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The kind of life David describes in Psalm 23 is one bathed in shalom, or “peace,” which proceeds from understanding that Yahweh, the Lord, is a shepherd and hence a provider, protector, teacher, and loving host. The shepherd is one of the oldest and most enduring of Hebrew metaphors (Gen. 49:25; Pss. 77:21; 80:2; 95:7). What David understood and experienced was the reality of knowing a loving, attentive, present, powerful, and purposeful guide for his life. Our greatest assurance and soul-filling hope is that the Lord, Yahweh, is our shepherd. It is because of this simple, yet endlessly profound reality that we can begin to understand our place in the world and the joy that is ours forever.
The shepherd’s vocation is largely lost on us today. There is an intimacy in shepherding. Shepherds know their sheep because they are with them all day, every day, for weeks on end, in solitary places. They learn the actions, habits, and preferences of their flock through constant oversight. They protect, feed, direct, and correct the sheep continually, developing a bond, perhaps even a love of their flock. Jesus says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11), something that David knew was part of his responsibilities as well. As a result, the sheep respond and are benefited. Without a shepherd they are lost, in danger, and unable to endure the realities of the wild. To think of the Lord as a shepherd is to come to understand the intensely personal, comforting, attentive, and providing nature of God’s love and care for his flock of humanity.
A first step on this journey of the Psalm 23 way of living is to confess that much of our resistance in placing our confidence (faith) in a Good Shepherd stems from the fear that God cannot or will not provide for us in times of great need or despair. Frequently this is a product of the belief that God simply is not good or that at least there are events on his “rеsumе” that put his character in question. This is often the tragic result of a significant trauma caused by bad theology; it simply should not stand. In fact, Psalm 23 speaks directly in opposition to such dismal theology. It is plainly foolhardy and oxymoronic to believe God is anything but perfectly good. The kingdoms of our world, including many religious kingdoms, run on doctrinal fear the way the kingdom of God runs on grace. Perfect love casts out fear, as will the love of a good shepherd. This image, of the Good Shepherd as Jesus describes him, is a far cry from the sort of vengeful, red-eyed, wrath-soaked Zeuslike deity popular with some. There is simply no reason to believe anything bad about God.
I SHALL NOT WANT
The sheep of the flock are at peace, never lacking or left wanting any good thing. Why? Because they know their shepherd can be trusted to provide all that they need. Fear is gone, needs satisfied, peace abounds.
In a consumer-driven society where newer and greater desires are both created and fed by increasingly clever advertisers and suppliers, it would do our own souls well, and by implication benefit our societies immensely, to meditate deeply on what our personal and social lives might be like if we were to experience the total absence of superficial want. Can we envision being free of want? Can we conceive of a place where the question, “How much is enough?” is thought as absurd as the answer, “A little bit more”?
What the Good Shepherd provides is of inestimable value and eternal quality, of the type whose value moths and rust can’t diminish (Matt. 16:9). The Good Shepherd provides an understanding of what is essential and what is tertiary, what real needs are compared to artificial desires. What kinds of economies would we have today if we focused on essential needs first? How much debt would we incur if we realized our sufficiency and abundance in Christ? These are but a few of the key questions Psalm 23 brings to the fore.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
Living under the care of the Shepherd provides a state of rest, or shalom, which involves plenteousness and brings restoration at the deep wellspring of our lives. Such rich and abiding rest replenishes our entire being or soul. It is the nature of the Good Shepherd to be good and to lead his sheep onto good paths, where what is good can be seen, experienced, demonstrated, and duplicated. These are the right paths and true ways of righteousness.
I FEAR NO EVIL
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.
Such goodness, provision, protection, soul care, restoration, righteousness, and flourishing that life with the Shepherd provides allows us to face shadowy dangers and uncertainties that threaten life. We can live without fear. Living without fear is, in fact, the same existential reality as living a life without want.
