I don’t remember exactly when I learned Psalm 23. Maybe around age 7? It may very well be the most popular and best known of the Psalms, as it’s pastoral peace is often used to comfort mourners, both real and dramatized. What has caught my attention of late, though, is not the “valley of the shadow of death” part, but rather the “I shall not want” part.
Last week I participated in a training program built around Peter Block’s book Flawless Consulting. Early in the book, Block describes two processes that are central to flawless consulting, the first of which is “being as authentic as you can be at all times with the client” (xxiii). Later, he elaborates on this by saying, “Authentic behavior with a client means you put into words what you are experiencing with the client as you work”(37). It is pretty obvious that any consulting project should entail identifying what the client wants out of the process, but part of the authentic behavior that Block describes is for the consultant to express their wants as well.
As participants, we each had to pick a current consulting project example to use throughout the training session and one of the exercises was for us to make a list of our wants from the client, express those wants aloud recorded with a web-cam, and then watch the recording. This was a uniformly uncomfortable experience for everyone in class. All of us found the idea of expressing any kind of requirement to a client difficult in concept and awkward in practice.
Throughout the course, I found myself wondering why expressing my own wants, which, in the consulting example, were necessary for the success of the project, was so difficult. Somewhere in the contemplation, the phrase from the beginning of Psalm 23 popped into my head: “… I shall not want.” (New American Standard Bible). I realized that over the course of my life I had internalized a destructive distortion of this passage. It went in as “I shall not want” and came out as “Thou shalt not want.”
That’s not what the passage says in the New American Standard Bible and, when I looked the Hebrew word used there up in Strong’s concordance, I learned that the word for “want” means “lack, fail, be lessened, be abated, be bereaved, decrease, be made lower (s.v. 2637). The New International Version makes this a little more clear by translating that phrase “…I shall not be in want.” When I was looking directly at that passage in either version, that’s what I thought it meant. But somehow in the day-to-day functioning of my mind, it turned into something else entirely; what the psalmist penned as a statement of hope turned into a command to deny all desire.
I found remnants of this distortion in all kinds of places. The daily question of what to have for dinner is one of the easiest to explain. Krista says, “what do you want for dinner?” My first thought is, “it doesn’t matter what I want. What do we have?” Really? I’m not allowed to have a preference? That’s ridiculous.
There are all kinds of reasons that this lie exists in my subconscious and conscious awareness. Of some, I am aware, while others still lurk in the shadows. The fact of the matter is that desire, want, is a natural consequence of being alive. Admitting to it is a necessary requirement for being authentically present. Refusing to admit it didn’t keep me from wanting steak and potatoes for dinner, though it can certainly keep me from getting them.
The hope expressed in Psalm 23 is that those desires will not forever be unsatisfied. At the very least, I can be much more authentic and present if I at least admit that I want what I want. It sounds almost childish to say that and someone in the Flawless Consulting class commented that they felt childish saying their list of “wants” out loud. Perhaps being honest about our desires, the profound ones and the trivial ones, is one of those habits of childhood that we would be better off not to abandon. And maybe if I would admit to wanting it, the table prepared in the presence of my enemies would have steak and potatoes.