God knows what is good

God has given us, his people, 10 commandments to tell us how to live. They are given to Moses and to Israel first, but Jesus says he came to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). He has made this law universal so that it can speak to all of us and shape our communities. I’d like us to see how this happens.

We all need someone to tell us what to do. Many will dispute this, but then, we don’t seem to be able to avoid it. If it isn’t God telling us what is good, it’s someone else. We are surrounded with it all the time.

The difference between God’s commands and those we make for ourselves is that God’s commands arise from who he is—and he is good. Ours arise because we always trying to fix a problem—and we are not good. Again, this latter point is disputed, but the number of rules we have to make is increasing all the time, so, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a problem, and that the problem is us.

God is not trying to fix a problem. He is telling us who he is, and, because he is our Creator, he is telling us what is good for us. Moses says, ‘Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time’ (Deuteronomy 4:40).

What God tells us to do is good in the sense that it works. It fits what we are and it enables us to live together in a way that benefits everybody. It’s not an ideology, a social construction invented by someone to solve a problem. It’s real, and really works.

It’s interesting to see where the ten commandments begin. They don’t start with, ‘You shall not…’ but with, ‘I am the Lord your God…’ (Exodus 20:2). His commands arise from him being in a relationship with us. He says to his people, ‘You belong to me and I belong to you.’

If we think that the way to have relationships is to get everyone doing ‘the right thing’—which means telling everyone what the ‘right things’ are—we wear people down and destroy real relationships.

Many children know what it is like having to perform in a certain way to secure the attention, approval or affection of their parents. But others have parents who have created a home where they know they belong. Their identity does not need to arise from how they perform but from belonging. They are beloved children. In that setting, they can hear what is required of them as something that will be in their interests to hear and do.

The same is true in a community. If we must conform to a certain set of rules to be heard or to have a place, we breed distrust, distain and social unrest. It doesn’t work—and it isn’t working.

God has made every human being in his image, so everyone has a place in it. It is because he is relating to us that he gives us his commands.

But God says more. ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’. He calls this redeeming them—that is paying the price to release them from their slave-masters. Israel belongs to God, not only because he made them but because he has made it possible for them to obey him.

We must look some more at how this happens, but for now, we simply note that God’s commands are given to people who have been released from the pressure of false gods—that is, anything that’s taken the place of God. They not only should obey him but they can, and even want to.

This has been the whole point of Jesus coming among us. He comes to save us. We get trapped by our own sins. We get caught by this world—and do what it wants rather than what God wants. This isn’t freedom. We have to do things.

But Jesus says ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:34-36).

If we know God is relating to us, that he has decided to love us, and that he is doing whatever is necessary to set us free from being trapped by what we have done, we will be able to receive his commands as his love reaching out to us.

So, commands might not be too bad after all! Certainly, those who realise God has made this world as a home for us, and who see what he has done to free us from our false gods, will listen to them with interest, heed them with diligence and find that it is good to be told what to do.

Something holy, at Christmas

When God is about to send his Son into the world, an angel comes to Mary to tell her she will be the child’s mother (Luke 1:26-38). She is told a number of amazing things. A son from her womb will be Israel’s Messiah. This child will be called ‘Son of the Most High’. And he will reign forever.

But the thing she asks about, understandably, is how she can have any baby without a father.

The answer is, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).

This is not going to be an event for which any human being can take the credit. God has promised it, is now announcing it and will physically make it happen.

I want to speak about one word that applies to all of the things that are happening here—the word ‘holy’. The child will be holy because the Holy Spirit will ‘come upon’ Mary. God is holy and only he can cause anything else to be holy.

We tend to think that ‘holy’ refers to behaviour but it is more than that. It indicates that something comes from God, belongs to God and is to be used for his purposes. This leads to a certain kind of behaviour but it is a ‘belonging’ word.

For example, God tells Israel, ‘I am the Lord, who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 22:32-33). And on the basis of this he tells them to keep his commands. It is because we belong that we behave.

The opposite of holy is profane. If we use something holy, like the name of Jesus, for a swear word, we utter a profanity.

The same is true for lots of other things. If I take my own humanity and use it for me instead of for God, I am turning something meant to be holy into something profane. I commit profanity. If I go to church and sing songs but am only interested in the form of the service and not its purpose, I turn something holy into something profane. (There’s an example in Ezekiel 22:26.)

Think for a moment about what the world would be like if it was holy. If we reverenced God, his nature would be reflected in all our behaviour and the resulting society. There would be no greed, rivalry or hatred, only generosity, mutuality and love. We would have a great vision of life, not mere ‘me’ goals. There would be no harming, cruelty, sickness or death. We would simply live in and look after the world God has made for us.