Can we envision being freed to the point where not a single thing on earth, above the earth, or below the earth could cause dread to creep into our hearts? Can we begin to imagine what living a life free from the plagues of worry, anxiety, and dread would demonstrate to a world whose societal engines are stoked day and night by media franchises devoted to peddling fear and anxiety?
Why does fear play such an oversized role in our lives and our culture? What exactly are we afraid of? Well, the list is long. We are afraid we will not be happy, that we will not flourish unless we take the proper offensive and defensive positions necessary to protect ourselves and provide for every possible existential need, both real and perceived. Our search for safety and contentment is endless and inexhaustible precisely because of the intrinsic futility of relying on human abilities to provide resolution to our problems. Thus, if telling the truth on a mortgage application or quarterly report, forgiving a family member or neighbor an offense, or giving time or money to an organization from our stockpile of resources is perceived to put us or our pursuit of our individual version of the American dream in jeopardy, our moral compass is adjusted to justify our own sense of self-fulfillment, pleasure, or even security. The result is one more brick of our lives laid on a foundation of shifting sand.
It only becomes a matter of when, not if, such a life and such a civilization will implode. The mental and emotional energy required for rushing about in the vain attempt to control the uncontrollable in order to preserve what tiny sense of security we can is an exhausting and deadening errand. The effort reveals a total lack of understanding of our Shepherd, his nature, the structure of the universe God created, and the ethos of his kingdom. Without such a vision generation after generation continues the desperate search for that elusive guarantee of holistic flourishing. And our social and political ineffectiveness continues to fuel the rage and shame of unrealized desire, which continues to fill our hospitals, prisons, and morgues with stories of cataclysmic sorrow and tragic despair. One sociologist has suggested that adults today represent the most numb, obese, addicted, medicated, and indebted generation in American history.
The human problem has no human solution, because it is humans that are the source of the problem. We need a Shepherd.
GOODNESS AND MERCY SHALL FOLLOW 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.
Such a Shepherd comes to the weary and burdened to whisper hope in their ears: “My dear little children: Really, truly, love one another. That’s the big idea. When you do this, it will answer all your deepest questions and solve all your biggest problems. I’ve designed it that way” (1 John 3:18–20, paraphrased). Our point of breakdown is an opportunity to break through toward a new life. We must begin to imagine a new way of being. Green pastures, calm waters, restoration, safety, security, and provision—this is the life we all long for and seek, and it is exactly what Jesus came to provide. The Good Shepherd corrects all the gaps in our vision for life and fills the voids of our understanding of God’s provision right now, where the rubber hits the road of our daily lives.
Ironically, the prophet Habakkuk makes the same claim, but from a different vantage point. He writes of God’s sufficiency exactly at a time when he and the nation of Israel had been overrun by their enemies. These cataclysmic events at the end of the seventh century BCE left many Israelites’ lives shattered. Not unlike the kinds of scenes we have witnessed during the many Middle Eastern conflicts through the centuries, Habakkuk saw the trauma caused by rapid political change, social turmoil, deadly military engagements, and endless rebellion.
In this cacophony of conflict Habakkuk reminds the people whence their hope springs:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights. (3:17–19)
In light of such a state of sufficiency, even amid conditions of total desolation, an experience of joy, rejoicing, and strength remained. Neither fear of death, nor disease, nor danger, nor hunger, nor pain, nor person, nor creature, nor circumstance, nor loss can interrupt or overwhelm the life lived in the empowering love of the Shepherd’s care (Rom. 8:35–39).
GETTING TO KNOW THE GOD JESUS KNEW
Psalm 23 and Habakkuk 3 lie before us as the result of reflection on the manner of being that fully establishes the ultimate goal of the divine conspiracy throughout all creation. Psalm 23, the God-breathed, with-God life, has already been initiated and is now being brought to pass in and through the lives and communities of his devoted students. As disciples of Jesus, following in his footsteps, listening to the Spirit’s ever present counsel, we are to facilitate and lead a humble, peaceful, wise, and loving festival of goodwill, the result of which will overwhelm every competing agenda, every fearful scheme, and every desperate plan founded on the shifting sands of human fear or pride. It is a revolution of loving-kindness.
