The 23rd psalm contains some of the most cherished and oft-quoted verses in all of scripture. Often used at funerals, it is loved for its comfort and consolation. I think, though, that sometimes we concentrate so much on its comfort features we lose sight of the challenge inherent in these words. At its heart, the psalm is about letting go of all means of security besides God. "There is nothing I shall want." Really?
I look at my bank account, my home, and my physical possessions. While I like to believe I am not overly attached to them, when I dig deeper I realize that money is a means of security for me. When my life is such that I am confident I can pay the bills and the mortgage, save a little, and maybe even have some left over for special things, I feel secure. When situations in my life have not allowed for that kind of confidence, I feel scared and anxious. Nothing I shall want? Wait a minute, God – you meant nothing except a home, food, clothes, education, a decent car, and more, didn’t you? Yet all those things could disappear overnight through means that are beyond my control. How much of my security do I place in these "things"?
I look at my husband of 26 years. We love each other deeply, and our love is a huge source of security for me. I take risks more readily knowing I come home to unconditional love. I make decisions more confidently after I run them by my trusted mirror. I can’t imagine my life without him in it. Nothing I shall want? Wait a minute, God – you meant except my husband, right? Yet I know he could die at any moment without warning. How much of my security do I place in this one person?
I look at my body of work – the teaching, writing, preaching, and healing I have done, and I realize my reputation and talents are a source of security for me. When I receive feedback that tells me how profoundly I have helped people or changed their lives, I feel gratified and humbled, but secure. Nothing I shall want? Wait a minute, God – you meant nothing except the ability and opportunity to be productive in meaningful ways, didn’t you? Yet I could become unable to work, teach, and accomplish at any time. How much of my security do I place in achievements and recognition?
If I lose everything – all my possessions and savings, the people I love, my productive abilities – I would indeed walk in the valley of the shadow. Would I have no fear? Would I rest secure knowing that God is by my side with rod and staff to give me strength? Is that truly all I want?
The truth is that I have placed a great deal of my security in things and people that could be gone tomorrow. If all that is transient is removed from my life, what is left to me? Only God – the One I can never lose, the eternal presence and source of all that exists. Can I place my security in that? Can I trust that no matter what happens, I will be OK because God is with me? I’m trying to get there, and some days I’m better at it than others.
Yes, this psalm carries comfort, but it is much harder to embrace than it appears at first glance. May the challenge of this psalm be ever before me as I struggle to place my deepest security where it belongs – in God.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.amyflorian.com/.