Last week, my Bible reading plan took me through the final chapters of Genesis. I was listening to these chapters on CD as I attempted to drive to school Tuesday night. Going 25mph on a snow and ice-covered interstate, the words of Genesis 48:15 filled the tight space in the car:
“The God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day…”
As I heard Jacob’s tender reference to God as his shepherd in his words of blessing over Joseph’s sons, I simply cried. But I also couldn’t shake the echo of Genesis 47:9 (“Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life”) and wondered at how Jacob could tell the great Egyptian ruler that the days of his life had been few and evil…and then these words about God as his shepherd?
In pondering these two things for a week now, I am wondering if it is not at all the juxtaposition that it, at first, seems to be. What if Jacob is just plainly stating how hard and sorrow-filled his life has been? Truth. And, yet, in the midst of the days and years of suffering and pain he experienced, he is also honestly saying that he has known nothing but the gentle, guiding hand of the Shepherd? Also truth.
In the many years that Jacob lived, he had more than his share of family struggles and grief. His parents each had a favorite son (Gen. 25:28), the animosity between the brothers was deep and great (Gen. 27:41), Jacob had to leave his family for fear of being killed by Esau (Gen. 27:42-45), he was deceived and treated poorly by his father-in-law (Gen. 29-31), family strife between his wives and sons continued throughout his entire life, Rachel died in childbirth, his favorite son was all but dead to him for at least twenty years, famine struck their land, and he finally came to a land of foreigners to die.
It seemed like a bitter life, riddled with loss, conflict, and deep sorrow. Where was God? God had promised to lead him his entire life (Gen. 28:15), but this was a life that hardly seemed blessed.
Throughout Jacob’s story a ribbon of grace runs deep. Stitched through family grief, personal failings and sin, and sorrows too deep for words are threads of blessing and kindness held by the gracious hand of Jacob’s Shepherd.
Lying on his death bed, he was able to honestly say that God had never failed him all his life long. As was often the case with many of the characters in the Bible, they felt the darkness and spoke from the despondency of their souls. That may have been true of Jacob at the time he spoke to Pharaoh, but even if he were speaking from a place of melancholy, his words were entirely true.
And even if in the very next chapter, he was feeling the smile of God upon him as he prepared to die, those beautiful words about God as his shepherd were also completely true.
Friends, this is the Christian life.
Sorrowful yet always rejoicing. Crying and celebrating. Dying and living. Breaking and being healed. Mourning and dancing.
It is not an all of one or the other. It is both.
We may have been told that followers of Jesus always smile and praise God in the hardest times (even if it is fake). We may have also had our ears filled with the damaging words of “if you are going through suffering, you must be experiencing the judgment of God for some sin.” Or the words of the prosperity “gospel” have seeped into our souls like a damp basement and all we smell is condemnation because our lives are not crowned with the favor of men and showers of golden coins.
This was not Jacob’s life. Nor was it Joseph’s, Paul’s, Peter’s, John’s, or David’s. These men, among many others, lived lives that were deeply painful and yet deeply trusting in God.
Our own lives are often colored in violent shades of family conflict, broken relationships, false accusations, deaths of our dearest friends and family, sin and regret, shame, and grief. We feel burdened beyond our years with the heavy sorrows we carry.
We are dying every day.
As we look back on the sorrows that roll over our years like the waves of the sea, we may be tempted to think that God has left us. When all we feel is pain and all we see is darkness, we may want to doubt the goodness of God in our lives.
But these sorrows we face will not even be worth remembering or mentioning in light of the glory that is coming (2 Cor. 4:17, Rom. 8:18).
Because, if we were to look back, we would likely see that our very days have been held in the hands of our Shepherd. We have not lacked because Jesus is fullness itself. We have been led by refreshing streams. He has restored our souls. Even when he has led us through death’s valleys, we have not feared because he has never left us. His staff has protected and comforted us. He has prepared a feast for us in the midst of our hardest days, before the toughest people. His fullness continues to fill up our emptiness, and grace flows over. Truly, his goodness and his mercy have continually pursued us all our lives, and we know that one day, we will spend all of forever in his beautiful presence.
The days of our years may have been heavy and hard, but the joy of being forever with Jesus will make this earthy life seem inconsequential. When we see the face of Jesus, we will fully know that the Shepherd of our souls has led us all this way.