But think about a world that is profane. It is very self-righteous. We are constantly being told about what we should and shouldn’t do. But can we produce a loving community? We don’t just need a law to keep. We need a God behind it who says, ‘This is my law. It matters if you break it.’

If we are going to have faithful marriages, ethical business and if we are going to care for the planet, we are going to need a God who says, ‘This is my world. It matters how you live in it.’ A profane world can’t produce what it legislates.

And now, God’s holy Child is coming into this profane world. This is astonishing. It is very difficult to approach people who have no regard for us, but this is what God is doing. We disregard the fact that he made the world and sustains all its operations—and he sends us his own Son to be our Saviour.

An angel has told Joseph to call this son Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. We need healing for our profanity. We need something that only God can do. We have not been able to live without God interrupting our ease and presumption.

So, Mary’s life is all rearranged. She will have a son. There is nothing normal or safe here. God will hover over Mary, just as his Holy Spirit overshadowed the first creation to bring it to life (Genesis 1:2). Here is the beginning of a new creation. Nothing less will change us or our profane world.

These words of the angel are reflected later on when Jesus says to Nicodemus. ‘…no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again’ (John 3:3). And Nicodemus says almost the same as Mary. ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ He is accustomed to the natural world, not to the world God owns and manages. Even though he is religious, he is profaning God’s world and his revelation. He needs a life that is from above—a holy life.

But now, see what Mary says. ‘I am the Lord’s servant. … May your word to me be fulfilled’ (Luke 1:38). And she becomes pregnant. The holy Child who will save his people from their sins, has entered our world. And his reign will never end. Holiness has arrived.

So easily can a profane world become a holy one. If with Mary, we say ‘let it be so to me according to your word’, God is our God, our sins are forgiven, love is born, eternity is in our souls, God’s will is done and the world can see its God reflected in the lives of his people.

The rest is over to God. We can only be holy by hearing his word, and letting him do in us what only he can do.

(If you would like to hear these things spelt out more fully, you can listen to a 25 minute talk at  https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=122020610274335 )

God will always be good to you. You can be sure of it!

David finishes his Psalm 23 by telling us how sure he is of God’s goodness and mercy to him. He expects it to continue as long as he lives. He will always be with the Lord! He is emphatic about this.

He actually says goodness and mercy will pursue him. The word he uses means ‘pursue like someone wanting to persecute you’. Sometimes we feel that trouble is chasing us like a mad dog. But David says goodness and mercy are chasing him! The latter word is actually ‘faithful love’—a word with special meaning for those to whom God reveals himself.

This world is a shaky place. And we often share the shakes! But Psalm 23 is not about the world being good. It’s about the Lord being unshakably good. Every blessing David refers to arises from him. How deeply we need this assurance!

Many say there is no God. And this is much the same as saying there is no-one to look after us. The trouble with this is that we then do look around to be looked after by someone or something else. We are structured to have God bless us, for him to be our benefactor and ‘go to’ person for living. When this is denied to us, we seek support from other things. Our life can no longer be the shape it was meant to be. We become harsh, or weak, or irresolute, rather than resilient. It is happening all around us—or even, to us.

So, the question is pressing: ‘Is God being good to me?’ Let’s try to be really sure of this! And to be sure of this, you need your Bible—more than you need your breakfast! It’s no good looking at your circumstances. They change too often and too much. What does God say, and what does he do to show us his goodness? Here are some key points in the story—and some references to look up.

The Lord tells Abraham he will bless the world through his family—and he does (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:13-14). He tells Moses he will save Israel from slavery and give them a homeland—and he does (Exodus 3:7-8; Psalm 78:52-55). He tells David he will make him king and will preserve his dynasty forever—and he does (2 Samuel 7:8-12: Luke 1:67-75). He tells Jeremiah he will renew his relationship with Israel after they do everything to break it—and this is what he will do (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 10:14-18). These are covenants God makes with his people.

But now look at this last covenant. It is put into action by what Jesus does. He says, ‘This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26:28). Jesus comes to renew the relationship—or covenant—between us and God. He wants to guarantee it, to put it beyond any doubt, to get it into our minds that we can rely on it. ‘Here’, says Jesus. ‘Eat this bread. It is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’

By this covenant, he not only assures us that God is being God to us, but he ensures that we respond in love to be faithful covenant partners. He puts his law in our hearts. There can be no assurance of God’s love in us until he changes our hearts to be faithful like his. If you like, if you are false, you’ll suspect that God is too. This covenant heals our suspicious hearts and brings us to faith.

