"He restores my soul." This has always been one of my favorite lines of Psalm 23. Who doesn't like to be refreshed in spirit? To enter a day down-cast, depressed or gloomy and watch the Lord fill up your spirit and restore your soul? To see Him give you a sense of purpose and joy and peace to face a day that hasn't changed circumstantially but suddenly looks so much brighter?
The author starts off the chapter by reminding his readers that Psalm 23 is written from the perspective of a sheep (follower of Jesus Christ) in the Good Shepherd's (Jesus) care. He asks the question, "If Jesus is a Good shepherd, why would a sheep in His care need to be restored?"
The answer? The sheep get themselves in trouble and need help. The technical term is "cast down" and the author defines it as "a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get up again by itself." Without the shepherd's help a cast sheep will die, sometimes in a matter of hours. He has to physically pick the sheep up, put it back on its feet and massage its legs until they are strong enough to bear the sheep's weight. "When the sheep started to walk again she often just stumbled, staggered and collapsed in a heap once more." I have so often felt like this. I work myself into a cast position and even when my Savior comes to rescue me, I still find myself stumbling, staggering and collapsing through life. I don't immediately jump up from a pit and start running, but I think God designed it that way so I would more intensely appreciate the depth of what He rescues me from.
The author points out that it's not just the shepherd who understands how vulnerable cast sheep are. Both the shepherd and predators watch carefully for cast sheep, and who arrives first dramatically changes the final plight of the sheep. I was so comforted by the reminder that my Shepherd watches over me continually and when He comes, "He comes quietly, gently, reassuringly to me no matter when or where or how I may be cast down."
The author hits on three major ways we can become cast down in our spiritual journey. We get too comfortable, too wooly and/or too fat. Let me elaborate.
When we opt for comfort and coziness, we take away the element of clinging to Jesus and start to feel like any comfort we have is from our own efforts. The author says it beautifully when he says, "In the Christian life there is great danger in always looking for the ....cozy corner...where there is no hardship, no need for endurance, no demand upon self discipline. ...Sometimes if, through self-indulgence, I am unwilling to forfeit... the cozy corner, then the Good Shepherd may well move me to a pasture where things aren't quite so comfortable - not only for my own good but also His benefit as well." This really made me ask myself, "What am I doing to stay uncomfortable spiritually?" Because when do we most cling to God? When times are tough and we KNOW we would never weather the storm of life without His help. Comfort can bring complacency and I've seen that first-hand in my life.
Too wooly? The author defined wool as "the old self-life in the Christian." He said in Old Testament times, priests were not allowed to wear wool in the Holy of Holies because it "spoke of self, of pride, of personal preference - and God could not tolerate it." So what does a shepherd do when they have a sheep being cast down by the weight of its wool? "I would shear it clean and so forestall the danger of having the ewe lose her life." I've seen sheep going through sheering and they don't like it. They bleat and wail. Kick and flail. And boy do they look goofy when the unenjoyable process is finished. But when all is said and done, the sheep are free from the burden of excess wool and the shepherd doesn't have to worry about them being cast down anymore. Listen to how beautifully the author summarizes this point: "...there will come a day when the Master must take us in hand and apply the keen cutting edge of his Word to our lives. It may be an unpleasant business for a time. No doubt we'll struggle and kick about it. We may get a few cuts and wounds. But what a relief when it is all over. Oh, the pleasure of being set free from ourselves." God, what do you want to cut out of my life? And will I be belligerent in the process or docile and willing to submit to Your leadership?
The third way we become cast down is by being too fat. A fat sheep is an unhealthy sheep and a good shepherd won't be successful with a flock full of sickly sheep. When he notices his sheep are getting fat, he restricts their portions and imposes limits on them that keep the flock more under his watchful eye. In our spiritual life, the author points out that "often when we are most sure of ourselves is when we are the most prone to fall flat." He makes the comparison of material wealth and possessions to the fat on the sheep. What we have or don't have is no indication of the level of our spirituality or the depth of our relationship with Christ. Only the Good Shepherd sees through the fluff of my exterior and into heart. Only He can measure the level of fat in my devotion to Him. And when He sees fat growing, "He may well impose on us some sort of diet or discipline which we may find a bit rough and unpalatable at first." Sounds inviting eh? The redeeming factor of intentionally enduring discipline is that the Good Shepherd's discipline in my life is a reflection of His love for me.
The author sums the chapter up by saying, "The toughness it takes to face life... can come only through the discipline of endurance and hardship. In His mercy and love our Master makes this a part of our program. It is part of the price of belonging to Him. We may rest assured that He will never expect us or ask us to face more than we can stand, but what He does expose us to will strengthen and fortify our faith and confidence in His control." I don't know about you, but following the Good Shepherd is a price I'm willing to pay. I am confident in His ability to control my life and to restore my soul.