Tag Archives: Knowing God

Psalm 23 Through the Lens of Trauma



Psalm 23 Through the Lens of Trauma

When I was little, I ran to Psalm 23 because in it, God promised to provide for me – The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

When I became a young mother, I ran to Psalm 23 because God promised to give me rest – He makes me lie down in green pastures.

In turbulent times and sleepless nights (whether from toddlers or teenagers), I ran to it because God promised still waters and a restored soul and assured me that I had no need to fear any evil even though I had to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

But last year, I saw something that I hadn’t seen before.  Last year I revisited Psalm 23 and looked at it through the lens of trauma.  I made a profound discovery and realized that all the things promised – the provision, the care, the stillness and the restoration, the feast set before me and the defense against evil – all of it happens in the valley of the shadow of death – the very place where trauma resides.

I’d always read “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” as if it said, “even when I walk…” as if the peace of the still waters and green pastures were in one place but the valley of the shadow of death was someplace else.  A place, in fact, to be gotten through as quickly as possible to get back to the green pastures and still waters.  But it doesn’t say that.  It says “though” – it could read, “even though I am walking through the valley of the shadow of death” – which can place the whole psalm in the valley.  The first three verses make sense this way, too – pastures are greenest and most abundant – most nutritious and life-sustaining –  not at the wind-blown mountain tops, but in the valleys.  

Still waters are not found on tops of mountains or even the sides of hills – but at the bottoms, in the valley.  Sheep can’t drink from turbulent waters, but they will drink their fill on still waters.  Without water they quickly die, and without enough of it, they have many ailments.  Water is essential for their survival, but plenty of water is essential for a sheep’s health and vitality.  Plenty can only be had in still waters.  The still waters are mainly in the valley.  

And a path is needed because the rocks and trees and debris from all the washing down from the high places settle in the valleys.  The valleys can be treacherous, and they can provide lots of places for snakes and coyotes and leg-breaking-crevices to lurk.  The shepherd must lead the way through the valley.  The deepest shadows, toughest obstacles, and craftiest adversaries are there Open pastures that are smooth or rolling don’t have paths – they aren’t necessary.  It’s easy to see where you’re going.  The path of righteousness that he leads us on goes through the valley.

It is in the valley that he provides for us, gives us rest, restores our souls.  Think about how profound that really is.  In the darkest times – when the stench of death is overshadowing us – his rod and staff – tools of guidance and correction – comfort us.  But again – where would a rod of defense be more needed than in the valley?  And where else would we be more prone to go the wrong way and need to be brought back to the safety of the path that is for our good, but in the difficult terrain of the valley?

 The place to hide from enemies is up in the hills – in the nooks and crannies of rocks and outcroppings.  But he is spreading a feast out for us in a breathtakingly shocking way by doing it in the presence of our enemies!  Right out in the open – in the vulnerable place of the valley where we’re easy targets! – he sets up a grand feast.  Who could relax enough to eat a meal in the presence of someone trying to destroy you except that you’re utterly confident of being perfectly protected?  It’s as if he’s showing us off to the whole army of enemies saying, “See these sheep – they’re mine, and you can’t have them.”  Even in presence of enemies in the valley, we can rest in his care.

This Good Shepherd lavishes on soothing, cleansing oil – he knows how hard the valley is for us – and welcomes us as guests he is pleased to have with him at this feast.  He provides more than we can possibly consume – he his neither stingy nor begrudging.  Those kindnesses are most precious to us when we walk through the valley.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.  Stubborn grace will hound me, chase after me, pursue me.  All the days of my life – all the days – not only when things appear good and full of mercy, but also in the valley.

And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.  This is what good shepherd’s do – they get their sheep home.  They might feed them and water them and protect and guide them out in the pastures, beside the still waters, and through the paths in the valley, but the goal is to bring them home.  

I think I’ve missed the strength of this Psalm all these years.  This is not a Psalm that talks about the highs of peace and provision and then also the lows of threats and fearsome hardships.  It’s about abundant peace and protection in very the presence of threats and fearsome hardships.

It’s not that God is not in the peaceful times of ease and comfort.  He is.  But it seems to me that the real power expressed here lies in the truth that all these things are true for us in the valley, too.  None of the pleasantness of peace, or abundance of his provision, or his rock solid protection can be diminished by walking through the valley of the shadow of death, for we walk through it with him there beside us.  Through trauma we may realize more fully how treacherous the valley is and the unspeakable evil the enemy uses to try to destroy us.  But when we learn to see who this Good Shepherd really is, and how capable he is to protect and provide for us, we can rest in his mercy and care and follow him – joyfully – all the way home, even though we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.