We need to hear God saying to us, ‘I am making all my goodness pass in front of you’—just as he did to Moses (Exodus 33:19). We look at Jesus and we are looking at God’s goodness—towards us. The Son of God will give up his body for us—for me! And I am being asked to eat it—that is, to take up what he is doing and make it mine.

And then he goes out and does it! The Son of God, the perfect man, the helper of all, the revelation of God—he, no less, becomes sin instead of righteousness, hated instead of loved, weak instead of strong, hung on a cross. He wants you to know you have a Shepherd, so he lays down his life for you. He needs to take away your life-long dread of not being good enough for God. He needs to take away your resentment of being under his authority. And he does it so you and I can stand before our Father without shame.

This is the reason God gives us for being sure we will be pursued by his goodness and mercy. If the Father gives up his Son for us, and Jesus gives up his life for us, and he is our Shepherd, what lack should we then fear (Romans 8:31-34)?

David also says, ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’. He probably means he will always have access to the Lord and friendship with him. But things are even clearer now. We will dwell in a new heaven and earth forever. All the unfinished business of this present life will be completed. There will be no more pain, tears, injustice or even unselfishness. As we say, ‘It will be heaven!’

We really need to know this. When we are fretful, we are living for ourselves. Only when the Lord takes away all cares can we be free to live.

I have fears of my own. I want life to be cosy, and rosy. When trouble comes, I get troubled. But then, I get out my Bible, and see what God is about, and what he is about with me. I see how he has made his goodness pass in front of me. I see how wonderful the Shepherd is, how near he has come to me, how fully he has made an end of all that separates me from God. The Shepherd becomes the centre of my attention again.

Then, I notice that the troubles of my heart have subsided. Life is back where it should always have been. And I can say with David, ‘Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’

A feast among enemies

Psalm 23 is telling us how to live by faith. So now, David says the Lord spreads a feast for him, in the presence of his enemies. We know the Lord is with him in dark valleys. What about when enemies are near?

David still speaks to the Lord personally, ‘You prepare a table for me.’ He needs what the Lord can do when it comes to enemies. He knows how to fight and has done very well, but that’s not what he wants to talk about. He wants to tell us how the Lord looks after him.

Earlier on, Israel doubted that God could look after them. ‘Can God spread a table in the desert?’ they asked (Psalm 78:19). They didn’t like the way God was leading them. And then, the Lord gave them food—regularly (Exodus 16:4). But now, David refuses to complain. He says, ‘God provides a feast—right where I am being threatened by enemies!’

But why a feast when there’s enemies around? Battle rations would be more appropriate—something to eat while you keep your eyes open for threats. No. This is a feast, with all the usual extras.

The host has anointed his guest with oil—a courtesy expected in those days. And when it comes to the wine, his cup is brimming over. The host is eager to say that there is no lack when it comes to wine. There’s nothing going wrong at this banquet!

But what about the enemies? People who get angry with us want to be the centre of our attention. ‘Look at me’ they are saying. ‘I am a threat to your well-being!’ If they succeed in getting the core of our attention, the Lord has been pushed to the edges. Our situation has become compromised. We have become embattled—meaning that the battle has become our core issue.

David says ‘No’ to this. The gracious provision of the Lord—the green pastures, the restful waters, the restored soul, the guidance in right paths, are all still happening. The shouting from the edges doesn’t change what is going on between him and the Lord.

The Lord can keep our hearts full—as at a feast—while we are still in the presence of enemies. And this is just what we need. When critics say our faith in God is superstition, and our obedience to Christ is repression, and our hope of heaven is a fantasy, we need a mouthwatering enjoyment of God, and his goodness, and his power. Enemies only have the power God grants to them (John 19:11).

And when our enemy, Satan, taunts about our personal failures, we need to know that our Shepherd has got them all covered—totally. The reason we are feasting in the presence of enemies is because Christ has won the major battle against our accuser. There is no valid reason for him to accuse us because Christ has borne our sins, and the accusations we deserve.

To help us sense what this is like, think of Peter. He is surrounded with enemies accusing him of being a follower of Jesus. He fails badly. But the Lord had already told him this will happen. And he has followed this up with, ‘Let not your heart be troubled.’ And, ‘I go to prepare a place for you’ (John 13:38—14:2). We need to know the Lord is always ready to spread a feast for humbled sinners (Revelation 3:20).

