Those times in our lives when we look back, what do we see?
Do we look back with regret? Or do we look back with satisfaction?
Whenever we look back on our lives, we do so as a different person to the one we were and from a different place to where we were then. We can sometimes convince ourselves that ‘if only …,’ things might have turned out differently.
It’s undoubtedly true that all our decisions have consequences — for better or worse — but the truth about our past is that ‘if only …’ is an illusion, as we wouldn’t have made different decisions, because we were a different person in a different place back then.
The first part of this final verse of our Psalm invites us to see things in a different way altogether. In two places in this short Psalm, we read how the Lord who is my shepherd leads me. We have already expressed that being led by the shepherd and choosing to follow him are essential to a life lived in shalom.
But as we are being led by our shepherd, we discover that we are also being followed. Yet that which follows us is not what we might at first expect. In this verse we see that if the Lord is my shepherd, and I follow where he leads me, then it is goodness and mercy that follow me.
Redeeming, not regretting
As is often the case with many words from the scriptures, the translation from Hebrew into English can lose something of what is meant by a particular word. There is no better example of this than our word ‘shalom,’ but also here, our English word ’goodness’ can imply something different to each one of us, as it has a moral meaning as well as being a value statement. The Hebrew word used here is ‘towb’ and one of the ways in which this word is also used means ‘beautiful,’ as in something attractive. The Psalm is telling us that beautiful things follow us, when the Lord is my shepherd.
If we considered this word alone, we might not understand what is being expressed here about the nature of a life of shalom. If we couple it with mercy, as the Psalm does, then we can start to see something truly remarkable and incredibly beautiful.
So far in our reflections our focus has been on what our life of shalom looks like as we move forward in life. Our focus has been on the ways the Lord who is my shepherd leads us. But now we discover something amazing — a life lived in shalom not only affects our future, it also redeems our past.
When we choose to follow our shepherd and choose to live increasingly in shalom, everything begins to be put in its proper place. As should now be very familiar to us, shalom means everything in the right place and nothing in the wrong place. That means everything, including our past and our future. We cannot change the past, and we cannot re-live it however much we rehearse our ‘if onlys …’
But if we commit to a life lived in shalom, it frees us to see our past as the path to where we now find ourselves. Our past mistakes now become useful teachers; our wrong turns and dead ends now become the starting points on a new path of righteousness; our trials and troubles now become ways to access new kinds of joy and grace. Instead of regretting our past, shalom redeems it.
The God who wastes nothing
“And we know that for those who love God
all things work together for good,
for those who are called according to his purpose.”
The redemption of my past is only possible because the Lord is my shepherd. It is in his nature to redeem all things for those who love him. Whatever I’ve done to mess up my life, however many times I’ve strayed, his mercy follows me and transforms that which is ugly into something beautiful. The Psalm expresses this truth with the word ‘surely.’ Surely expresses a sense of certainty, but again, the word in Hebrew can mean ‘only’. Whichever word we choose, we can be certain that only beautiful things will lie in our wake if the Lord’s mercy is following up behind us. And we can be certain that the Lord’s mercy is the only thing he offers to deal with our past; not judgement, not condemnation; only mercy.
If all things work together for good, then nothing is wasted. The Lord who is my shepherd is the God who wastes nothing.
This age, and the age to come
We have already acknowledged in previous reflections that in this age a life lived at 100% — life in all its fullness — might not be possible, but in the age to come, shalom will be our ‘natural’ state. The end of this first part of the final verse of the Psalm says that goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. The Hebrew word translated ‘life’ here is ‘chay’ (khah’-ee) and typically means ‘age.’ It is a recognition that in this age I need the Lord’s mercy to redeem my past so I can be freed to live in shalom, and that I need this all the days of this age — every day. In the age to come, things will be different and we will consider this in the next reflection.
It matters to the Lord as our shepherd that we are not hamstrung by our past, preventing us from leaping forward into a life of shalom. His mercy provides a way to not only free us from our past, but also to redeem it and ensure that ALL the days of our lives — past, present and future — are put into a right place so we can know shalom.
Do you have things in your past you regret? Today they can be redeemed. All that you need is to receive the Lord’s mercy. If you receive his mercy — truly receive — your past will be transformed and open up as a way of life leading up to this present moment, and releasing you to seize the glorious future your shepherd has prepared for you; to know shalom and live your life in all its fullness.
May you live in Shalom, and know your past cannot be changed, but will be redeemed.
May you know his mercy always follows you, to free you to follow wherever he leads you.
May you know the Lord who is your shepherd is the God who wastes nothing.