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Surely Goodness and Mercy

Psalm 23 is probably the most famous and most memorized chapter of the Bible. I learned to recite it as a little girl, and since you are reading a church blog, there’s a good chance you know it by heart too. It’s pretty, but truth be told, it never really meant much to me. I didn’t have a personal connection to it. I like the imagery of green pastures and still waters as much as the next person, but this Psalm never felt like a reflection of my relationship with God, and, I mean, how and why are a rod and staff supposed to comfort me?

I just didn’t get it.

But the Spirit would use the beautiful truth of that old Psalm— the very first passage I ever memorized, the one I thought was a little overrated— to pull me out of a dark and desperate moment when I was drowning in tears and lies.

I don’t sleep well. I never have. As a child, I kept myself awake, fearful that my then-stepfather might kill my mother if I wasn’t there to intervene. I have no reason to fear sleep anymore, but old habits die hard, and regardless of how tired I might be or how much I desire it, getting my mind to settle and accept sleep is a nightly struggle. I cannot turn off my thoughts. Most of the time I replay funny things my daughter said or did that day, or decorate my house, or build a new one, or design myself a new wardrobe, or fantasize about future family vacations, or map out story plots for the novels I’ve been “writing” for years. But sometimes I lose control of my thoughts. Sometimes I dwell on everything that has gone wrong.

Eight months ago my marriage was in big trouble. If not for Jesus, if not for believing that God honors covenants, if not for trusting His commitment to our marriage when we didn’t trust each other’s or our own, it might have been over. Months of prayer (so, so, so much prayer), counseling, support from amazing friends, and forcing ourselves to communicate honestly brought us through. Our relationship is beginning to feel “normal” again, but it’s still fragile, and sometimes I don’t feel safe.

When your marriage is falling apart, the rest of the world doesn’t stop. Life keeps going and throwing other challenges and hardships in your exhausted, tear-stained face. I learned that I am not equipped to handle it. Not even close. But the Lord is. He never fails. Everything and everyone else will. Parents. Friends. Jobs. Dreams. Husbands. They fail.

A few weeks ago, it felt like life was throwing more than my share in my face, and I couldn’t sleep. I started thinking about how overwhelming and unfair things can be, and how utterly and painfully unsafe the world is. I thought about the little ways my husband had let me down in recent days, and those little let-downs seemed to point to how it had been possible for him to wound me so deeply months before: He didn't love me enough; I wasn’t important enough. I wondered if I would ever really trust him again. It didn’t seem possible, so how could I ever again feel safe in my marriage?

Panic set in.

If you have any experience with panic attacks, you may be familiar with irrational dread, overwhelming fear, and the feeling that you are not and never will be safe again. I slid out of bed, crawled to the bathroom, and shut myself in the darkness. Choking on short breaths and heavy sobs, I felt completely helpless, like I might die there. I had read an article which claimed that naming your emotions helps release their power over you. If I could just do that, maybe I wouldn't die there, crumpled on the linoleum.

The article suggested finding two or three words, but in the midst of a panic attack, that was asking a lot. I could think of only one: anguish. I concentrated on slowing my breath enough to say it out loud. It was only a whisper, but I said it: “Anguish.”

I whispered the word a few more times, and as I did, I grew angry and determined. Anguish? Really? How had I gotten here, so broken by the heartache of sin that I could see nothing else? This was not the Lord’s desire for me. No. Anguish would not be my word. This pain, this panic, and that word were not my truth. I belong to the Redeemer. My husband isn’t my safe place? Well, guess what, he never should have been.

Help me, Lord. You are my only safe place. Give me another word.

This has become my practice during panic attacks, asking the Spirit to send me a word. Many years ago, my best friend told me that during times of high anxiety I needed to speak to my soul. During panic attacks, it is hard to come up with the words to speak, so I began calling on the Spirit, and He has answered every time. Sometimes it’s a verse, sometimes a line from a song. That night it was a familiar Psalm.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointeth my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”              —Psalm 23 (KJV)

I said those words aloud through sobs in the dark on my bathroom floor, and then I repeated the last line over and over over again, maybe a hundred, maybe two hundred times, until the panic subsided. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and will dwell in the house of the Lord forever…”

That is the Lord’s promise. Anguish is not my word. This world is not my forever. He exchanges anguish for goodness and mercy. He exchanges a dark, lonely bathroom for green pastures and still waters and overflowing cups and His presence. Forever.

And Psalm 23? Not overrated.

Katie Morrison confesses to being fickle and easily distracted, but despite the struggle to pin down her countless dreams and plans for her life, she rests in the unfathomable grace of God. Her prayer in life and in writing is to show others a piece of that grace and direct them to its source. She loves Jesus, her amazing family, and her community at Common Ground West. She also loves stories anywhere she can find them- on paper, on film, on stage, in music, and in conversation.