In another time of trouble, Nehemiah told people in Jerusalem, ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10). He also told his hearers to go home and have a feast! They needed to know that this was not a bad day but a good one! 

Enjoying the Lord is vital. We need time out from the battle to taste the goodness of God, to drink in his word, to talk in a relaxed way to our Shepherd.

So, there’s a feast to have. Keep your eye on the opposition but focus on what God has given, and is giving, and will give. Relish him, and our enemies are already at a disadvantage.

The Lord is with me

David is telling us what it is like when ‘the Lord is my Shepherd’. And now, he tells us about the valleys with deep shadows we may be led through.

Like sheep, we are content and carefree when in green pastures. But then, we are liable to jump and lurch when led towards unfamiliar and threatening circumstances. Here again is where our ‘sails’ need to go higher.

What will happen if a foreign power starts to make things difficult for the economy? …or our whole planet begins to run down? …or if no one wants to employ me? …or if friends think my views are strange or dangerous? …or if a doctor says I have a serious illness?

David says he’s still OK. ‘I will fear no evil’. Things may go wrong but he won’t need to fear because of who is with him. And now, because we are the Lord’s flock, we can look at what is happening and ask, ‘Why should I fear?’

Well may we be scared of certain things that happen in this life. The creation wasn’t made to be terrifying. It was formed as our home and as God’s garden so we would have a place to live, to relate, to be provided for and to work. A place to walk with God and live forever (Genesis 3:22-24).

But this same creation, for the moment, has been given over to futility (Romans 8:20). Things do go wrong—wars, pandemics, accidents, death and lots besides.

The only reason David gives for not being afraid is, ‘For you are with me…’. Notice, he doesn’t say ‘the Lord…’. He changes to ‘You…’. He’s talking directly to the Lord, not about him. And it needs to be personal. We don’t get comfort from an idea. We get comfort from the presence and love and power and purpose of the Shepherd.

And this Shepherd is not helpless. He’s got a club to deal with intruding beasts, and a staff to rescue or guide or save the sheep. David is not making out to be a hero. He’s learning to be a sheep and to be comforted by the presence and power of the Shepherd.

So, this is what we need to do. As I said, our sails need to be hoisted higher to catch the winds of God’s kindness to us. We need to learn more about the Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to see how well equipped he is to lead us through our difficulties. We need to be comforted by the sight of him and his equipment to deal with all that happens.

And this is what Paul goes on to tell us in Romans 8. The world is not only given up to futility, it is ‘groaning’ (v. 22). It’s as though the world is waiting to give birth to a child and the labour is difficult. There’s a new world coming, but, right now, the present one is hurting us. And sometimes it’s scary.

But Paul goes to the same place David does. We don’t need to fear what happens. Jesus has already given his life up so that we may belong to him as his sheep. He is for us, so who can be against us (v. 33)?

Things still happen that cause us grief, but there’s no sting in them—nothing to accuse us, nothing to say we deserve this, nothing to indicate that we are not deeply loved by God and powerfully defended by Christ. And because of this, we ‘fear no evil’. The Lord is being our Shepherd and directing everything towards a good end (vv. 28-29). He is preparing us to share in the new heaven and earth.

So, even though we may walk through a deep, dark valley, there’s no evil that can touch us. Nothing will separate us from the love of God which has been revealed in Jesus Christ. The Lord will never cease being our Shepherd.

The Lord leads me

David has written a remarkable Psalm (23) about his confidence in what the Lord is going to do for him. He’s got his ‘sails’ up in higher winds than his circumstances. And it’s invigorating to see how life can be when he, and we, trust the Lord.

Continuing with the Psalm, David tells us he will be led in ‘paths of righteousness’. He’s talking about us doing what we are created for—righteousness (Ecclesiastes 7:29). And David says the Lord is up to the job.

Our life is about more than just being comfortable. It’s about belonging to God and being about his purpose.

Part of the Lord leading us in righteousness is what he has already put in his word, the Bible. For example, one prophet says, ‘…what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8).

And Paul says, ‘Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Romans 13:10). In most cases, it’s not really hard to know what God wants us to do.

But how does the Lord lead us in these paths? And why does he do it for his name’s sake? David is talking about what God is going to do, and what he will do for the sake of his own reputation.

‘Paths of righteousness’ is not just about how to behave. It encompasses the whole pathway God has prepared for us to travel on.  

This is the way God has led Israel up to this point. Moses says, ‘In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling’ (Exodus 15:13).

If God is going to have people doing his will, he needs to set up a way where it becomes possible. He shows them his love. He saves them. He guides them with his strength. He doesn’t just give directions.

