Some years ago Philip Yancey wrote a very fine book called Disappointment with God. In the book he told lots of stories of people who had come into Christianity expecting wonderful things from a relationship with God, but had ended up being disappointed. Some had left the faith altogether; others had stayed, but their faith felt like an empty shell to them.
One of the problems Philip mentioned in the book was the language we use. We often use phrases like ‘having a personal relationship with God’, but for many of us, what we experience day to day in our relationship with God feels very different from other relationships we enjoy. We can’t see God. We can’t hear God. Our prayers are not very often conversational; they feel more like monologues. And although we believe that God does things in our lives, those things aren’t very often completely unambiguous; we interpret them as God’s actions, but others might interpret them differently.
So what can we expect from a relationship with God? Let’s take this question to our psalm for today, probably the best-known psalm in the Bible, Psalm 23.
The Bible tends to address the question of what we can expect from a relationship with God by the images it uses for God. The reality of God is far too big for us to take in with our limited human understanding, so the Bible uses images to help us grasp parts of that reality. For example, we read that God is like a strong rock, a safe place where we can stand in the storm. God is like a castle where we can be protected from the rage of the enemy. God is like a mother hen, gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them from a fire. God is like the best of fathers, providing for his children, teaching them and disciplining them in a just and loving way, and so on.
Psalm 23 uses two images for God. It might surprise you to hear me say this, because we’ve grown up thinking of this as the shepherd psalm, but if you look closely at it you’ll see that the shepherd image is not the only one used in these verses. In verses 1-4, yes, it’s God as the shepherd who provides for his sheep, leads them in right paths and protects them from danger. But at the end of the psalm, in verses 5-6, the imagery changes; now God is a gracious and hospitable host, welcoming us to a sumptuous meal in his house and then inviting us to move in there with him for the rest of our lives. What do these two images tell us about what we can expect from a relationship with God?
First, we can expect God to provide for our needs. The lovely pastoral imagery of verses 2-3 might sound like therapy for the soul to us, but in fact it talks about how the shepherd provides for the mundane daily needs of the flock.
‘He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul, and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake’. (vv.2-3, BAS version).
‘Green pastures’ are places where there’s lots of good grass for the sheep to eat. ‘Still waters’ are places where it’s easy for the sheep to drink because the water flows slowly, so there’s no danger of them being carried away by it. ‘He guides me along right pathways’ means that the shepherd leads his flock in the right direction, away from danger and toward safety and good pasture. And when the writer says ‘he revives my soul’ he’s probably thinking of the word ‘soul’ in its colloquial sense of ‘life’: ‘he restores my life’ – in other words, ‘he keeps me alive’!
So the writer is inviting us to think about the daily necessities of life: food to eat, clothes to wear, water to drink, a safe and warm place to live and so on. God our shepherd provides all these things for us. He has created the earth in such a way that there are adequate resources for everyone to live a simple and basic life, if we will use them wisely and share them justly. He gives us strength to work and families to share with so that we can enjoy the necessities of life. And because there are people in the world who don’t yet enjoy those necessities of life, he calls us as followers of Jesus to live on less than those around us, and to give generously so that everyone has enough and no one has too much.
You notice that at the moment I’m not talking about what older writers used to call ‘special providences’ – that is, times when we have a specific need, and we pray about it, and God comes through for us in an obvious and dramatic way. I believe in special providences, and I think most of us Christians experience them from time to time. But I’m trying to help us open our eyes wide to the totality of God’s provision for us. It’s not just in those dramatic moments when he responds to an obvious need with an obvious answer; it’s also in the mundane daily experiences of putting food on the table, saying grace and really meaning it.
So the first thing Psalm 23 tells us we can expect from a relationship with God is that God will provide for our needs. The second thing is that God will lead us in the right paths. Verse 3 says, ‘He guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake’. Obviously, when we’re talking about the shepherd, this means guiding his sheep to the places where they will find the pasture they need, and guiding them away from dangerous cliffs and other places where they could be in harm’s way.
What does it mean for us as Christians to say that God will lead us in the right paths? How does God guide us, and how do we discover God’s plan for our lives?
It seems to be that in the Bible there are three main ways of talking about this. First, there’s God’s general plan of life for all his people, which is given to us in his commandments, and especially in the teaching and example of Jesus. Secondly, there’s his master plan to heal the world and bring in his kingdom, which we know is going to come to fulfilment because he can even take the evil things that people do and bring good out of them in the end. And thirdly, there are those occasions when he has specific tasks he wants individuals to do. In the Bible he doesn’t usually have any difficulty telling them what those things are; he sends them a dream, or a prophetic word, or someone brings them a message from God.
