He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters."
Psalm 23: 1-2
I've been contemplating verse 2 of Psalm 23 for a while now. It's easy to focus on the promise of the passage. Still waters, green pastures. The bounty of his provision.
But what has caught my focus is the imperative in the first stanza. "He maketh me to lie down." It's not "He lets me to lie down." It's "He makes me..." There isn't a choice. The Lord makes us rest. He knows what it best for us, He knows when we need rest, and He makes sure we get it.
In looking over this part of the Psalm, I’ve come across some mythology built around it. In particular, one erroneous sermon illustration regarding how a shepherd could control a continually wayward sheep. How the shepherd would force the sheep to rest and stay in the green pasture. According to this false illustration, the shepherd would hobble the lamb, carefully breaking its leg.
The earliest version of this illustration seems to date back to What Jesus Said, a book written by Robert Boyd Munger in 1955. As it appears in the book, Munger wrote of a version heard from Syria.
“A Foreigner traveling in Syria who became acquainted with a shepherd. Each morning, he noticed the shepherd taking food to a sheep that had a broken leg. As he looked at the animal, he asked the shepherd, ‘How did the sheep break its leg? Did it meet with an accident, fall into a hole, or did some animal break its leg?’
‘No,’ said the shepherd, ‘I broke this sheep’s leg myself.’
‘You broke it yourself?’ queried the surprised traveler.
‘Yes, you see, this is a wayward sheep; it would not stay with the flock, but would lead the sheep astray. Then it would not let me near it so I had to break the sheep’s leg so that it would allow me, day by day to feed it. In doing this it will know me as its shepherd, trust me as its guide, and keep with the flock.’”
This story is the only evidence we have for this kind of activity. Instead, what we know from historical shepherds is that this type of practice did not occur. Breaking an animal’s leg is potentially very risky. The trauma of the injury could kill the lamb, or infection could set in. The lamb could be crippled for life, or the injury could heal in a deformed manner. It’s far too risky to chance.
This erroneous illustration could be the result of mishearing a homophone. While shepherds would not break a lamb’s leg, they may “brake” it. That is, they would attach a heavy weight to the lamb’s leg to slow it down, essentially leashing the animal. A less dangerous version of forcing the animal to rest. Forcing the animal to stay within the green pasture.
As adults, it can often seem silly that we would need to be forced to rest. We’re all so tired and worn, rest becomes something we greatly desire and appreciate. Nap time might not be appreciated in children, but I think if you instituted a federally mandated nap time for all adults, there would be a great rejoicing.
Parents can definitely have experience with having to force someone to rest. Particularly parents of toddlers. Those little dictators are convinced that they know themselves best. “I’m not tired.” “I don’t want to take a nap.” “I don’t need to sleep.”
This is a daily fight with our children. The five year old is convinced she does not need naps, despite her getting really cranky in the evenings without one. It was the source of trouble for her at pre-school. She would talk during nap time. First she talked to the other students and would get in trouble for keeping them up. Then got in trouble for talking to herself. When she would be still, she would just lay there, at least not talking or disturbing anyone else, but still not going to sleep. She fights Jamie everyday, to the point where we have sometime resorted to tricking her to sleep.
The two year old is a little easier to get to sleep. If we can just get him to lie down. Though he is getting a lot more fussy about it.
Again, we know they need sleep. We know how cranky they get in the evenings if they don’t get it. How it can get them in trouble for fighting each other. How it brings their emotions to the surface.
We know the benefit of sleep. We know how it helps them. How much more peaceful they are. How much more fun they have in the evenings.
That’s why we have to make them get sleep. Make them take a nap. Make them rest.
We’re not that different as adults.
Sure, when it comes to physical rest, we may appreciate it and desire it. That doesn’t mean we don’t fill our lives with a lot of stuff.
We throw ourselves into work to the point of becoming workaholics. Forging our identities in our work. Making it an idol. Telling ourselves we have to because it is what is expected.
We even overwork ourselves in church. Feeling the more we are doing for the church, the more we are “doing” for God, the holier we are. This current generation is filled with people who resent church because their parents were good at church, but not good at life. Who saw church consuming so much of their parents time, but not transforming their private lives.
We busy ourselves, convincing ourselves that it is for the best. Often in things that are taking our focus off our Good Shepherd. Taking our focus off the provision of the green pasture and deep water.
We seem to want to throw off the Lord’s yoke. Jesus promised his burden was easy and his yoke was light. We want to trade that in for doing things in our own strength. "I can handle this." "I know what I'm doing." "I know my body." "I know what I can handle."
Just like toddlers, we refuse to take the rest provided to us.
This need for rest goes well beyond physical exhaustion. It covers mental exhaustion. The point where your mind is so consumed, it cannot shut off. The exhaustion of the checklist. Of needing to be on top of a hundred different things. Of trying to absorb too much.
I think of the all night study sessions. Trying to retain so much information that you reach a point where the brain just says "no more." Where you can feel in a fog.
This also covers emotional exhaustion. Are you the one that takes other's burdens on yourself? Who empathizes too much? Or are you carrying a high burden of the emotional weight of your current circumstances? Are you grieving, are you hurting, are you on edge to the point where the burden is too much to bear?
Finally, this covers spiritual exhaustion. O soul are you weary and troubled? Are you consumed with worry? Do you feel like you have been emptied and not refilled? Have you reached spiritual burnout?
Or from the complete opposite end, has the conviction of your sin caught up with you? Has the Lord's discipline brought you to a place of unrest, where you realize you cannot stay where you are?
The good news, the gospel is, just like a good parent, the Lord makes us rest. For our own good. For His sake.
He loves and corrects His children. He slows us down when we need it. He teaches us through it all.
And in the coming promise, He restores our soul.
I know in this season of my life, God has been making me rest. He has given me physical rest, in moving me from a position where I often felt stressed and overworked, to an interim forced sabbatical and now a temporary position where I cannot overwork given the structure.
He has given me spiritual rest, working through and removing hidden and unconfessed sin. Helping me move from worry to trust in His provision. Reminding me of His faithfulness when needed.
I'm learning to rest.
It's a process.
Where are you in it?
Are you in a place where He needs to make you rest?
What prevents you from trusting in His rest?