So, David asks God to ‘Send me your light and your faithful care, let them lead me’ (Psalm 43:3). He’s not just looking for orders. He needs to know God. He needs to know the certainty of God’s presence.

If the Lord—and in our case, the Lord Jesus—is going to lead us in paths of righteousness, this is how it works. He doesn’t start with us! That’s a lost cause. He starts with his own faithful love, his own light and truth—just as he did with Israel.

Jesus creates a ‘Christian life’ with his own life, death and resurrection. Our sins are all answered for. Christ is our peace with God. And then he says, ‘Walk in that!’

Have a look at some places (in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians) where Christians are told how to live.

We are God’s workmanship, ‘created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (2:8-10). We are to put off our old corrupted life and to get dressed in the new life God has created for us (4:22-24). We are to imitate the one who is loving us—our Father (5:1).

We shouldn’t just read the Bible to find out what to do. Read it to see how God has set you up to live differently—and then, live differently!

In addition to this, the Lord is a lot more practical than us when it comes to being righteous. He knows our weak spots. Just ask David. He thanked God for the intervention of a sensible woman when he was about to attack some people who had peeved him (2 Samuel 25:32-34).

God regulates our temptations so that we never get something too hard for us to handle (1 Corinthians 10:13). As Paul says, ‘the Lord is faithful’. He is our Shepherd.

This is what it is like to be led in paths of righteousness. And this is why—when we let our ‘light shine’ before others—that they give glory to our Father (Matthew 5:16). It’s not just us who knows that our good deeds are coming from above. Other people can see it.

If you want to walk in ‘paths of righteousness’, Christ is going to have to be your Shepherd—all the way.

God is my Shepherd! I won’t lack anything

Does God really look after people—like a shepherd used to look after sheep? David writes his song, what we know as Psalm 23, to say that this is so. He knows what shepherds do because he used to be one. And he writes because he wants to put on record just how amazing it is that God looks after people like him. David says, ‘I shall not want for anything.’

The whole song is full of calmness, assurance and hope—particularly about the future. This is probably why it is still so popular. But how does someone come to be completely at peace, and full of confidence?

It’s not as if David expects everything to go well. He tells us that his soul—that is, his inner life—needs to be ‘restored’. Something must have worn him down and he needs fixing. Then, he anticipates he will go through deep dark valleys—perhaps be threatened with death. And then he looks forward to a banquet—but enemies are looking on.

Life’s like that. All sorts of things happen that make us feel we are not being looked after by anyone. But David knows God. He knows his God is trustworthy. He is sure God’s goodness and steadfast love will be with him all the days of his life. And he’s happy to be led by this God. And the result is that he is completely at rest—whatever happens.

Being contented is not easy to come by. How will I get employment, funds, friends, health, opportunity or vindication? The list is endless. David is not saying he doesn’t want anything but that he is confident he will be looked after.

Everything here depends on the Lord being present and active. ‘He will make me lie down… he will lead me… he will restore my life’. And when life is dark, ‘You are with me’. He feels this very personally… ‘Your rod and staff will comfort me’. And then, ‘You will treat me to a banquet.’ This is his confession of faith, finishing with certainty that he will spend forever in the Lord’s house. There’s nothing else that is making him contented—just the Lord.

We tend to work from what we can see to guarantee a good future. If you are not a Christian, this is all you have—what you can see and what you or someone else may be able to make happen. But this is never enough to give us assurance.

You may be a Christian but have let the world become your prop, your security, your hope. Then things go wrong. This is not because you have been abandoned but so the Lord can bring it home to you more powerfully that he is your shepherd—and that only he is your Shepherd. This is why David doesn’t mention his accomplishments, or troops, or popularity, but attributes his restfulness to what the Lord is going to do.

David calls God ‘the Lord’, the God who has chosen Israel and vowed to be kind to them (Exodus 3:15-17; Deuteronomy 7:6-11). His confidence isn’t self-generated. It has been created by what this Lord has already done in their history and the promises he has made for their future. He is saying, ‘I belong to God. He has chosen me for a special purpose and is looking after me.’

In our case, Jesus has been sent by God to be ‘the good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep’ (John 10:7-18). God has revealed himself to the whole world through him. He so loves this world that he has given us his only Son—so we can have eternal life. As Jesus says, he came so we may have life and have it abundantly. You can’t have anything abundantly while you are fretting and anxious. We need Christ’s shepherding because this is how God is looking after us.