What’s the most important aspect of this for me as an ordinary follower of Jesus? Without question, it’s the first one. For me, the most relevant way that God guides me into right paths is by his wise laws and commandments which he has given to us in the scriptures and especially in the life and teaching of Jesus. So I might go to God and say, “God, I really want to know what you want me to do with my life?” And I suspect the answer might be something like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. How’s that to be going along with? Have you got it mastered yet?” And if I have the chutzpah to say, “No sweat; I got that all down pat last week!” he might say, “Well, how about this one: love your enemies and pray for those who hate you!” And I might gulp and say, “OK, sorry I asked!”
All humour aside, do you see where I’m going with this? If I want to know what God wants me to do with the rest of my life, the most important answer to that question is that God wants me to learn to follow his commandments, especially the teaching and example of Jesus. There’s plenty for me to be going along with there! And if there is more, I need to stop fretting and trust that God is well able, in his own time and his own way, to make that plain to me. Meanwhile, I’ll keep busy with the stuff he’s already told me in the scriptures.
So in a relationship with God, we can expect that God will provide for our legitimate needs, and guide us in right paths. The third thing we read about in this psalm is protection from danger. The psalm alludes to dangers in verse 4:
‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me’.
Now there is no doubt that we as Christians do look to God to protect us in times of danger. Whenever Marci and I are apart and I know she’s driving around the busy streets of Edmonton, I pray that God will keep her safe; I know that there are car accidents every day, and sometimes there are fatalities, and I want God to protect her from that. Also, when we go on long trips we pray before we leave, asking God to keep us safe on the road.
It’s natural for us to pray like this, and I think God is happy to hear those prayers. But if you’re like me, and if you think this through a bit, you might find this a bit troublesome. We’ve all heard of people who somehow survive a car accident, or avoid getting on an aircraft that crashes, and they say ‘Someone must have been looking out for me’. But whenever I hear that, I find myself thinking, ‘What about the poor souls who didn’t survive? Does that mean God wasn’t looking out for them?’ We know that God does sometimes answer the prayers of his people in a positive way, so that the sick are healed and the hungry are fed and the hostages are rescued and so on. But at other times things don’t seem to work out as well; the fatal disease claims another Christian life, or the Christian in the refugee camp starves like thousands of others, despite their prayers, or the hostages are killed by their captors, despite the thousands who were praying for them.
So what is actually promised to us as Christians? What sort of ultimate protection from danger are we offered?
I think what I can cling to without reservation is the promise that in the end nothing can take us out of God’s hands, not even death. In John’s gospel Jesus says,
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).
Because we have this promise, we know that we can never view death in quite the same way. The resurrection of Jesus tells us that even death, the most powerful enemy of the human race, was not strong enough to defeat Jesus. No doubt on Thursday and Friday his friends and family were praying desperately that he would not be killed by the Romans, but their prayers did not seem to be answered. On Saturday, they may even have thought that there was no God to answer them; they felt abandoned, and wondered why they had been let down.
We sometimes feel that way today too; it’s as if it’s still Good Friday, when the enemies of God have free rein to do as they wish. But the famous Baptist preacher Tony Campolo once preached a great sermon called, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!” Yes, it is! Jesus has been raised from the dead, and has promised that one day we too will be raised with him. Then it will be seen that his promise is secure: nothing, not even death, can pluck us out of his hand. And so even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil; God’s rod and staff comfort us.
So this psalm tells us that in a relationship with God we can expect God to provide for our needs, to guide us in right paths, and to keep our lives in his hands, even in death. The fourth and final thing I see in these verses is that in a relationship with God we can expect that there will always be a welcome for us in God’s presence. Look at verses 5-6:
‘You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’.
This psalm is often used at funerals, in conjunction with the words of Jesus from the gospel of John, ‘in my Father’s house are many mansions’, which is interpreted as being about going to heaven. So it’s easy for people to think that when the psalmist talks about ‘dwelling in the house of the Lord forever’, he’s talking about dying and going to heaven.
Well, he’s probably not. ‘The house of the LORD’ here does not mean a mansion in the sky where we live with God forever. To the writer of the psalm, the house of the Lord was the place where God was worshipped in Jerusalem – later on, the Temple; it was a symbol of God’s presence with his people here on earth. The writer was saying, “I will live my whole life in the presence of the Lord, and I will experience his goodness and love forever”.
Look again at those last two verses of the psalm. What’s the image here? As we’ve said, it’s the image of the gracious host. He has prepared a sumptuous feast for us, a table full of good things to eat. He has invited us to his house to share in the feast. When we arrive, following the hospitality customs of the day, the host anoints our heads with oil as a sign of welcome. And there’s so much wine to share that it’s as if our cup is overflowing throughout the whole meal.
But how does it end? It ends with the writer saying, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. In other words, the host isn’t just inviting you for an occasional feast; the host is inviting you to move in with him and enjoy his hospitality every day of your life.
That’s what God is like. We’re no longer guests at his table; we’re members of his family. As members of his family, we’re always welcome in his presence. Whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, we are welcome at his table, today and every day.