History reveals that acts of rebellion and resistance to God and his ways, whether overt or covert, conscious or unconscious, individual or communal, are most often committed by those with ears deaf to the music and eyes blind to the beauty of the plentitude provided by the Good Shepherd, who is the Lord of all things, Yahweh, the great “I am,” who prepares a table of goodness that nourishes body and soul, family, tribe, city, and nation to the point of overflowing. It is from this position of lavish blessedness that God is set to deal with all creation.
Psalm 23 provides a step toward a primary change that must occur prior to any renovation of our thoughts and actions. We must come face-to-face with the king of the realm we seek to expand. The God that Jesus knew was perhaps very different from the God often described in our contemporary world. The God Jesus knew perfectly and testified to is a self-sustaining, all-encompassing being who is also immaterial, intelligent and free, personal and triune, perfectly good, wise and powerful, who created the universe and continues to sustain it as well as govern and direct it by his providence. The moral attributes of God as loving, beneficent, and generous flow out of the plentitude of his being. There is nothing to fear. We are in fact more than conquerors when we obediently follow in God’s good purposes and plan (Rom. 8:37).
SEEING KING JESUS’S ONGOING WORK
It is also important for us to recognize and celebrate the fact that Jesus has made wonderful and glorious progress in accomplishing his divine conspiracy and building his church throughout our world. There are more improvements to be made, but we can and should marvel at the amazing achievements Jesus accomplished in bringing life and light into our lives, families, cities, and nations. Pages and pages could be filled recounting the miraculous, supernatural realities that have taken place right before our eyes that remind us and testify to how steadily God is moving in and through our world to turn hearts and minds toward his unending and boundless majesty. Truly “the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3).
Just some of the deeply satisfying improvements can be witnessed in the progress the church has made, in general, in dealing with many of the paralyzing debates and conflicts we have engaged in over the past two centuries. Of particular note are the advances made with regard to racial reconciliation and gender equality, the reduction in denominational acrimony, increases in cross-confessional and cross-cultural respect, awareness, dialog, cooperation, and relief efforts, to name just a few. Controversies still rage in certain corners, but much advancement has been achieved, and we should relish these developments.
Even still, much crucial discernment is needed regarding the kind and type of work Jesus would have his gathered disciples be about. When disciples of Jesus become more clearly able to see that we are also participants, and not only passive recipients, of God’s empowering grace, what are we to do? What would God have us do? What is the big picture God is painting and how do we fit in? What is God’s overarching mission for his church in our world? These are big questions, and they carry even bigger opportunities as we realize their answers are of great significance not only for followers of Christ, but for every human being. This is due to the fact that each of these questions stems from one core question: What is the primary objective and purpose for human existence?
Humanity has achieved much good. We’ve split the atom, learned to fly, traveled in space, probed the corners of our planet, cured countless diseases, invented amazing technological wizardry that boggles the mind, and steadily progressed in our understanding of our universe and the basic components of our physical world. Although we acknowledge there is more to do in a multitude of areas, humanity has made astounding progress. God has been with us, despite ourselves at times; he has shown us favor and helped us to thrive in many ways, in many arenas, and through many means. A great number of these advancements are not strictly “Christian,” as we have come to understand that term. Electricity, for example, is not considered a “Christian” discovery. Nor should we expect it to be. Yet the world is a far better place because of it. God loves all people equally and can and does use all kinds of people, as he sees fit, for the good he desires to bestow on all of us. This is one of the most wondrous characteristics of God’s mercy and grace. Certainly every good and perfect gift is from God, and he has graced humanity with many gifts and continues to do so. At the same time much progress remains in manifesting his kingdom “come” in and to our world today. Darkness still opposes the light. Only the most ardent of atheists would disagree with such a statement.
