You Are With Me
There are few things more patronizing than having someone tell you to not worry when every physical object and circumstance in the present tells you otherwise. Yet, as a father, periodically I find myself going into my children’s room at night in order to calm them from a bad dream. I tell them that everything is okay; there really are no monsters in their closet. Everything else around them tells them otherwise, but I insist with them that everything will be fine.
On one particular night when my son was afraid that a bad person might come into his room while he was asleep, I assured him that he had nothing to worry about. “No bad person will climb up on the roof and enter your room in the night,” I said. And so, I promised him, he had nothing to fear.
I think back to that night with some humor as it felt as though I was explaining something that seemed obvious to me. I had full confidence that everything was going to be fine.
But I began to think of how I might respond to a situation that did not turn out as I would hope. How would I respond then?
My mind took me to a Sunday afternoon two years ago. My family and I had just pulled into our driveway after church. Coming into the house, I looked at my phone and saw that my sister had sent a text message asking me to call her. I had a bad feeling. For some reason, I knew something was not right. My heart started beating slightly faster. I called my sister and she gently told me that our dad had passed away suddenly that morning. I was shocked. We were both shocked. My initial response was that something could be done to revive him. Surely, I thought, the paramedics could still work on my dad. But it was too late. Eventually, I came to grips with the fact that my father had died.
Now, as I think back to that day and the weeks following my father’s passing, many thoughts of him flood my mind. I remember the many poignant memories of my dad shared at his funeral service and the many warm conversations I had with those who knew my father. There was sadness, yes, but there was also a sense of hope, comfort, and light-heartedness. I knew then and I know now that I will see my father again.
One of the questions I am often asked about my dad is what I miss about him the most. Although many things come to mind, it is simply my dad’s presence that I miss most. There was a strength and comforting power in just being in a room with my father.
Yet, as I have given much thought to this feeling of profound loss of my dad, particularly longing for his presence, I am encouraged that the Christian faith responds powerfully. As I read the Scriptures, I find myriad stories of people who grieved, experienced loss, and were afraid. Psalm 23 has been instructive for me. David, the writer of this psalm, writes in 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.
David here paints a very grim yet real portrait of evil. Evil is described as a kind of dark ravine. Although the psalm begins with the pastoral scene of sheep and a shepherd, it gradually transitions to a dark valley.
What I find encouraging about this passage is that David does not shy away from acknowledging evil. David would have known this reality well. He was a complex man who knew wealth, power, danger, risk, and loneliness. Here he speaks of the reality of evil that he knew well. It is into this context in which he asserts his trust in Yahweh.
He writes, “I will fear no evil.” If David stopped there, I confess that I am not sure I would be able to believe him. When sadness and despair become a reality for us, it can feel that there is no end in sight. Judging by the events in David’s life, I am sure he endured those emotions. For the doubter who might wonder how David can say such a statement, he answers: “[F]or you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
David’s trust in the Lord is grounded in the assurance of God’s presence. David here is picking up on a deeply cherished belief in his community of faith. The late Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey sheds light on this point:
Israel was proud of God’s constant presence. Deuteronomy 4:7 says, “What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?” The gods of the nations around Israel lived in temples built for them to inhabit. To talk to the god the worshiper was obliged to visit his “house” where he could be found. An idol was fashioned, and that idol was god. Not so in Israel.1
The presence of God was a distinguishing factor in what made Israel unique among other nations. More than that, God’s presence was the antidote to Israel’s fear. Yes, there would be severe hardship, uncertainty, and pain, but Israel found its security and comfort in the constant presence of God.
David adds that it is not only God’s presence, but that this God comes “fully equipped” (in the words of two Bible scholars) with a rod and staff: “The Shepherd of the royal and priestly sheep is fully armed to fend off an attack by anything or anyone.”2 This reality comforts him. For a man who was once a shepherd, David knew the importance of the rod and staff. Both were protective objects used to fend off predators and to guide sheep in travel. By David’s reference to them, I wonder if he is saying, “Don’t forget that the help that Yahweh brings is real—just as real as these objects that a shepherd uses.”
As I think about my father and read Psalm 23, I sense the reality of my dad’s presence. Ravi Zacharias helpfully reminds us that when a loved one who knew the Lord is no longer with us, we cannot merely say that person is gone. We have to be clear about where that person has gone. My father has gone to be with the Lord. I do not have the presence of my earthly father with me now, but I do have the constant presence of my heavenly Father—his constant presence that is indeed real. He is a good shepherd who protects us and guides us each step of the way. He alone is the one who gives us the strength to say, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Nathan Betts is a member of the speaking team at RZIM.
1Kenneth E. Bailey, The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 49.
2Bruce K. Waltke and James M. Houston with Erica Moore, The Psalms As Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 441.