In the 23rd Psalm, there is such a beautiful description of what God is like.
David, the shepherd boy who became the second king of Israel, wrote the words of the psalm. And, to him, one who was familiar with the character and responsibilities of a shepherd (because he was one) makes the statement, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Of course, David is speaking figuratively. God is not literally a shepherd. Rather, he is like a shepherd in the ways he deals with us who, obviously in this comparison, are like sheep.
In case you may not remember the psalm completely, it describes God as one who fulfills all our needs. He feeds us, protects us and comforts us. He leads us to quiet waters, restores our soul and defends us from our enemies. Even when we walk through death’s dark valley, God is there with us. With God in our life, we need not fear any evil. And this God who is the shepherd never leaves us.
As we find out in the final sentence of the psalm, God is always faithful to us: “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
I think it’s valuable to be reminded of what God is really like. There are so many varying views out there about God.
In a recent survey taken by Time magazine, four major trends were detected about people’s view of God.
— Thirty-one percent believe that God is an authoritarian God. In other words, he is often angry and punishes people for doing wrong.
— Very closely aligned with the above view, 16 percent believe that God is unhappy with the current situation in the world and will eventually exact judgment upon it.
— Twenty-four percent believe that God is a distant God. God is more like a cosmic force. God created the world and set the laws of nature in motion, but He does not now actively interact with it. If that were true, our prayers would have no effect.
— Fortunately, in that survey, there were some — 23 percent — who believe God to be benevolent. Of course, that is the view David puts forth. In fact, Jesus has the same perspective, and in one passage, John 10, he refers to himself as “the Good Shepherd.”
If you have experienced the loving kindness and tender mercies of God, you know that they describe Jesus perfectly. “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy burdened,” he says, “and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) This is the God who is approachable and welcoming. This is the God I believe in and who I recommend to you. He will never turn you away. Instead he says, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)
But there is one more way in which Jesus describes God. He also uses the word “Father,” (“Abba” in the original Greek). The word “Abba” speaks of a close, intimate relationship, the kind of relationship Jesus had with his Father in heaven. And he wants us to use that same word, and to have that same kind of relationship with God. So, when he teaches his disciples and us the Lord’s Prayer, he begins by saying, “This then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father (Abba), who art in heaven …”
I was reading just the other day of those agonizing moments that Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before he was arrested. It’s interesting that Jesus took his three closest disciples with him when he went off to a quiet place to pray. Obviously, he wanted their support. Unfortunately, they failed him by falling asleep. But “Abba” did not fail him. Mark’s Gospel is very specific in stating that Jesus addresses God as “Abba.”
Realize this was probably the most terrible experience of Jesus’ life up to that point. He was going to die and he knew it. And yet he was able to carry on, to go forward and meet his accusers and their false charges head on. That is not easy to do. But Jesus could do it because, in the words of New Testament commentator William Barclay, “If we can call God ‘Father,’ everything becomes bearable.”
If that is true for Jesus, it is also true for us. Even when things seem unbearable, our “Abba” will not fail or forsake us. The One who is faithful and caring like a shepherd can always be trusted.
— The Rev. John Koedyker is pastor of congregational care at First Reformed Church of Grand Haven.