Psalm 23 & the contented life

I was five when I memorized Psalm 23. I had one of those emergency info bracelets and it had part of the psalm inscribed into it as well. So, I memorized it.

But the first verse stumped my five-year-old mind. I couldn’t get its meaning, rendered in the King James Version.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

I shall not want? But I wanted things all the time. How could I go even a single day without wanting anything? I wanted toys. I wanted candy. I wanted to stay up later. I wanted to play outside.

For my 5th birthday, I got a Big Wheel. I loved that plastic three-wheeler and rode it to death. Literally. I rode it until eventually the front wheel wore down to the point of splitting in half.

BigWheel_MNHS_250But nine days after my birthday, was Greg’s birthday. We were the same age, except for those nine days. And he got a Big Wheel too. But where my seat was just a seat, his had a little box on the back that he would put stuff in. And I really wanted a box to put stuff in. So … I stole it. I traded his seat for mine.

That worked for all of one day. Maybe not even a whole day. The crime was so obvious, I got caught and had to give back his beautiful seat-with-a-box.

When I was eight, one of my sisters was engaged to be married and presents started pouring in from her wedding showers. And want raised its ugly head. So, I sneaked some of her gifts and hid them under the clothes in my dresser. Again, I got caught.

What did I want with a silver cake serving utensil? Even I was befuddled by that. But in hindsight, what I really wanted was some attention, some love. I wanted to be wanted.

Psalm 23 walks us through our wants and finds them all answered in God.

First off, the Psalm is bookended by the name Yahweh, usually rendered as LORD in all caps. Yahweh is the covenant name for the God of Israel. When the God of the Bible is seen in his ruling might, the generic word “God” is used. But when he’s seen in his relational faithfulness, the name Yahweh is used. So, in this psalm, David is keying in on the relational nature of our Lord. He is committed to us, deeply and personally committed.

And he takes care of our needs.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.

The food and the drink are the best, not just adequate. Green pastures aren’t dry and dusty. Quiet waters are easy to drink from, not crashing over rocks and difficult to get at. But not just the body is nourished, the soul is as well. Yahweh feeds every part of me.

And when he leads me, he leads me right. There are no tricks. I’m not going to get hurt following his path.

He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.

Here’s his name again. What does his name have to do with that path I walk?

Our names are the most basic thing about us. I am my name. It’s my brand, my reputation. It’s the distillation of my character. And leading me in the right path is as integral to Yahweh as his name.

But while he guides me in right paths, I take detours into dark valleys. And yet even in dangerous and deathly places, he protects and sustains me.

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
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.

Protected by the rod and the staff; sustained by the table. Even the valley of the shadow of death (as the KJV has it) and the presence of my enemies are places of contentment, because they are places of Yahweh’s provision. Even there, I do not want, because what I need most is provided for me.

If I get hurt, he takes care of me, anointing my wounds:

You anoint my head with oil

I have everything I need. In fact, I’ve got more than I need. The abundance of my life spills out of me, because it simply can’t be contained.

my cup overflows.

This uncontainable life of contentment has little to do with wealth or status. We’ve heard that numerous times. Ecclesiastes tells us that. Piles of celebrities have concurred. But we so often fall for the assumption that getting what we want will make us happy.

When our Founding Fathers articulated “the pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable right, they imprisoned us in our wants. They sent us on a wild goose chase of pursuing happiness through our wants and we’ve worn ourselves out in that chase. It’s endless and endlessly unsatisfying.

In a seeming contradiction, wanting less leads to having more. The spilling over life comes from being content with what we’ve got and what we don’t have. It keeps us from trading up for bigger and bigger cups so we can be filled with more and more.

Instead of chasing after our wants, goodness and love chase after me.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

When Yahweh is my shepherd, I have no wants, because he gives me what he wants me to have. The wanting shifts from me to him and he provides it all.

At 50 years of age, I’m making less money now than I have in almost two decades. I have no job title status. I am a small fish in a small pond. But I feel the most content I’ve ever felt in my life. I’m enjoying my family and my friends. I’m pursued by goodness and love. I’m guided along the right paths. And I know my God and he knows me.

Why would I want anything else?