"The Lord is my Shepherd," the psalmist writes, "I shall not want." These words may not seem to describe our lives today: we are constantly wanting. The new video game console which is faster, better, with better graphics and cooler games. The pair of shoes on half price at the mall. The fast food cheeseburger which all by itself constitutes half your recommended calories for the day. We are a culture which is constantly wanting, but--as the immortal Rolling Stones song tells us--we "can't always get what [we] want, / But if [we] try sometimes well [we] just might find / [we] get what [we] need."
So unless the psalmist lived a much luckier life than any of us here--where "luck" is measured by a standard of egoistic hedonism--we have to assume the psalmist meant the statement "I shall not want" not as a description of an operative state of affairs but as a moral imperative, the "shall" in "I shall not want" being the same "shall" as in "Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." The psalmist, like the Rolling Stones, is reminding us that we get what we need.
God provides for our needs. To explain how God provides for our needs, though, the psalmist turns to the metaphor of a shepherd. Jesus expands on this metaphor in the Gospel of St. John the Evangelist (as well as in the synoptic gospels), and St. John the Divine references back to it in his account of the apocalyptic Revelation provided to him. When we consider the metaphor further, we might gleam some further understanding of why and how we live in such a crazy world where our desires so often run counter to the reality which we find.
Think of the life of an ordinary shepherd. She wakes up early, takes the sheep from wherever it is the sheep might spend the night, in stables perhaps, and she leads them to the "green pastures" where they are set loose to graze. And that, my sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ, is where all the trouble begins.
Because grazing sheep get into trouble. They need to be protected from predators, but also they need to be kept from wandering off and getting lost. Think of the sheep in Jesus' parables; they're constantly getting lost or otherwise in trouble, so that the shepherd must leave the flock behind and search for them. It's enough to drive our poor shepherd insane. But sheep need to be free to graze.
And as it is for sheep, it is even more so for people. God is raising a flock of free-range souls; the freedom of our wills is a gift from God, but so too is it a consequence of our being a reflection of God, the imago dei, created in the divine image.
God could, in God's divine omnipotence, order the universe such that our desires and our daily bread were always in harmony; God could run God's Creation like a well-oiled train station. But God chooses instead to allow us to exercise our freedom, recognizing in God's omnibenevolence that as the greater good. As Baptist theologian Roger Olson notes, "God is in charge of everything without controlling everything." Such are the actions of a good shepherd, or for that matter a good parent--or a good God.
The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church affirmed the importance of the doctrine of free will thusly:
Only in freedom can [a person] direct [themself] toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within [a human being]. For God has willed that [humans] remain "under the control of [their] own decisions," so that [they] can seek [their] Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to [God].This is simply a reaffirmation, in somewhat--ahem--nicer terms, of the doctrine as articulated at the Council of Trent:
Hence [a person's] dignity demands that [they] act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. [A person] achieves such dignity when, emancipating [themself] from all captivity to passion, [they] pursue [their] goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for themself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end. Since [humans'] freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can [one] bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each [person] must render an account of [their] own life, whether [they have] done good or evil.
If any one shall affirm, that [the] freewill [of human beings], moved and excited by God, does not, by consenting, cooperate with God, the mover and exciter, so as to prepare and dispose itself for the attainment of justification; if moreover, anyone shall say, that the human will cannot refuse complying, if it pleases, but that it is inactive, and merely passive; let such a one be accursed.If a person's dignity demands on their part a free choice not forced by external forces, however, then any attack against their freedom--whether by church, government, or culture--is an offense against that dignity, a sacrilege against the imago dei itself.
If anyone shall affirm, that since the fall of Adam [and of Eve], [the] freewill [of human beings] is lost and extinguished; or, that it is a thing titular, yea a name, without a thing, and a fiction introduced by Satan into the Church; let such an one be accursed.
If any one saith, that it is not in [the] power [of a human being] to make [their] ways evil, but that the works that are evil God worketh as well as those that are good, not permissively only, but properly, and of [Godself], in such wise that the treason of Judas is no less [God's] own proper work than the vocation of Paul; let [them] be anathema.
Our duty, then, is to oppose those structures in the world which would act to undermine the agency of our sister and brother and sibling human beings: sexism and racism, transphobia and homophobia; poverty and hunger; totalitarianism and fascism. We must stand in solidarity against that which would diminish the autonomy of the oppressed and downtrodden, against ideologies of fear, of hatred, and of control. We must not allow the voices of any people to be silenced. For the most fundamental freedom of all is the freedom to simply be who we are, who we are called to be by Christ: female and/or male and/or intersexed and/or genderqueer; gay and/or straight; white and/or of color; Jew and/or gentile. "I am woman, hear me roar"--the first line of the 1972 Helen Reddy song "I Am Woman" which became an iconic catchphrase for liberation and empowerment-- is a phrase we make fun of nowadays, but it bespeaks the truth that this freedom is not always easily won, and its exercise often transgressive. Sometimes merely demanding the right to be ourselves, and to speak with our own voices, can be radical in itself.
I am reminded of the radical freedom commended to us in the homilectic exhortation of Saint Augustine: "Love, and do what you like." The truth is, it is not possible to do one of these things without the other. Authentic freedom is always necessarily rooted in love, and authentic love is that which fosters freedom. And that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is within the love, which is boundless and abundant, of Christ the Good Shepherd for the flock which is humanity, that we find our most perfect freedom. Freedom from sin, freedom from fear, even freedom from death itself, but most fundamentally the freedom to be ourselves--all of these are the consequences of God's grace, of we and our robes being washed in the blood of the Lamb and made stainless.