I’m a bit embarrassed to share that my favorite Bible passage, the one I return to over and over again in times of distress is . . . drumroll, please . . . Psalm 23. It’s a passage speaking to deepest fear and struggles of our human existence. As such, it’s a passage that provides a great deal of reassurance and hope.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
It is embarrassing to admit this very popular chapter is my favorite because as a minister (who has taken more Biblical studies classes than I can count and has preached on the most esoteric of passages with glee because I derive so much satisfaction from exposing congregants to those hidden gems), I feel like my favorite verses should be something more sophisticated but less well-known, like a hole-in-wall pho restaurant or whatever the vinyl record equivalent of bible verses is.
What parts of the Bible do you know by heart? If you’re a lifelong Christian, chances are pretty good that you’ve memorized or, at the very least, can vaguely recount Psalm 23—with paintings, stained glass windows, and sculptures depicting the image of Jesus as our shepherd for centuries.
At the same time, there’s a very good reason why Psalm 23 has had such a lasting mark on our tradition. It’s not just because it’s beautifully written with evocative imagery. It speaks to the depth of the greatest human struggle—our fear of the unknown.
Dealing with fear of the unknown
This fear of the unknown is why we seek out palm readers and psychics. It’s why we pay thousands of dollars to learn from spiritual gurus at retreats in far-off places. It’s why so many bestselling books promise formulas for success. It’s also why we hoard our material possessions.
Our lives are designed such that we don’t know what the next moment will bring; the future is always a mystery. For some, this is thrilling. For others, this is a welcome challenge to plan their lives meticulously. For all of us, this is, at one point or another, absolutely terrifying.
I’ve sat with each of those emotions when thinking about my future and even rotate between them. During trusting periods of my life when money is abundant and my personal affairs are going smoothly, I’m like a sailor out on a clear sunny day who is open to cruising wherever the wind blows. When I’m feeling ambitious, like at the start of a new year, I have a strong hankering for goal setting. And during those times of my life when I’m anxious, which is especially pronounced when I am waiting to hear back from some opportunity I’ve eagerly sought out, I lose my mind. And my faith. And my sleep.
When this happens—and believe me when I say you don’t want to be around me during those periods—it’s not until I’ve exhausted all my mental resources of planning, controlling, talking things through with others, and bargaining that I finally fall to my knees and recite this psalm to steer my heart in a different direction—away from fear and towards trust amidst the unknown.
There was this one time that the anxiety got pretty intense. I had just graduated from college and had secured an apartment with two other recent college grads in the heart of Los Angeles. While I had imagined adulting by dining at restaurants noted by Jonathan Gold and wearing cute pencil skirts at my 9 to 5, I couldn’t for the life of me, land a job. This wasn’t for lack of trying as I was applying for every single position I could ostensibly qualify for. With every day that passed, I became increasingly unsure of how I would get my next rent check and felt unable to ask my parents or friends for help because they were going through their own financial challenges.
The worry subsumed me in such a way that I lost my appetite, would cry at random points in the day, and would be unable to sleep. I found myself waking around 4 a.m. every morning, startled by panic.
Praying instead of fretting
During one of those early morning wake-ups, I decided to pray instead of fret. I quietly slipped out of the room where my roommates continued their slumber and kneeled down in a closet off the side of the living room. And all I could say, because I was too frazzled to pray using my own words, was the first line of Psalm 23 over and over again, at least as I had most recently encountered it in an essay by Henri Nouwen: “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need. The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need.” My mind didn’t believe these words, but I kept repeating them.
And in the midst of that one-line prayer that I was chanting over and over again, I felt a warm embrace cover my entire body. I was no longer my 22-year-old self but an infant in the arms of her protective mother. The fear and anxiety dissolved and in its place was a profound sense of peace. In God’s embrace, I still had no idea what my future held, but despite this, I knew I was going to be okay because I was being guided by somebody with a perspective much wider than my own and who loved me more than I could comprehend.
Since that experience 15 years ago, I try not to let myself get to that boiling point of panic before I resort to reciting Psalm 23. So, I’ve tried to incorporate that passage into my regular life routine regardless of my mental state. When I’m taking a walk, I’ll recite the passage and coordinate the movements in such a way that the words fall in sync with my steps. When I’m holding my toddler as I’m preparing her for bed and I’m bored by how long it’s taking for her to get sleepy, I’ll say those words to myself.
I want to make it so that the message of Psalm 23 infuses my whole being and I move through this world with an abiding knowledge that there is a God who holds us and guides us through the darkest valleys (which are many).
And even though I’m still slightly embarrassed that my favorite Biblical passage also happens to be one of the most well-known, I can at least speak to the enduring power of that passage from a time of my life when I felt more fear than I had ever known. And how, in that moment, I encountered my shepherd who let me know that I was in good hands.
The Rev. Lydia Sohn is an United Methodist ordained elder within the California Pacific Conference. She left her full-time church appointment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to blog, write a book, and be a stay-at-home mom for her two young kids. Follow along at www.revlydia.com.