“We cannot seem to escape paradox; I do not think I want to.”
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water
I am driving my parents’ aging Camry up Route 9. The late afternoon sun slants through the windshield and I flip down the sun visor to block the haze. My heart is palpitating, my breaths are shallow, my mouth is dry, and I feel familiar electric pains shooting from the nape of my neck down my back, down between my shoulder blades. I feel frantic; my hands shake on the wheel. My mind fixates and loops on negative memories of the people I love, which extend into negative ideations about the colorful ways they could hurt me. I know it’s irrational. I know the thoughts aren’t true. I swallow and turn on the radio, but the pop music isn’t drowning out the barrage of images and emotions that bubble up from my subconscious.
And it had been such a good day, too. I am kicking myself for waiting too long to eat lunch, for not thinking to pack something, for letting my blood sugar dip enough to trigger the well-known, vicious response of my anxiety. I know my limits. I try to respect them. But sometimes my circumstances are beyond my grasp and I pay for the physical debt with a pain that transcends my body.
I make it home. I am in the kitchen, chopping kale and red pepper with a dull knife, frowning, listening to Tim Keller give a sermon on work, and hoping these things distract me from my thoughts. I hear a frenzied splattering. I glance up and out the window: rain dumps from a bright blue sky, pummeling the road, the trees, and the roof. Light beams through the clouds while it downpours, and darts of rain spear sun-honeyed maple leaves and make the wet asphalt glitter. It is beautiful and violent. A shock of supreme ecstasy and dread flows through me and makes my fingertips tingle. The Spirit testifies, but I don’t understand it yet. I don’t see a rainbow from the doorway.
The next night, I happen to reread Psalm 23 and fixate on the first image:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake (ESV).
To me, the most interesting tension in this passage in the past year has been the verb in the statement “He makes me lie down”. Overwhelmingly, the bulk of translations favor the verb “make” over alternate verbs “let” or “allow”, which implies that the shepherd must often force the sheep to rest against its will. The tension simmers: the shepherd gently but firmly forces the sheep to rest in a place it does not want to rest, but despite its best efforts, rest, food, and water restore the sheep’s soul.
I always viewed the “valley of the shadow of death” stanza as a separate motif from the “green pastures and still waters” stanza, but now I am not certain I should read them as separate pieces. Perhaps the green pastures and still waters are located in the valley of the shadow of death. Perhaps the paths of righteousness cut through the valley, and it is the shepherd’s good and perfect will to lead the sheep through this perilous place, rod and staff in hand.
This sense of paradox continues in the next stanza:
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows (ESV).
Mysteriously, the Lord’s will to lavishly bless and refresh the narrator, David, is indivisible from His desire to place the narrator in the intimate company of his enemies. Golden oil in David’s hair, red wine seeping from over the rim of the cup onto his hand, the Spirit quickening his heart — but Saul is there, a few feet away, with smoking eyes and spear in hand, fingers trembling, possessed by a demon’s rage. And that is good.
So often, I separate blessings and trials into tidy piles in my life. But that is not true to the narrative of the world’s history or my own personal history.
Isaac Watts, on the occasion of the deaths of nearly his entire family at sea, penned the words
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
I wrestle with all these paradoxes: with sorrow and love mingling, with resting in death’s valley, with the anxiety that limits my body leading to an expansion of my understanding of the Lord’s tenderness. Why? How can this be? These paradoxes usually yield questions, and often the Lord’s only answer is:
‘My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness.’
(2 Corinthians 12:9, ESV).
My anxiety makes me feel less human: I become irrationally consumed with fear and worry, and those feelings alienate me from my work, from the people I love, and from all the other things that make me more human. My anxiety is a constant reminder that I am not capable of doing life by myself, and for that reason, it becomes a blessing. My irrational pain becomes a reminder of my constant need for the Lord’s goodness.
And so I embrace the paradox of being anointed with pain, because my blessings are indivisible from my suffering.