Fight for joy…


Jim Winn winter painting image

James Winn (acrylic on paper)

Fight for joy…

I’ve referenced the above painting before by my friend James Winn  – it’s one of my favorite possessions.   While the bleak mid-western Winter imperceptibly creeps slowly, oh so slowly toward Spring, it takes a lot of faith to believe that things will ever look differently than they do in this painting.  Winter is long and hard – brutal at times – on the plains.

Intellectually we know that Spring will come – it always does.  But there are days, cold, dark days, when it is difficult to believe it.

I don’t live on the Plains anymore.  In comparatively balmy Delaware, Winter just isn’t that bad.  But the painting continues to lift my thoughts to higher things.

Some days – weather aside – that long-endured battle to be warm grips my soul.  The grass might be green, the humidity and temperatures high, and flip-flops the norm, but lurking in the corners of my mind are the dark days of endless, frigid, face-numbing cold and the struggle against it.

As I struggle to replace that feeling of dread with truth I am reminded how easy it is to believe a lie.

It’s all too easy to believe my emotions and dread the coming months, believing they will be filled with hardship and struggle – simply because that’s how they have been for so long.

My fear of what might be, based on what has been, wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Faith is the same way.  Sometimes what I have lived wants to dictate what I believe.  Experience tells us to look at a certain set of circumstances and presume the outcome:

“This will always be this way…”

“She’ll always do these things…”

“He’ll never change…”

“This is what I can look forward to…”

But faith says,

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow has enough care for itself.”

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for a future and a hope…’”

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”

I’ve been kicking around the phrase “The Joy of the Lord is my strength” and have been wondering, “What does that mean – really?”   What does the Joy of the Lord look like?  Is it the happy “season’s greetings” kind of “joy” that tv, or hallmark, or Hollywood puts forth?  Is it supposed to be that 30- or 60-minute contrived, happy-ending kind of gladness, that is somehow meant to mysteriously last longer… if you just get a few things right?  I don’t know anyone who really lives like that – do you?

As is often the case for me, turning the phrase around a little bit has helped me to think about joy from a different angle.  Rather than a church-y cliché that people sometimes use to mask the struggles they are really having, the Lord’s Joy is something altogether deeper and more meaningful.

The Lord’s Joy is my strength.

Think about that.  The Lord’s joy – not mine, or yours – is given to us.  Far from the “find it inside yourself” kind of joy that we try to manufacture, the joy of the Lord isn’t something we come up with at all!

The perfect, full, rich, abundant, and over-flowing joy that the Lord possesses has been given to us.  How much joy does God possess?  Infinite amounts.  What kind of joy does God have?  The very best of perfectly complete joy – and nothing less.  What is he joyful about?  In a word, Christ.  And, inconceivably, that includes you and me.  We are his and he delights in us.  All of creation has been racing toward one fantastic fulfillment – redemption!  That is you and me living for eternity in sweet, joy-filled fellowship with the Father because of the Son.   That is the great news!  We get to be there.  FOREVER.  If that doesn’t fill you will the Lord’s Joy, what can?

What is meant by joy strengthening us?  If all this joy is ours, why do we need to be strengthened at all?

Because sometimes, often times, My fear of what might be based on what has been wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Life can be unimaginably hard.  We have trials.  We have pain.  We have searing disappointments and heartaches.  These things can threaten to undo us.  They can cause us to want to give up.  They can cause us to question the goodness of God and the purpose of his will.  They can gnaw at our confidence in Christ’s work on our behalf and they can attempt to grind our faith into dust.

The Lord’s Joy is our strength.  It’s there.  It’s already been freely given.  But sometimes it is so buried under our circumstances that we have to fight to hold onto it the way Jacob clung to God in the wilderness and would not let him go until God blessed him.

Sometimes we have to fight for the joy that already belongs to us.  The world may look a bit like that painting above – bleak and cold and dark.  But that is not the whole story.  Strength is growing under those furrows.  Perseverance and character and hope are being produced there.  Hope for the things that we know but remain as yet, unseen.

And just as winter always yields to spring and reveals what has been covered under cold and dark layers, the seen will yield to the unseen and we will see what we already know to be true: that every hardship, every tear, every lament has a purpose for good.  Nothing is aimless, nothing is a waste.  It is all making us fit in ways we can’t imagine, so that through them we will be made like the One we love.  Perfect.  Righteous.  Pure.  And most of all, ready.   Jesus is gathering his people to himself and preparing us to live forever with him in beautiful, wonderful, perfect joy.

In the meantime, fight for joy.  It is already yours.

When we focus on the problem rather than the promise…



I read again this morning the account of Joshua and Caleb and the other 10 guys.  You know, the 12 who were sent into Canaan to spy out the land… that God has promised to give to them.


After reading I asked my husband, “Would you have been a Joshua or Caleb, or would you have been one of the other guys?”  I know we can never really know what we would do in someone else’s circumstances, but it is good to play “what if…” now and then.


