Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. Psalm 23:6
We have been thinking over the psalm in the very personal terms in which David wrote it, but even though the Shepherd does care for us as individual sheep, we must never forget that we are each only a part of his flock, heading for the same fold, following the same voice (Jn 10:16,27). Goodness and mercy work together to keep the flock moving ahead as one, following the Shepherd, and we are not to respond to one or the other of them only, but to both. Yet since the church began, divisions have arisen because believers have polarised, some equating goodness with a strict aiding by the law to the neglect of mercy, while others may put response to what is perceived as mercy ahead of doing what is admitted to be good and right. One group then labels the other either as smug or sentimental, and both lose balance. Many of our ethical dilemmas in Medicine arise as we try to discern the relative goodness of one choice when comparing two bad possibilities, or hope to select the one which seems to be the most merciful from two cruel alternatives.
Goodness and mercy are divine qualities acting together with the intention of keeping us aligned to the Shepherd's voice. His word is our guide and we have the promise that his Spirit will anoint our heads as we seek to know and act upon the mind of Christ. To butt and kick at each other delays progress and sheep do not need to walk exactly in each other's hoof prints to be moving in the same direction. His goodness and mercy must also characterise our dealings with those whose position in the flock may differ somewhat from our own yet who may still be genuinely following the Shepherd's voice.
For goodness and mercy to be said to follow believers may indicate, too, that we are intended to leave a trail of these qualities behind us -- the overflow from the cup -- both as we live and when we die. The middle years of life are notorious for bringing a slackening off of enthusiasm, just as the early years may be marked by rather intermittent discipleship as other priorities keep on intruding. When `all the days of my life' have gone, to leave a final legacy which will bring glory to God means that I endure and follow faithfully now. To look ahead and see the Shepherd's wounds, to spend time hearing and responding to his call and to look around at so many evidences of his goodness and his mercy, these cannot fail to encourage each of us to keep on keeping on and help others to do the same, until at last the Chief Shepherd appears (1 Pet 5:4).
And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never.
H W Baker
Further reading: 1 Cor 12:12-13, 18-27. Rev 5:9-12.