“Surely you can’t be serious, doctor.” “I’m very serious. And stop calling me Shirley.”
Classic comedy makes use of the English word, surely, but the word has a very serious and powerful meaning. It means that whatever follows is for sure, certain, true, positive, undeniable, and guaranteed. In Psalm 23, David, the shepherd-king, is building to a triumphant conclusion. “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” This is not wishful thinking or a faint hope. It is certain and expected that he will see goodness and mercy for the rest of his days. Are you living in that mind-set? Do you expect to see goodness and mercy every day? Do I?
And David is very particular about his words. Goodness and Mercy WILL follow Him, because He is constantly surrounded by his Good Shepherd, who embodies goodness and mercy. David did not say that health, wealth, comfort, popularity, power, or worldly success would follow him. He did not say that happiness, confidence, self-esteem, or even peace of mind would be his constant companions. But goodness and mercy will never be absent if we are in the presence of God. Because they are part of God’s character, they cannot be absent where He is present.
More than that, the word for “follow” here means that goodness and mercy are not just “tagging along” like an annoying younger sibling, or following at a polite distance. They are chasing after, in pursuit, even stalking us! God will chase after us, track us down, and surround us with His goodness! He will lavish His mercy on us– no matter how far we try to run and hide from it.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies..” (Psalm 23:5a)
I don’t like confrontation. I don’t like dealing with opposition. I don’t like having enemies. However, God’s word is very clear– I can’t avoid them or deny their existence. No matter how hard I try to make peace or stay on good terms with others, there will always be some who disagree, who dislike me, who stand against me.
So it should not come as a great surprise that God, the Good Shepherd, promises that He will prepare a table before me in the very presence of those enemies. He does not expect me to stay hidden; He does not give His blessings in secret. Instead, He allows my enemies to see that I am never alone or abandoned to their power. He showers me with blessing, meets my every need, binds my wounds and comforts my sorrows right before their eyes. They may have limited access to hurt me or frighten me, but God will bring His justice– and they will be made to see it. (see Psalm 37 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+37&version=HCSB)
But more than that, God invites some of those very enemies to see His peace and blessing. God’s desire is that we would all share in the wedding feast of the Lamb; that the table He sets before us would be a chance to turn enemies into brothers and sisters. And He gives us the opportunity, through His blessings, to extend that invitation of Grace and inclusion–to Love our Enemies!
Not all will accept this invitation– some will choose to watch in resentment, rebellion, and pride as we enjoy communion with our Shepherd; but they will be unable to disturb or destroy the joy and refreshment He brings. And not all “enemies” are the people who oppose us. God blesses us in the presence of those enemies who oppose Him. They may seek to hurt us, and turn us away from our Shepherd. But He will never turn from us. Even when we turn away, or doubt His presence or His purpose– even in the presence of our enemies–God is with us.
In troubled times like these, that is especially comforting to know. Chaos, disease, doubt, fear, guilt, and in the “valley of the shadow of death:” our enemies may be present and looming, but God is laying out a table, preparing to anoint our heads with oil, and showing us with Goodness and Mercy, Justice and Righteousness– all in their presence. And they are powerless to stop Him!
3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge;6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness;7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If you ask most people what they need, you will not hear the items listed in this passage of scripture. Most people view needs in very personal and concrete terms– food, water, shelter, safety, air…we need these to exist during our life on earth. God cares about our physical and most basic needs. But most people have other “needs” that they try to meet with what the Apostle Peter refers to here as “evil desires”. We “need” to feel loved– but we end up in unhealthy relationships, or fleeting relationships that don’t meet our need. We “need” to feel secure and worthwhile– but we end up feeling fearful and ashamed. We “need” to achieve; to find fulfillment and worth in our actions, words, relationships, and legacy–but, too often, our efforts lead us to compromise the very dreams and ambitions we started with, leading us to mediocrity or even disaster.
Jesus, through His divine power, has given us everything we need–everything! His death and resurrection provided the way for us to find true forgiveness and new life. We won’t find it in any of the things we think we “need”– a new job, or a new relationship; a new car or a new cause.
