By Debi Russell
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Your rod and your staff they comfort me...." - Psalm 23:4
This very familiar part of Psalm 23 anchors much of the grief counseling I do. Grief and suffering can rightly be compared to a valley surrounded by fear and darkness, and we encourage those in suffering to look to the presence of the Lord as comfort in those times. And clearly, there is great comfort in knowing we do not walk through those dark places alone. Recently though, I have seen something new in these verses that has both challenged and encouraged me in my own suffering and in my perspective on Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
I am not a farm girl–I am a proud suburbanite through and through. I feel stressed about any living situation where getting to a Target is "a trip" instead of an easy errand. I like all the convenience and options. So while considering the Lord as my Shepherd I had to step outside my natural experiences and do a little research.
A shepherd, if having any wisdom at all at the time in which this Psalm was written, would never ever be caught without his rod or staff. It was a multi purpose tool, offering both protection and direction for the sheep. Have you ever wondered what a shepherd did with his rod and staff? Probably there were other functions, but in thinking about how it pertains to the sheep here is what I learned:
The staff protected the sheep from outside attacks of wild animals and from the sheep themselves wandering off a cliff or getting lost
The staff kept the sheep from getting stuck or giving up and lying down on their journey until they were safe in green pastures.
But, guess what that help and protection felt like to the sheep? A poke in their hind parts to keep them moving or a swift jerk around their necks when they began to wander too close to the edge.The shepherd did not use his staff to pet the sheep and it most definitely did not feel comfortable. And yet David writes, the Lord's rod and staff comfort him? What comfort is there in being poked, prodded and yanked? None, in the moment, The comfort David refers to is in the knowledge that the Shepherd does what is necessary to keep the sheep safe, secure and moving forward through suffering to greener pastures.
On our journey, we often seek for the Lord to make us comfortable in our pain, when in reality, what we need is to keep moving forward. The valley of the shadow of death is no place to camp out, get comfy, and hang curtains! Depression, resentment, cynicism and self loathing all lurk in that dark place, and our good Shepherd will poke us from behind when we try to get too comfortable in those places.
When we are suffering, it is easy to lose our way. There is immense comfort in knowing the Lord will keep us from wandering away from Him into danger, though often when His Word or a close friend confront our wandering hearts it feels like being yanked. Sheep do not know which way to go to get out of the valley. Sheep left to their sheep-selves will try to find the easiest or closest path. (I'm so much like a sheep!) Thankfully the Shepherd knows. He knows just where to guide the sheep and how much farther they need to stretch to make it out of the dark valley and back into abundance, where our cup overflows.
On the other side of suffering, we can rejoice, knowing no matter how many times our journey leads us back through a valley, the Lord will be with us! He will keep us moving forward and keep us with Him. We will not be abandoned or lost or stuck. Because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, went before us in suffering at the Cross but also comes behind us to help as we suffer, we have hope even in the darkest of valleys. As the last verse of Psalm 23 says:
"Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."