Jesus says the true Shepherd knows his sheep and they know his voice. It’s that personal. He says there are others who claim to be able to look after us but who are more interested in their own success. In fact, he says false shepherds seek to kill and destroy the sheep—or leave them to their fate when trouble comes. We all expect someone or some agency to look after us, so finding the true Shepherd is important.

Jesus goes to the root of our distrust. He knows that we’d rather not have to depend on the Lord. He knows how much this has twisted our affections and destroyed our confidence to live. This is why he says he will lay down his life. He needs to make himself an offering for our sin. Until he does this, nothing will persuade us that the Father is a caring God.

We need to let this truth seep into every thought. Perhaps you are going through troubled times and hunger for some peace and confidence. Reading this Psalm would be a good place to start. But then, you need to let the Lord be your shepherd.

Getting reassurance from this or that person won’t do. Accumulating more resources won’t do. Surrounding yourself with amusements won’t do. Being religious won’t do. It has to be the Lord. It has to be Christ doing what only he can do. And we need to understand that he is calling us to follow him.

If you have trusted Christ for forgiveness, Paul says, ‘If God did not spare his Son but freely gave him up for us all, how will he not also freely give us all things’ (Romans 8:31-39). We won’t lack anything needful. Everything will be working together for a good purpose—that we may be conformed to the image of his Son. Something good is happening—always! The Lord is our Shepherd!

I feel ‘sheepish’ saying these things because there’s nothing I can do to persuade you this is true. But then, I’m happy to be a ‘sheep’. And if you belong to God and he’s shepherding you, God will show you the truth of what Christ is and has done.

Putting all our hope in this won’t leave us disappointed. Again, it is Paul who tells us that the love of God will be poured out into our hearts (Romans 5:3-5). Finally, it’s love that makes us sure and steady.

Next time, I’d like to show what having God as your shepherd may look like, using the descriptions David uses in his song.

A Heart at Peace

David tells us he is wholly at rest because the Lord is looking after him. As a proverb tells us, ‘A heart at peace gives life to the body…’ (Proverbs 14:30). How will we find this restfulness that spreads through our whole being? David explains his confidence with pictures from his shepherd days.

Lying down in green pastures, for sheep, must mean they’ve eaten all they can and now it’s time to sleep—and still there’s plenty around to eat. It’s sounds idyllic. And being led alongside of restful waters sounds wonderful. Is David saying, ‘My life is a breeze. Trusting the Lord is like a perpetual holiday’?

This is hardly David’s experience. He is well acquainted with intrigue and war, disputes and family discontent. He’s also acquainted with public personal failure and facing God’s discipline. But he anticipates the future with quiet assurance of God’s leading and restoration—restoration of his soul—that is, deep and personal.

Clearly, it is not his circumstances or performance that secures him. Rather, it is the Lord being his Shepherd that makes the difference.

The world is making an industry out of offering tranquility, happiness and confidence, and the market is huge. It can become a means of controlling us. It’s important to go to the right place. So, what does David tell us?

A shepherd knows where to find good feed and leads his flock there. That’s what David knows the Lord has done for him. His food is what God says and what God has done for him. In one of his songs he tells us, ‘Lord, you have assigned me my portion…you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance’ (Psalm 16:5-6).

He’s basing his confidence on things God has already done for Israel—like leading them to ‘holy pasture’ (Exodus 15:11-13), and seeking a resting place for them (Numbers 10:33). He remembers the promises made to him (2 Samuel 7:10-16). He doesn’t know how this may work out but he knows the Lord is going to take him on paths where everything will be looked after.

And if his personal life is shattered and his mind in disarray and his prayers all over the place, he knows the Lord will restore his soul to its proper state again—at peace before his Maker.

The renewal and refreshment we sorely need can only come by the Lord speaking to us, telling us we are forgiven and that we belong to him, that he is involving us in his purposes and taking us to his goal.

Life makes many demands on us. We talk about being ‘dry’ or ‘worn out’. And the Lord comes to David and ‘restores his soul’. David is not just a body, or an ambition. Nor is he just an intellect that can be satisfied by pleasant ideas. He is a creature made in God’s image who only God can satisfy. David says this revelation, and the providences fulfilling these promises, restore his soul. He’s ‘up and running’ again.

Having real peace of mind has everything to do with hearing what God is saying to us. It can’t be guaranteed by happy circumstances. This world changes so quickly. God’s word is eternal, and sure. And this is what we really need.

This is how Jesus goes about being the good Shepherd (John 10:11). On one occasion he sees a large crowd and has compassion on them, ‘because they were like sheep without a shepherd’. So, he begins to teach them (Mark 6:34). After that, he does feed them—miraculously—but that is not the refreshment he has come to give. He tells the crowds to work for ‘food that endures for eternal life’ (John 6:27).

