Notes to growing Christians
In a month when many of us will have some holiday time, I have been thinking about the benefits of rest and refreshment.
Four words in one of the most famous chapters of the Old Testament, Psalm 23.3 reads: ‘He restores my soul’ and it is a wonderful summary of what we should pray for ourselves and for one another as the outcome of our summer breaks. Here are blessings which are constant and long-lasting even if the current monsoon rains were to extend throughout the holiday season!
God’s goodness and mercy
‘He’ is, of course, the LORD, the shepherd king who guides and governs his flock. Using the covenant name of God, Yahweh, or in its old transliteration, Jehovah, David draws our attention to the utterly dependable, totally faithful, sovereign care of the Lord for every cherished member of his flock. He is committed to our ultimate well-being, so that every day of our lives in this world is an experience of his goodness and mercy (v.6a), always available and always overflowing. He could not love us more than he does and he will never love us less, so that our confidence for both this world and the next is rooted in the certainty of his constant presence and his wonderful provision… ‘I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever’ (v.6b).
The verb’s performance depends on its subject. Because he is this sort of God, he can do what our sentence majors on — ‘restore’. If you recall the psalm, these words form a bridge between how this restoration comes and then what it leads on to. Following the image of the shepherd and the sheep, the restoration is spoken about in terms of ‘green pastures’ and ‘still waters’ (v.2). As God’s people, we ‘shall not want’. He gives us everything that we really need, whatever is good in itself and whatever is best for us in our present circumstances. Green pastures are fresh and tender; still waters are unthreatening and readily drinkable. This is how the shepherd exercises his authority (‘he makes me lie down… he leads me’). All his concern is for the flock that they may be refreshed and renewed in every way, so that he can lead them on ‘in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake’ (v.3b), demonstrating the faithfulness of his character and the dependability of his care.
What is true for the sheep physically is true for us spiritually. It is my ‘soul’ that he restores. That’s a Bible word for my true self, the real me, the heart of my being. So there is no area of my human experience which my shepherd is not committed to refreshing, whether it is my intellect, my emotions, my feelings, my physicality. Deep within, where I make my decisions, where I treasure my affections, where the true well-springs of every part of my life are hidden — this is where the shepherd’s restoring goodness and mercy are to be rediscovered and freshly experienced.
Alignment of heart and will
But look at the verb again — ‘restores’ — because it has a wider range of interpretation. Spiritually, it can mean to gather back, to recover the sheep that has gone astray, and so to restore the wanderer back to its proper position of safety and security within God’s flock and fold. This restoration involves a turning-around and a re-submission to the care of the good shepherd, which is the essence of what we mean by repentance. Indeed, when David tells us in Psalm 19.7 that the perfect law of the LORD revives the soul (same verb), he is teaching us that refreshment and restoration of the soul depend on an alignment of our hearts and wills with God’s will, as it is revealed in his word. The two ideas inter-connect. Real refreshment and renewal in body and mind stem from revival of the spirit. All the blessings of this life are pointers towards the greater spiritual blessings of the eternal kingdom, which transcend the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ (v.4) and bring us to the heavenly banquet (v.5).
It’s a great discipleship prayer for the holiday season. ‘Lord, my shepherd, restore my soul.’ As I have a few precious days to step off the carousel of my every day pressures, give me the physical rest and mental renewal which I need. But, above all, Lord, win my heart back from any tendency it has to wandering. Refresh me in the depths of my inner being. Deepen my discipleship. Help me to enjoy all your provision, all your gifts and benefits; but, above all, come to me yourself in all your refreshing, life-giving love and power, to shape me more and more into the person Jesus died to make me, so that when the holiday breaks are over I come back to the life of everyday with my energies renewed because my soul has been restored.
David Jackman is the past President of the Proclamation Trust.