Even so, since our civilizations began, humanity has struggled, and continues to struggle, with discerning what thriving consists of, how best to do it, and how it will be measured. Our history reveals all the many experiments we have conducted to best organize our families, communities, cities, and nations. Each has been built on a variety of combinations of philosophical, ideological, religious, political, moral, legal, commercial, economic, and relational foundations. This will not change. Neither will the key questions driving these endeavors through the millennia: Why are we here? What do we want? How shall we live? Who is my neighbor and what is my responsibility toward my neighbor?
We can become weary and frustrated that the solutions our society provides to these questions continue to elude us. To paraphrase U2’s Bono, humanity still hasn’t found what it’s looking for. Yet each succeeding generation has the responsibility of coming up with its own answers.
The many and varied secular gospels that seek to answer these questions fill our institutions of higher learning, our political discourse, and our airwaves simply because these issues concern the core needs of every human being. Consequently, the search for acceptable means of flourishing becomes a constant consideration for those who lead and direct our social institutions. Therefore Christians, in all the areas and disciplines that comprise our society, who are intimately acquainted with the Good Shepherd and his ways must be prepared to offer more than a memorized set of beliefs in reply. There must be a robust competency and willingness to examine and then demonstrate, model, and thus prove how and why Jesus’s answers to these questions are both good and best.
It is at the intersection of human need and human knowledge that the Christian worldview, if it is what it claims to be, must offer hope, guidance, correction, and truth. Thus, we will now springboard from the ideas and implications first introduced in The Divine Conspiracy into the larger systemic issues we must begin to face in our world today.
CHAPTER 3 (#ulink_f222364c-0a0e-5c8a-bd3a-0587978631d4)
Leaders Who Follow the Shepherd (#ulink_f222364c-0a0e-5c8a-bd3a-0587978631d4)
So also, when the delight of eternity draws us upward and the pleasure of temporal goods holds us down, the identical soul is not wholehearted in its desire for one or the other. It is torn apart in a painful condition as long as it prefers the eternal because of its Truth but does not discard the temporal because of familiarity.
AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO
LATE IN THE twentieth century the distinguished American sociologist Talcott Parsons observed that societal leaders had “become the most important single component in the structure of modern societies.”
This is perhaps even truer today. Ready examples of the incalculable necessity for moral leadership can routinely be found over the airwaves and on the Internet. Consider the 2010 explosion and sinking of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon and the spill that followed. This was a horrific catastrophe for both human lives and the environment. We may never know exactly who knew what and when. But as the investigations and lawsuits ensue, it is worth considering what kind of impact even one single, courageous, devoted individual could have made to avoid this disaster. What will likely never be discussed, much less probed, are the many factors that would have needed to be in place for a courageous, moral leader to have prevented such a calamity.
Laws protecting whistle-blowers do exist in the United States. Their effectiveness may be questionable, but they do exist. Still, having a law to protect whistle-blowers is not the same as mandating the character required to “blow the whistle” in the first place. One would need the integrity to avoid rationalizing away or skirting responsibility, the values required to prioritize safety over profits, the self-esteem to face the scrutiny and even disdain of supervisors and coworkers, and the courage to risk losing a job or career.
If one or more of these characteristics are absent, the temptation to cater to one’s own fears and needs rises above what is morally true and best for all concerned. If moral leadership and courage win out, lives and livelihoods are saved, untold disasters are averted, and huge amounts of resources are preserved. In short, the world is a better place when leaders lead well. Such is the mentality that followers of Jesus must consider every morning as they enter the workplace to assume their responsibilities.
This is exactly what appears to have happened in the life of a low-level Google sales employee in the United Kingdom. The Guardian reported that Barney Jones came forward to give evidence against Google’s claims that it did not close sales deals in the United Kingdom and therefore was not liable to taxation in the country. Upon hearing this, with no financial incentives and facing the prospects of diminished employment opportunities for himself, Jones presented to the public accounts committee his evidence that sales deals reported in Dublin were indeed closed in London. Why go to the trouble? Jones stated that he stood up, because he believes his Christian commitment requires accountability for pursuing and achieving the good. Therefore, he couldn’t willingly “allow something within [his] power to just slip through.”
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