He also tells the crowd that the food he has to give them is his body (John 6:54-58). Until we know Jesus offers himself up for us, we will always be restless.

We may be looking in the wrong place for tranquility, or peace, or assurance, or confidence. We think we will be alright when certain things change, or people treat us differently or the government provides for us. David isn’t thinking of that. Neither is Jesus.

Shepherding, or looking after people involves a lot of things, but basic to it all is letting them know what God is saying to them. Jesus says Peter must ‘feed my lambs’, ‘take care of my sheep’ and ‘feed my sheep’ (John 20:15-19). He must tell the great things God has done in Jesus Christ.

And we need to do the same now. Everyone needs to hear Jesus say, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…your will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:28-30). What we really need is the Lord as our Shepherd.

All of us Christians need to bathe ourselves in God’s revelation—his Bible. There are treasures here to be known, received, enjoyed, shared and trusted. It works!

Many of us have spent weeks, or longer, waiting for some circumstance to change. And then, we hear God speak to us, and everything is changed. We are sure our life is being attended, cared for, given purpose and a future. And strangely, we are deeply contented. We begin to move forward with purpose and joy.

Soak yourself in the gospel that God has given us in Jesus Christ, and your soul will be refreshed. Only the truth of Jesus Christ is sufficient to restore your soul.

It matters who you listen to

None of us can live well without having a purpose. We find ourselves asking, ‘What am I good at?’ Or, ‘Why am I here?’ We are longing to be someone—to have a reason to live.

But here, it matters who you are listening to. Our culture says we should have a reason to live within ourselves. We just need to find it. We need to listen to ourselves. If we can just find our real self, and if everyone lets us be that, everything will be alright.

But the voice from within is never enough. We have evidence of that in the way we need affirmation or approval from friends, and from the community as a whole. Listening to our own inner voice is not making us more secure people.

There are many voices to listen to. And we are hard-wired to be listening to something or someone. We need a voice to tell us who we are and what we are here for.

Simply, God made us. And he talks to us. This is why we need something outside of ourselves. We were made to listen.

But there is another voice. In fact, there are many voices. None of us would have enough time to listen to all of them. But if they are not from God, they are coming from ‘below’. This is one way to describe the two kinds of voices that come to us.

Here is how I learned to tell the difference between a voice from above and a voice from below.

A voice from above, for starters, agrees with the teaching of Christ and his apostles—our Bible in other words. If it doesn’t do that, it must be coming from below.  This is a whole subject in itself, but I want to focus on what flows from this.

I know the difference between a voice from above and one from below because a word from below drags me down.  It condemns. A word from above gives hope—for me, regardless of what I think of myself, or what I have done.

There’s a reason for this. God isn’t limited to the processes of cause and effect. What I mean is the same as what we say about computers: ‘Rubbish in, rubbish out’. We know that systems can’t rise higher than the material we put into them. But God is outside his own creation. He is not limited to what we do.

God is good. We might say, ‘He can’t help himself!’ This is who he is. When we do bad things, he doesn’t spit it back at us with interest! In fact, he loves what he has made. He has decided to do us good anyway.

He has told us this in many ways. For a start, he hasn’t closed the solar system down because we pollute his creation. He doesn’t stop people having babies just because parents are selfish. There are lots of things like this to observe.

But the main way God has spoken to us is by giving his Son to us—to live among us. Even a casual reading of this Jesus story shows that he gave people hope. God was showing the way for our future—not a future that is the product of what we put into life but the result of his kindness.

He knows the reason why we feel bad about ourselves. He knows why we need constant affirmation from others. Simply put, we’ve tried to live without him. We’re not living truly—and it hurts. It’s called guilt.

No one can really deal with this unless it’s the person we’ve offended—God. And he does it by giving our burden to Jesus. This is what his death means. And God is entirely pleased with what Jesus has done. He’s entirely happy to announce that anyone who relies on him is forgiven. You can’t have a message like this unless there’s something outside the ‘system’—a loving God.

There’s a voice from below as well. It’s not just the accumulation of voices that don’t want to have God. It’s Satan or the devil. He hates what God is about. He is called ‘the god of this world’. He is the god you have when you don’t want the real one.

Now, here’s how I know one ‘voice’ from the other. When I ‘hear’ accusations, put-downs, nightmares of hopelessness, I know it’s coming from below. It’s not coming from God.