Over the years, I have returned to this passage many times. There is a lot to unpack in just a few verses. One of the things that always “gets” me about this passage is that I want to just leap from Faith to Love without the steps in-between. The world needs love– I need love– and I want to spread love, reflect love, and be known for loving others. God is Love, and showed His love through Christ– I believe in God and trust Christ. Voila!– He has given me everything I need, so I should be loving. But Peter writes what he knows very well. Following Jesus, learning from Him, growing to be more like Him–it begins with Faith, but it grows through discipleship. I “loved” people before I had Faith in Christ. I may “feel” love for others, but if my thoughts and actions are not being transformed by His Spirit; or if I continue to act out of habit or selfish impulse, my “love” will be corrupted and compromised by the world. It will be “my” love and not God’s love working through me. For that to happen, I need to add goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance and all the rest.
And adding these virtues requires that I humble myself to admit that I am not “good”, that I don’t already “know” everything…that I “need” to depend on God for any goodness, wisdom, discipline, strength to persevere, etc.
God is Good– He has already made provision for me to have everything I really need. He will guide me every step of the way; giving me all that I need when and how I need it most. I don’t “need” to worry or run myself ragged trying to earn God’s approval or favor. But I do “need” to trust that God will continue to work in me and through me for His Glory. And I need to come daily before His throne to listen and learn from Him, and reach out daily to go through the steps of turning Faith into Love in action.
Several years ago, singer and songwriter Billy Joel created some controversy with a song he wrote, called “Only the Good Die Young.” The song was about a young man trying to convince a young catholic girl to give up her virginity. Many were offended by some of the lyrics, and by the general tone of the song, which was sacrilegious; sneering at the notion of sexual purity and waiting for marriage. One of the lines in the song says, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints..The sinners are much more fun.”
It may seem that way to many– Christians (along with many Jews, Muslims, and others who are sincere and spiritually-minded) seem stern and sober in comparison to free-living, fun-loving heathens. Why should this be so? Shouldn’t those who are closer to God experience more Joy and happiness than those who do not know Him? Why are saints and prophets so often shown crying, wailing, and weeping bitter tears?
The author of Ecclesiastes (assumed to be King Solomon) writes:
Ecclesiastes 7:1-6 (Revised Standard Version)
7 A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death, than the day of birth. 2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad. 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. 5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. 6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.
This doesn’t mean that God wants His people to be depressed, hopeless, and constantly weeping. But God DOES want us to be aware and to see the world as it really is– fallen, chaotic, filled with needless suffering and injustice. Why? Because He calls us to think about the consequences of our actions, and also to have compassion for those who are hurting. It may be more “fun” to ignore the consequences of sin and to “live it up” if you are young and healthy, but it is not at all true that “only the good die young.” Death comes unexpectedly and randomly– taking both good and evil, both wise and foolish. The difference is that fools get cut off and caught off-guard. The consequences of their actions find them unprepared and filled with regret or bitterness and pain– all of which might have been prevented if they had not ignored reality.
I think the song DOES have a message to Christians–while we shouldn’t be fools chasing after fleeting pleasures that leave a large wake of pain and regret and filling our lives with empty laughter, we should not “die young” in the way of the Pharisees of old. Jesus called them “white-washed tombs” for good reason. Their “goodness” came from self-righteousness and piety. They shunned sinners, and chased others away with their long lists of rules and disdain for anyone who didn’t keep up appearances. Such “saints” never cry– they are more likely to crow about their own “goodness” with dry eyes and closed fists. Jesus attended feasts and parties with the sinners– but his heart was not for the “fun” they were having. It was for them– for their lost souls. Jesus wept! Jesus wept for the loss of his friend Lazarus; he wept over Jerusalem; he even wept tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane!
The “Good” have many reasons to cry– millions of innocents suffer needlessly every day–abuse, slavery, genocide, abortion, bigotry, war, starvation, murder, theft, addiction, homelessness, disease, natural disasters, man-made disasters, and more fill our world. People waste time angrily shaking their fists at Heaven or at governments, but so much of the suffering is a direct result of sinful actions on the parts of individuals. In my own country, in my own lifetime, over 50,000,000 babies have been aborted–without legal consequence, but with a terrible consequence on the soul of our nation. If we could shed one tear for each life lost it would equal over 660 gallons of water (here’s how I got that number )– just one tear for each life, and those are only the abortions that have been recorded in the past 45 years in the U.S. If we were to shed a tear for every broken marriage, every rape, every life lost to addiction, suicide, murder, or war, every violent assault, every broken promise, every lie, or every corrupt deed in our world over the past 50 years, we could fill an ocean! The power of tears, or of any running/falling water is so great, it could generate electricity to light the nations! ( Here’s an interesting article on the power of a drop of water!)
