Kwai Lin Stephens opens up Psalm 23 to show the need for theological education to push us beyond our focus on ourselves so that we can be transformed in our relationship with God and others.
Kwai Lin Stephens
Kwai Lin and her husband Bill have served in Mongolia since 1993. They worked for the Ministry of Education to train English teachers and then taught full-time at Union Bible Theological College (UBTC). Kwai Lin later became the principal of UBTC and taught a wide range of courses in Bible, mission, Christian leadership, spiritual formation, and mentoring. From 2008 to 2018, Kwai Lin served as Executive Director of Joint Christian Services International, an intra-mission relief and development organization working in the areas of agriculture, alcohol abuse reduction, community development, education, environmental care, medicine, small business development, and sports. She currently serves as an Organizational Leadership Consultant and Integral Mission Trainer.
Psalm 23: A Deepening Relationship
Mission Round Table Vol. 17 No. 2 (May-Dec 2022): 10-11
To download a PDF of this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 17:2.
Psalm 23 is a familiar psalm. This was a song of David’s personal reflection and transformational experience with the Lord—Yahweh. The structure of this psalm allows it to be divided into four sections that reflect the deepening level of relationships shared by David and Yahweh.
I can identify with David’s experience that our relationship with Yahweh goes through layers of transformation. These layers of transformation are reflected in the structure of the psalm in the form of musical movements, in which one section progresses to the next, until a crescendo is reached in verse 6.
Section 1: The “I and My” relationship
“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want.” (1)
Clearly, the focus is the individual “I” and “my” experience; it is not “we” or “ours.” David, the psalmist, has a personal, individual relationship with the Lord—Yahweh. The trust David experiences comes through his physical needs being met. David knows of God’s physical and material provision. This is a knowledge of God set at the physical level.
Similarly, our relationship with Yahweh is often based on “I” and “my” needs being met. Our experience is concretely in God’s material and timely provision. Yet, this can be superficial and seriously lack internal transformation.
Section 2: The “He and I” relationship
“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” (2–3)
In this section, David begins by focusing on Yahweh as “He.” David sang of God’s provision of nourishment. God is like a gentle giant guiding and providing by the riverbank. David drinks deep in those quiet and still moments. He knows that this nourishment is needed to walk in God’s paths of righteousness.
David refers to Yahweh as “he.” The dialogue between him and God is that of “he and I.” He is the Shepherd; I am the sheep. The sheep experiences Yahweh as a third person, with a sense of formality, guided by formulated theological discourse, something that theological educators talk about. However, even with this relationship, there can still be a serious lack of intimacy.
We have all experienced this tranquil, polite, and formal relationship with the Lord, our Good Shepherd. As theologians and theological educators, we are very familiar with “talking about God” while we continue to struggle with intimacy with God. Despite the green pasture and quiet waters, our transformation is not deep. Our knowledge of Yahweh is something we talk about but not something we deeply desire to pursue. We do not live a life that flows out of roots that are deeply grounded in the Living Water, especially in crisis moments.
Section 3: The “You and I” relationship
“Even 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” (4–5)
While walking in “paths of righteousness for his name’s sake,” the musician encounters something that activates a huge transition. He experiences darkness and the shadow of death. This is when he suddenly changes his pronoun as he clings to Yahweh as “You.” Moving from the third person to the second person, the psalmist leaves “talking about God” behind as he enters a face-to-face direct communication in which he is “talking with God.”
Our relationship with God grows deeper as we walk through dark valleys and encounter the presence of evil. Through crisis and things that cause us to become disheartened, we realize that within the shadow there is light; we experience that when faced by death there is life.
Here, David knows that the Good Shepherd is also the True Shepherd.
We, like David, desperately need to experience that God often humbles and tests us. In the midst of humiliation, fear, war, and vulnerability, Yahweh is ready to come and quench our thirst. Yahweh provides nourishment in the wilderness, deeply satisfies our longing, and whispers his language of love in our ears. The valleys in life provide the times that best transform us.
In ministry, we can experience profound loneliness, isolation, heartbreak, disappointment, exhaustion, and even betrayal. These can lead to severe spiritual malnutrition in the midst of fulfilling God’s call. Yet, it is here and now that the doors of opportunity and radical generosity of God’s grace perfect our weaknesses. As David declared, “My cup overflows!”
Section 4. The “I and Yours forever”
“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (6)
In the last verse, we see a transformed “I.” David’s delight is no longer that “I shall lack nothing.” Rather, his delight is that he will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The focus on materiality and temporality shifts to what is eternal—the “holy presence” of Yahweh.
The transformed “I” has embraced all of human pain, suffering, and ugliness that can be experienced in the now and is yet able to hope for the future. It is a miraculous and a daunting task that we walk, work, and live in this miserable world while we wait for the return of the Great Shepherd.
Bill and Kwai Lin visiting Tsend in Western Mongolia
A story from Mongolia: From suffering to rejoicing
In 2003, we led Tsend (not his real name) to Christ. He was the first Hoton (Mongolian Uyghur) believer in a remote county. The little town he lives in is a 1400-kilometer drive from the capital and often took three to four days of travel over dirt roads to get there. After receiving the Lord, Tsend read the Bible we gave him, and in a week, on his own accord, memorized the Lord’s Prayer! Since then, he regularly used it for his own prayer. For nearly two decades, he was isolated with little Christian fellowship, but the Bible has been his constant companion. When his adult child, who had disabilities, died a few years ago, he was heartbroken. His other son, while still young, committed suicide! Back in 2017, when we last visited him, Tsend bitterly cried out, “I cannot pray! It is too hard to pray!” Sitting there in silence, I did something that many would consider “culturally inappropriate”! Like a mother, I took his hand in my own and invited him to pray after me, sentence by sentence. He finally broke down and cried.
This summer, we again drove to where he herds his livestock. He was so glad to see us and proudly showed us his medal for having climbed the tallest peak in Mongolia. His daughter and two grandchildren are going to church! He was so joyful to see us. Surely, as Psalm 125:2 says, “The Lord surrounds his people both now and forever!”
The role of theological educators and the impact of theological education need to be more focused on transformation, helping both ourselves and others to journey deeper in our spiritual formation. We need to find ways to create safe spaces and show hospitality that invites conversations that ensure cultures will be shaped in ways that do not result in superficial and anemic spirituality! To do so, we need the passion of a missionary, the heart of a shepherd, and the skill of a mentor-teacher.