God’s voice tells me about his Son, about his resolve to give me something good that I don’t deserve. It teaches me to trust God. It gives me a future and a hope. It makes me change for the better.

There’s a lot more to say about this, but I hope you are persuaded that we can’t help but listen to voices besides our own. I hope you are persuaded that something needs to come to us from outside our own ‘closed system’. And I hope you are willing to listen to a Voice that gives you a hope you don’t deserve. Then, you may be able to see all sorts of possibilities for yourself!

Finding Love

There is a story of God’s love for the world that I would like to tell. But it is not easily told. Love requires that everything come out into the open, that everything be what it is. Love must come from the centre of a person and go to the centre of another person.

In many ways, we steel ourselves against the simple things, the true things, the lasting things, and have a preference for the immediate things, the complex things, the things that have to be done again or improved on because what we have is not real. We may show respect, loyalty, tolerance or give people what they want but still not have love. We may indulge a passion and still not have love.

Many things we do are helpful but not love, kind but still not love, useful or interesting or stimulating but not love. In particular, we try to stay in charge, but love involves giving ourselves away and this is risky.

There are obstacles to love flowing freely. Things have happened to us. We had to cope. We sought refuge behind talking, or listening, or making things, or doing things, or going places, or succeeding, or providing. But to do these things, we left something of ourselves behind—some unfinished business, something that couldn’t come out into the open. So, we moved forward—but not every part of us. There was a division, a severing of what was real from what we projected.

Cleverness may tell us what things are and how they work and if they can be changed. But only love can tell us who we are, and why.

God is love. This is our ‘problem’. God is love and he created us in an outpouring of himself. He is always our origin and goal, our centre, and, most significantly for us, the word by which to live. If he does not speak to us, we are effectively orphans—without a true home in this life or the next.

God himself is the love that makes us human. He does not have a ‘use by’ date, or go out of fashion, or wear out or become redundant. If we do not want to have God in our thinking, we live in death rather than life—we leave something of ourselves behind.

The pain of being a human being is very real. Those who do not feel it have decided that it is easier to live with the image they have become, or the dreams that may yet come true, or the best of what has now gone, or the imagining of what might have been.

But what is this pain? And why is it easier to move away from it than face it? Are we destined to be forever moving away from our centre rather than be moving out into life—wholly at rest with ourselves and our Creator—and giving to others from who we really are?

The story of God’s love begins with him creating us and giving us this world as our home. But it becomes clearest when Jesus Christ comes to share our history. When we say that God is love, it is his Son that we have in mind. We do not think of our pleasant or unpleasant experiences, or the ideas of God we have formed, or the prayers that have been answered, but very simply, of Christ.

To tell the story of God’s love is more than hard; it is miraculous. It must be told by Jesus Christ, in his own words and actions. And he can only tell it fully by laying down his life.

We must listen to Jesus Christ because God gave—and gives him to us. There is nothing greater that God could give. Life itself is a gift. To breathe and to know that God formed us is beyond telling. But he has given us his own Son—his very self really, because all of his love is focused on this Son. To give us his Son is to give us all he has.

What is remarkable is that the Son of God does not speak to the image we make for ourselves. He speaks to us. He knows our severed self and speaks God’s words. He speaks what his Father wants to say. What we hear comes from his fellowship with the Father. He speaks words that heal, so that we know our fractured life is not all there is. His words are not designed to shut us out.

Strangely, it is when he is crucified that we see ourselves more clearly than when we look at ourselves. Christ’s loving deed has encompassed us in our strange and mis-formed ways. He is there for us. But he is there, for us, in the presence of God—bearing God’s rejection of all that we have become. He is there before God, doing what he is doing for God. And he is received by God. We know this because God raises him from the dead to tell us that we are reconciled to him.

This Son is able to reveal God’s love to us. That is, he is able to say it, to be it, to convey it to us. He has never shut himself away from the love of his Father, has never needed to hide from what he is. He has received in full what his Father is and knows fully what his Father is about in the world. What he knows is that his Father is for us—though against what we have made of ourselves apart from him.

Now, we may come out of hiding. God has not only raised Jesus from the dead but recreated our broken humanity. He suffered for us in our brokenness so that we could join him in his wholeness—before his Father, God.

This is not just our new life but our true life. If we hear the word that God speaks through him, and trust him, we are children of God. We have been healed.

Through Christ now, we can change our view of everything. The place to find love is not by getting closer to ourselves or another person or our interests. Our own true self is here—in Christ, on the cross, and raised from the dead. This is the way of God for every human being—the way of love. From here, we know who we are, and we know that, like Christ, our life is for others.