A little while ago I received an email that, at heart, asked a straightforward question: Can a Christian starve to death? It’s a straightforward question but introduces a fair bit of difficulty. There are many places where the Bible states that the Lord will provide what we need or where Jesus himself says not to worry about our basic needs because the Lord will take care of us. And yet the reality is that Christians do at times starve to death and Christians do come to all manner of ignoble ends.
I was thinking about this in relation to Psalm 23 where we see some of this tension. There almost seems to be a bit of a contradiction in this psalm. We have David saying that because the Lord is his shepherd, “I shall not want.” “I shall not want” is a way of saying, “I will lack nothing,” which is to say, “I will have everything I need.” Not some things and not most things. Everything.
Most of you who read this site are, like me, affluent people living in first-world nations where we have everything we need and so much more than that. There are few reading this who are in real danger of being literally homeless or of starving to death. But this psalm is not only for us. It is for Christians of all times and all places. It was for David when he was hiding in a cave being hunted by his enemies. Can we all really say, “I shall not want?”
I guess that depends on what we mean. There are things that we think we need that the Lord determines we do not need. What does it mean, then, that we will lack nothing that we need? It means that the Christian shall not want for anything that God determines is best for him at that time and in that circumstance. We think we know what we need, but God knows better. In whatever circumstances we are going through, we can have confidence that God is providing exactly what he has determined that we need.
After being assured that God will grant everything we need, we are told “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Paths of righteousness are simply the right paths, the ones he means for us to take, the best ones to accomplish his good purposes.
Then it’s interesting that only one verse later we read about the valley of the shadow of death. Verse 4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
We’ve gone from God saying “You will lack nothing” to God saying “I am leading you” to now seeing the sheep walking through the deepest, darkest, most dangerous valley. It seems like there is a conflict here. How did the sheep end up here if they have such a good shepherd? Why would a good shepherd lead his sheep into a dark and dangerous valley?
There is only one answer I can think of, one answer that makes sense: The shepherd is leading his sheep through the dark valley because the sheep need to get to some place better than the place they have been. There’s no reason to go through a dark valley unless there is something better on the other side of it. You don’t leave green fields and go through a dark and dangerous valley so your sheep can pick over dried up tufts of grass and waste and whither away. You lead through the valley to take them to something beautiful beyond. It’s not the valley we need to look at, but the destination beyond it.
That destination may be death, or that destination may be greater holiness. But whatever it is, that destination is not nothing, it is not meaningless. What this tells me is that any suffering we experience in this life is in some way under the sovereignty of God, in some way under the banner of “I shall not want.” God gives his people exactly what they need in order to lead them where he has determined they ought to go. Where they ought to go–where they will go–is the place that will bring glory to God.