We often expect God to be a parent who scolds us rather than a shepherd who soothes us. We come to God in the pages of Scripture and the hard parts of our stories carrying apprehension of judgment rather than the anticipation of kindness.
In the early months of getting sick, I spent most of my time in bed. I was a junior in college whose landscape for living had suddenly shrunk to the size of one dorm room. I felt like God had forced me to lie down, as though my ambition and busyness were sins for which I needed punishment and discipline. The traditional English translation of Psalm 23:2 is “he makes me lie down,” which certainly sounds akin to putting a toddler in timeout.
I was plied with others’ platitudes and crushed by a theology of cause and effect; if I was sick, surely it had to be some hidden sin in my heart that needed punishment. So I prayed and prayed, begging God to let me get out of bed.
My prayers were a loop of longing and loss. God, heal me. Tell me what I need to repent of, and I will. God, help me find out what’s wrong with my body. God, give me answers. God, do you even hear me? Father, heal me. Eventually, I would run out of words and stare out the window instead, peering over the edge of Lookout Mountain and its forests and boulders, pining for the day I could climb out of bed and climb its stone face again instead.
It was on one of those lengthy days of longing that I realized I was waiting for the wrong thing.
Suffering was silencing me. I needed words to wrap around my wounds. I needed speech to break the silence of the violence of the autoimmune civil war raging inside my body.
I found my voice again in the words of the psalms.
The day my longing found lament, my prayers for healing became prayers to see God.
I had opened my Bible to Psalm 27, where I encountered a saint as hard up as me. David, who wrote both Psalm 27 and Psalm 23, knew what it was like to have an enemy, knew how it felt to be afraid, and knew how much it hurt to wonder if you are heard. Yet in his haunting fears, he told himself to trust.
By the time I got to the end of the psalm, I was stunned into a better story.
“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
All those days looking out the window, I had been waiting on God to heal me. But the psalm showed me that what I was really waiting for was God. I was being led through one of the darkest valleys of my life, facing more suffering than I imagined I could endure. I thought I was waiting to be rescued. God was waiting for me to see that He was already with me. Hearing my cries. Moved by my pain. Ready to meet me with mercy for the season ahead.
The interpretation of “he makes me lie down” in Psalm 23 can lead us into a story of either punishment or peace. And the translation history of this passage tells a different story than the common English translation leads us to expect. The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses the word kataskenoo in this passage, which can be translated as “rest” or “settle down.” The Arabic text in the London Polygot (1657) similarly translates this as ahallani, which means “he settles me down.” Many scholars prefer to translate this line of Psalm 23 as “he settles me down,” noting how the more forceful language creates unnecessary problems and expectations.
I thought God was a shepherd who made me lie down. I needed to encounter God as a shepherd who settled me down.
That day, I started realizing that to be strong and let my heart take courage, I needed to wait on the Lord not as the one who was punishing me with pain and expecting me to be stoic about it but as the Shepherd coming to care for me.
I needed to encounter my emotions not as signs of failure but as cries for connection.
I needed to change the goal of my waiting. I had to shift the aim of my anticipation.
There is a Shepherd who stands with scars still on His hands, who is always reaching toward you in every moment of your stress, because He has been where you are and knows the way home.
As we pay attention to ourselves as people Jesus already loves and is already seeking, we will experience our stress differently. Our sensations don’t have to tell the same old story. We can practice anticipating the Shepherd’s presence — even when we fear we have been left alone.
And the beautiful thing about a practice is you do not have to do it perfectly. You can begin right where you are. In your fear. In your overwhelm. In your stress. You can stumble and struggle while building trust that you are being strengthened.
Courage isn’t the opposite of fear. Courage is the practice of risking to trust that we have a Good Shepherd who is with us always — no matter what.
How can we cultivate courage when fear overshadows our lives? How do we hear the Voice of Love when hate and harm shout loudly? When therapist, author, and (in)courage contributor K.J. Ramsey stepped through her own wilderness of spiritual abuse and religious trauma, she discovered that courage is not the absence of anxiety but the practice of trusting we will be held and loved no matter what.
Her latest book, The Lord Is My Courage: Stepping Through the Shadows of Fear Toward the Voice of Love, offers an honest path to finding that there is still a Good Shepherd who is always following you. Braiding contemplative storytelling, theological reflection, and practical neuroscience, The Lord Is My Courage walks through Psalm 23 phrase by phrase, exploring the landscape of our fear, trauma, and faith and revealing a route into connection and joy that meets you right where you are.
The Lord is My Courage is now available! Pick up your copy today wherever books are sold, and leave a comment below for a chance to WIN a copy!
Then join K.J. and (in)courage community manager Becky Keife for a chat all about The Lord Is My Courage! Tune in tomorrow, 6/22/22, on our Facebook page at 11am CST for their conversation.
Giveaway open to US addresses only and closes on 6/24/22 at 11:59pm CST.