blessings during many seasons. But his presence alone (not toilet paper or six-years worth of canned food) sources endless supplies of goodness and grace. George Matheson says it well: “May I be content to know that goodness and mercy shall follow me without waiting to see them in advance of me.”1 And may we turn Godward — that is, Bible-ward — when such contentment alludes us.
What is more, for the Christian, goodness and mercy often traverse the valley of the shadow of death. Green pastures and still waters do not fling us upon the Rock of Ages quite like the valley of the shadow of death does. Thanks be to God for the valleys!
1 ESV Prayer Bible. Wheaton: Crossway, 2019. Print.