Thursday, March 25, 2010

I Shall Not Want

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...The words of David's 23rd Psalm eloquently describe the true contentment that can be had while basking in the Shepherd's care. Some believe this psalm to be a promise that the child of God will never experience a lack or unfulfilled need. Is this what David meant to express?

A quick perusal of most biblical characters reveals this to be a questionable interpretation. Many of those close to God's heart experienced times of want, suffering, or even lost their lives in their efforts to live for Him. Surely, if people like David, a man after God's own heart, or the prophets, chosen by God to communicate His message to the people, and even the Lord Himself, all lived lives involving suffering, we cannot expect to be shielded from the same.

Nineteenth century missionary Allen Gardiner is an example of one who dedicated his life to Christ and yet suffered. Gardiner, a former naval officer and devout Christian, felt God calling him to go to the Yagan Indians, a previously unreached people group in southern Argentina. He and six others made an arduous journey by boat to Yagan territory.

Their first contact was less than encouraging. The Yagans attacked the missionaries for their supplies. As the men could not resort to combat to protect their provisions (they were, after all, on an evangelistic mission), the group re-loaded their small boats and retreated to desolate Tierra Del Fuego, where they were forced to shelter for the winter.

Winters in Tierra Del Fuego's sub-polar climate are harsh, and the men's provisions proved gravely inadequate. One by one, every man in Gardiner's group died of sickness, starvation, and cold. They never got the chance to share the gospel with even a single Yagan Indian.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want... Obviously dying of starvation would not qualify as having every physical need met. What then did David mean? An answer can be seen in the journal entry of one of Gardiner's party.

Dr. Richard Williams, the physician of the team, wrote of his last days as he awaited death: "Let all my beloved ones at home rest assured that I was happy beyond all expression . . . and would not have changed situations with any man living . . . that heaven, and love, and Christ...were in my heart."

What could induce such a sense of peace and contentment amid such suffering? Williams understood he was in the arms of the Good Shepherd, a master who loves his flock: "He tends his flocks like a shepherd; He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart" (Is 40:11). Williams' focus was trained on the provider, not the provisions.

Certainly provision for our physical needs comes from God alone. "Every good and perfect gift is from above," James wrote. Our Shepherd knows our needs. But He wants us to let Him worry about them. "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well," Jesus instructed His disciples. Our gaze needs to be trained not on the things we need, but on the Shepherd.

Paul considered "every thing a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things." (Philippians 3:8) Later in his letter to the Philippians, Paul told them "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength."

When we focus our gaze on the Lord and not the need, He supplies what we need to be content in any circumstance. Isaiah wrote, "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint." (Isaiah 40:31) Did you catch the caveat? Our hope must be in the Lord. Only then will we find strength to endure whatever challenging circumstances are before us.

While our physical and material circumstances may fluctuate, we can rest our confidence in the goodness and perfect character of our Shepherd. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we can do so without fear, because we know our Shepherd carries us close to His heart. Our hope is in the Lord. When we bask in His care as David did, we understand that while our physical needs may not always be met to our satisfaction, we can be satisfied. The secret is in where we choose to focus.

I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:10-11

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