I would far rather “cry with the saints.” But more than that, I would rather pray with the saints, and arise from both to work with the saints–the power of tears pales in comparison with the power of God’s mercy and grace!
2 Peter 1:3-9New International Version (NIV) (Biblegateway.com)
3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge;6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness;7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind,forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.
There are a great number of Christians who face discouragement and frustration in their daily life. Sometimes, this is because they are busy looking at their circumstances and feeling overwhelmed by them. But sometimes, there is a general discontent; a malaise of lukewarm commitment and lackluster results that can cause once fruitful Christians to wander away from the faith and even disparage their former churches. “I wasn’t being ‘fed'”… “It just wasn’t working for me”…”I got tired of the persecution (not genuine persecution, but the feeling of being mocked and unpopular at parties and reunions)”…”the church just isn’t relevant anymore.” These are a few of the excuses I have heard from people who were once joyful and eager to share their faith. I don’t doubt that they experienced Salvation– but they are missing out on sanctification– they have done little to build on the solid rock. They blame the church, their pastor, other Christians, even God for their lack of spiritual growth.
Yet, in this passage, the Apostle Peter tells us that Christ has given us EVERYTHING we need to live a godly life– not the church, not other Christians, not the experience we get from a worship service– all we need has been given to us through Christ; his death and resurrection; his promises and his example of holy living.
But, like any gift, it must be used to be effective. A lamp may look good sitting on a table, but if it isn’t plugged in and turned on (or filled with oil and lit), it does little more than gather dust. Similarly, if I don’t maintain tools or appliances, I can’t expect them to continue to be useful– they will get corroded, filthy, worn, and broken.
Peter urges us to USE the gifts we have been given. This is not a call to base our salvation on works, or to make a checklist of “good things” to make us a “better” person. Rather, it is a blue print of building on the gifts we have to become more productive, more secure, more established in our Christian walk– to become the mature people God means for us to be. When we don’t follow this blueprint, Peter warns, something awful happens. We become nearsighted–we narrow our focus on our own experience and our own resources, rather than utilizing the wonderful gifts God has made available to us.
Faith–it starts here. If we don’t trust in God’s provision, His mercy, and His power, we won’t build on the right foundation.
Goodness–Such a deceptively simple word, but it is packed with power. Post-modernists like to sneer at the idea of goodness. It seems dull, meek, bland, and insufficient. At the same time, we want to assure ourselves (and everyone else) that we are, in our own daily life, good…good enough to earn respect, better than someone else down the street, “good” just because…we are not “bad”. It is difficult to concede that, left to our own devices, we will not achieve goodness automatically– it takes effort to deny our own desires and whims to do the right thing, the just thing, the “good” thing.
Knowledge–Sure, I “know” what the Bible says…right? I already “know” what Jesus would do– that’s why I wear the WWJD bracelet– to remind me of what I already know…How many Christians actually make a daily effort to learn more about Christ? How many blindly stumble along, confident that what little we know is more than enough?
Self Control– Not going around pointing out everyone else’s fault, but working to keep our own anger, bitterness, selfishness, envy, etc., in check. Actually making the effort and not adopting a false humility that says, “I know I still struggle with ________, but God’s not finished with me yet!”
Perseverance–Staying the course, even when it doesn’t “feel” good, or effective. Trusting that God IS still at work, instead of just using that as an excuse for not making a genuine effort to improve our relationship with Him. How many of us have missed out on blessings and miracles because we simply threw in the towel one day early, or didn’t climb that last step.
Godliness, Mutual Affection, Love–I’ve put these three together, not because they are the same, or because there is nothing to say about each one, but because I think this is where many Christians want to be, without going through the previous steps. We want to think that we are not only Godly, but God-like in our habits, words, thoughts, etc. We want to think that because we have a close-knit group of friends at church (our Holy Huddle) that we have mastered Mutual Affection. And we think that if we love at least the idea of people who are different from us, people who are oppressed or hurting, that we are not “hateful”–we deserve a crown of glory.
Unfortunately, I have fallen into the trap of wanting the results and the benefits of Christ’s gifts without the “every effort” they deserve. Saying “hello” to neighbors on the street or defending “morality” on FB is not the same as taking up my cross. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with being friendly or standing up for what’s right– it’s a start. But like the lamp that isn’t turned on, I’m not sending out light– I’m not fulfilling my purpose. And until I make “every effort”, not just the ones that look good or feel good, or seem easiest or most important, I can’t shine in the darkness around me.