Psalm 23: 1-3
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.[a]
3 He restores my soul.
In this blog, I comment on the 5th chapter of W. Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23.
Keller enhances our understanding of the 3rd line in Psalm 23, “He restores my soul,” by describing the perils of a cast sheep. As a shepherd of his flock, Keller learned that sheep would die if he did not find them quickly after rolling over on their back.
Keller says that as soon as he reached the ewe, he would tenderly roll the sheep over on its side. He would have to lift her unto her feet. Then straddling the sheep with his legs, he would hold her erect, rubbing her limbs to restore circulation. When the sheep started to walk again, she would often stumble and collapse in a heap.
Aren’t we like sheep, susceptible to being stuck in a cast position in desperate need of our shepherd to restore us to an upright position?
How do we get stuck on our backs in the first place? Keller explains two conditions that cause sheep to roll over on their back and draws some comparisons to how humans become cast.
1. The sheep lays down in a comfortable soft spot.
The softly rounded hollows in the ground are hazardous places for sheep to lie because they can easily roll over on their back.
Keller’s comparison with people is that when they deliberately choose the easy life with no hardship and play it safe, the results are often disappointment and bad decisions.
But I see something different in comparing sheep and humans in our search for a comfortable spot. I believe we decide to join a group, enter a marriage, build friendships, or take a job based on what we think is safe and trustworthy; however, sometimes, we eventually find ourselves in anything but a safe or healthy situation. We are stuck and need clarity and help to leave.
Like sheep, we see a hollow in the ground that feels right or comfortable, but it ends up being the opposite of cozy. It turns us upside down and gets us stuck.
I have lived most of my adult life giving myself wholly to a Christian organization that gave me my worldview and understanding of God, my friends, and my purpose. I chose to be nestled within this organization’s walls, thinking it was the safest place to stay “right” with God. Then in 2022, I looked honestly at my mental health and relationships and realized it was no longer a healthy place for me to be.
When I discovered my plight, I considered myself a lost sheep within the Church’s walls in need of my shepherd to leave the ninety-nine and come and find me. When I recognized I was on my back, flailing away, Jesus came looking for me and tenderly placed me on my feet. Not only did Jesus set me upright, but he also placed me in a new pasture with different sheep.
This new pasture I am in is redefining what it means to be a Christian, the purpose of the Church, and my identity in Christ. When I recently re-read my diaries (I am a diligent documenter of my life), I painfully realized that (especially in my 20s and 30s) I did not belong to myself or Jesus. I belonged to my leaders’ opinions of me and the agenda of the Church. Then I looked at the source of my self-esteem and identity in 2022, and the impact of years of being in a works-based, exclusive Christian group had taken its toll on me. I needed to leave.
Now I understand intellectually and at the heart level that my identity is received, not achieved. Christianity is not self-actualization. Also, no one owns me except Jesus; no one Christian Denomination has the corner on the truth. In addition, the church I left is not trauma-informed. They are not prepared to help Christians who are injured by their system (especially those who are long-term members).
Tim Keller, the American pastor who passed away recently, says Christianity is unique from all other religions because we do not perform to be accepted or become right with God. We are accepted and valued based on what Jesus did and who he is. I honestly did not understand what Keller spoke of until this past year.
Keller, the shepherd, describes the pressure he felt of keeping a count of his flock. If one was missing, most likely, it was cast somewhere. He compares this drama with the story in the Bible about the one missing sheep in a flock of ninety-nine in Matthew 18:2-14.
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my[e] Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
This verse warms my heart because I have experienced this kind of love and attention from God. However, I needed to admit I was cast before I could cry out to Jesus to help me change and look at life through a different lens.
2. The sheep has too much wool.
A sheep weighed down by their wool is more susceptible to becoming cast. The shepherd then must shear the sheep to remedy the situation. Shearing is unpleasant for the shepherd and the sheep, but it is necessary.
I love how Keller relates the heavy wool to our lives:
“There will come a day when the Master must take us in hand and apply a keen cutting edge of His Word to our lives. It may be unpleasant business for a time. No doubt we will struggle and kick about it. We may get a few cut and wounds. But what a relief when it is over. Oh the pleasure of getting free from ourselves! What a restoration!”
Keller’s descriptions make me think about how often we let our wool of pride, apathy, and bitterness grow. And when left unsheared, we find ourselves so weighed down that we roll over on our backs with our legs straight up in the air. However, we have a great shepherd in Jesus. If we acknowledge how wooly we are and submit ourselves to his love and solutions, he will be there, ready to shear us down to our skin.
It took a lot of soul searching, learning new ways of interpreting the Bible, and therapy for my heavy wool of misplaced identity and bitter regrets to be sheared by Jesus. Now I am free to see and believe what God has meant for me to be all along.
He restores my soul – I hope this line in Psalms 23 has come alive with the comparison of restoring your soul to a cast sheep reinstated to their standing position.
When I think about how much care, compassion, and energy Keller had for his flock, it gives me great comfort knowing the Bible records these words of Jesus:
I am the good Shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me. John 10:14.