We’ve been talking about “risk” lately – when it’s right to take risks and when it isn’t.  And as I heard the story of the 12 spies again this morning a connection was made:  we are not willing to risk when we ought to be eager to do so when we are focusing on the problem in front of us rather than the promises given to us – or more precisely, Promise-Maker who has given them.


Example 1:  The Israelites had just left their 400-year slavery in Egypt.  They walked right out from under Pharoh’s nose because God made it possible.  But they encountered a road-block – the Red Sea stretched out before them, and Pharoh’s army was not in hot pursuit to get their slaves back.


Admittedly, this was a big problem.  But they had just witnessed their deliverance from the 10 Plagues – including the Angel of Death!!!  They had seen the pillar of cloud that day and the pillar of fire last night that had protected and guided them!  Had they forgotten already?   I mean, we’re talking hours at most here.  Were their memories really that short?  I don’t think so.  But their faith was really that small.  Moses saw the problem for what it was, too, but focused on his great God, who had already proven Himself to be a Great Promise-keeper, instead.


Example 2:  The Israelite army was at a stand-still, being held hostage by the taunts and derision of a surly, stupid, bragadocious bully (named Goliath).  He was an oaf, but a huge one, and apparently big enough to send a whole army of God’s men to the other side of the valley to quake in their boots.


So, OK, Goliath set the terms for a potentially bad deal.  But the Philistines had invaded Israel’s land that God Himself had given to them.  Every single Jewish boy or girl grew up from infancy knowing that God had given them this land as an inheritance.  It didn’t get lost in history but was central to their identity as a people!  Saul’s army of capable, trained warriors knew it, too.  But they were focusing on the problem of Goliath.  Youthful David, (aka shepherd boy who had just been named King) saw the problem, too, but focused on the Great God who was also the Promiser of the Land (and ultimately their securety) instead.


Example 3:  Jesus had begun his ministry and had gathered his 12 specially chosen, closest disciples.  The word had gotten out about Jesus and he was attracting multitudes of men, women, and children who wanted to hear for themselves what great things this teacher was saying.  They had gone out to the countryside and the spent the entire day traveling and then listening to Jesus’ every word.  When the day was waning Jesus told his 12, very special, hand-selected, closest followers to feed these hungry people on whom he had compassion.  Their reaction?  They looked at their relatively empty hands, then at each other, then at Jesus and said, “Umm…With what?!?”


OK – there was a lot of people – 5,000 men, plus women and children.  And OK – they didn’t have much to work with – five loaves of bread and two fish.  The problem wasn’t the situation – the problem was that the disciples were focused on the PROBLEM and not the Promiser.


So we’re clear here, these guys – these 12 close students of Jesus who followed him everywhere he went – had just seen and heard Jesus do amazing things.  They had just heard him preach the Sermon on the Mount, they had just seen him heal a woman with a long-standing bleeding disorder that no one else could fix.  They had just seen him deliver a man from a demon, heal the Centurion’s soldier without even touching him, raise a little girl from the dead, and oh yeah, calm the storm that the seasoned, hardened fishermen thought they were going to die in.  We’re talking just seen and heard these things!!!  


Jesus, however, knew well the Father he served and knew that He would supply all their needs.


It seems, folks, that we might want to pay attention to the typical, human responses here.  We are prone to doubt.  We are prone to lose sight and forget.  We are prone to focusing on the problems rather than the promises.


We don’t do ourselves any favors by reading these accounts and thinking that we’d be the first to line up to take the land, watch for the sea to part, fight the giant, or figure out how to feed the crowd.  We probably would be with the group that said, “We’d be better off dead than in this predicament!”  But if you’re at all like me your heart leaps at the prospect of being with Joshua and Caleb, David, and Jesus instead!


The key in all of these accounts is to KNOW THE GOD WE SERVE.


We do not have to fear natural or man-made disasters when we know the One who holds every molecule in his hands.


We do not have to fear those who can hurt – or even kill – us when we know the One who has already numbered our days before one of them ever came to be.


We do not have to fear the challenges that we face that seem impossible when we know the One who shall supply all our needs – and give us abundantly more than we could ask for or imagine according to his riches in glory because He loves us and takes care of us.


How do we know God?  It’s really, really, really simple:  read his love letter to you.  Open up the pages of Romans and John and Isaiah and Genesis and all of it and soak it up as your personal love letter to you from your Dad.  Then, read it again because there are layers and layers and layers of love and goodness there that you can never fully plumb the depths of.  And share it with someone who really needs to know God, too.
*You can read the fuller stories of the examples above in Numbers 13-14; Exodus 14; 1 Samuel 17; and Luke 9.  But I would encourage you to also read the surrounding chapters (and books!).