The picture in my head was clear, the image of a sheep being guided along from the rear by its shepherd. The sheep stayed the course on the straight path by the taps of the staff to its hindquarters. I heard the Lord say: “Do not fear, I will guide you and protect you.”
God was speaking to my heart as I confronted my fears of marriage. I was dating my husband at the time and fear tethered me back from going forward in the relationship. I was afraid of putting myself in a vulnerable position, because it could possibly lead to hurt. I wanted a life devoid of personal pain and heartache. I wanted to take my own hands and shelter my heart, instead of placing it into the hands of my Father.
The taps from the Shepherd’s staff are not just meant for guidance, but also discipline.
When God told me not to fear I naively thought that meant everything would be okay and nothing bad would happen to me. Surely he would protect me from a broken heart. Looking back now, I wasn’t truly trusting God as I walked forward into marriage, I was trusting in an optimistic perspective and the sentimentality of romance. I know that now, because the reality of marriage eventually eroded my optimism and sentimentality. Instead, my fears came true.
The Lord’s Guidance
Didn’t God say he would protect me? Why would he guide me straight to pain and heartache in my marriage? Any kind of pain is like being a child alone in a dark bedroom, without a night-light, aware of a monster under the bed. We just want someone to turn on the light switch and make the monster disappear. When God says, “Do not fear,” it’s because there are things to fear in this cursed world, but he wants us to not fear that which is fearful.
Marriage can be fearful, because it represents the unknown. It can be hard, because we are getting to know and experience the interaction of our strengths and weaknesses with those of our spouse. And as selfish human beings, we fear hard things. But God brings hard things into our lives to expose us and peel away the layers of self we must die to. My fear of marriage was in essence a fear of the valley of the shadow of death.
God’s discipline is a form of protection against our sinful hearts.
King David, a shepherd himself, penned the words: “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” (Psalm 23:4). David would have been familiar with the use of the rod and staff in shepherdry. He knew the rod was used to number the sheep. A good shepherd counts and keeps his sheep — he knows those who belong to him. The rod gives us comfort as we venture into the uncharted territory of marriage, because we know we are counted among God’s purchased flock; we are preserved by the very ownership of God.
The rod and staff are also instruments for guiding the sheep. Though he might guide us toward painful valleys in marriage we can still trust the heart of our Good Shepherd. In his loving providence pain becomes a gift, which has the power to drive us to our knees in dependence on God. As Charles Spurgeon said, “It is a happy thing to be afflicted towards heaven! It is good to be tried and so made earnest for more divine grace.”
The Lord’s Discipline
The taps from the Shepherd’s staff are not just meant for guidance, but also discipline. These taps are not meant to punish us, but to teach and instruct us. They show us the way to walk in. They teach us not to fear the unknown, but to trust the heart of our Good Shepherd, whose protection looks different from our version. He does not promise a life free of pain and hardship in marriage, but does promise that he will protect our eternal souls. For his staff stands ready to assail our spiritual attackers, and it is his comforting, loving presence, which protects our hearts and minds as we walk through the valley of the shadow. His discipline is a form of protection against our own sinful hearts. For me, it was my sinful tendency to fear and not trust God with my marriage.
God does not promise a life free of pain and hardship in marriage, but does promise that he’ll protect our souls.
When our Good Shepherd guides us through the valley of the shadow in marriage, he is leading us straight to himself. And this is most comforting — to belong to Christ and to receive more of him through trials, for it is Christ himself who walks with us in the dark valley. This is why David could say, “I will fear no evil.” Though God might subject us to pain and heartache in marriage, he does not do it out of joy (though, like Christ, there is joy set before us). For David also says this about God: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8).
Jesus, who walks with us, bears his own scars testifying of personal pain. He walked his own dark valley and now sympathizes and intercedes for us. Willingly, Christ placed himself under the curse of this world, so he could protect us from our own wickedness and eternal damnation. He paid the price to make us his beloved sheep and he will take great care of those who cost his own life. A Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep; we have such a shepherd and with him we will not fear the hard things of marriage.