In the 23rd Psalm, King David shares some very keen insight into our relationship with God using the metaphor of sheep and shepherding. The first post, Landscape, gave some background and context to the valley, sheep, and the shepherd. It is now time to apply that to us and God. Primarily, I want to talk about verse 4:
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.
Mark Henry of Fellowship Bible Church preached on this very verse recently and one of the things that I took away from it was his attention on the first two words: EVEN THOUGH.
The first three verses were spent describing the high places – the good times in life. These two little words carry over the Truth revealed in those high places into the valley, which represents the hard times in life. In essence, he is calling us to take with us into the valley the loveliness of rest and refreshment; safety and security; blessing and restoration.
This should be a sobering transition because it means that we will need those things to survive the valley; thus painting the valley as undesirable before we even get to the “shadow of death” part.
VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH
The “valley of the shadow of death” makes me remember who the author of this passage is.
He lost a good portion of his life on the run from Saul’s pursuit. He lost a son and had another betray him. His life was marked by a lot of pain and some deep dark valleys…parts of his life that he would never get back, which is one way to describe death. But it wasn’t death for him…but a shadow of death – the reality of death without dying. No wonder we reel upon entering the valley; why we long for the overeaten pastures that were heavenly just before and desperately try to figure out a way back.
The first moments in the valley are some of the most critical. It’s dark and disorienting. We want to ask, “Why am I here?” We clamor for understanding and the need to make sense of our new surroundings overwhelms us. And yet, the Shepherd calls us to not fear-based on His very presence. You get the sense that He is saying, “Be still and listen to me. I have a plan.”
Lesson #1: Upon entering the valley, resist the urge to ask, “Why?” Instead, ask, “God, what are you up to?” Scripture is clear that God, not only wants to be, but will be involved intimately in the Believer’s life. He is sovereign over ALL – the high places as well as the valley and all points in between.
This response requires two things:
- An unwavering belief that God loves you. It is the valley where we really learn this lesson, so don’t be surprised or ashamed if you question this in the midst of hard times. He wants to answer that question with complete clarity!
- A supernatural trust that He is on our side and orchestrates all things to our benefit.
They (whoever they are) say that hindsight is 20/20 and both of these beliefs are aspects of our relationship with God that are greatly affected by looking back down into the valley from the high places. The more trips through hard times, the easier it is to move to ask the right question. It doesn’t necessarily ease the pain, but it helps us gain the right perspective from the onset.
Remember that the valley is defined by multiple high places. Just one high place means that the descent is into a plain or plateau. This is very good news for us as it means there are good times ahead. This simple acknowledgment is very powerful. The valley can produce an unknown condition of the future and if left to fester can lead to hopelessness. Remembering there is a high place ahead of us, even if it is unimaginable, can start to restore our hope that, eventually…” this too shall pass.”
Lesson #2: The valley is a transition between two high places and tasty grass is part of your future. Even if physical death occurs in the valley, heaven becomes the next high place. Allow the hope we have in Him to be your source of hope in the midst of despair.
Just as the valley is defined by high places, those high places are separated by some distance. Otherwise, we would see a mountain ridge and not a valley. Walking through the valley usually takes considerable time and, from my own experience, much longer than we like. If we can hang onto the truths that He loves us and that He is trustworthy; if we can lift our eyes up just enough to catch a glimmer of hope – perhaps we can find some endurance to find the meaning of the valley.
One thing is for sure – the valley didn’t happen by chance. God was not surprised by what happened to you, but rather is using it to shape and mold you to the person of Christ. We can either embrace what He is doing or rebel against it. Again, past trips through the valley make this decision easier.
I’m reminded of the apostle Peter. Could Christ have physically prevented Peter from being in a public place that night when he denied his Master? Sure – He could have told James and John to not let Peter out of their sight. Ever wonder why He didn’t? I think the denial of Christ – especially because of Peter’s staunch denouncement of this prophecy – was exactly what was required to crystallize his faith for the work depicted in Acts. God had a plan and He knew what Peter would need and used the valley of betrayal to accomplish His goals.
Lesson #3: Take time to properly grieve and explore what God wants you to experience. The valley is a metaphor for a process intended to induce change. That change should be welcome even if the process isn’t.
Finally, there is the proclamation that David makes that we are not alone and this, along with the rod and staff, provides comfort. The degree to which that comfort affects us is directly proportional to the depth of understanding of the truths set forth in the preceding words. Spiritual maturity, the measure of one’s head and heart understanding of God and His ways is what God is interested in.
He uses many different tools to produce maturity in our lives. He uses His Word to take and apply in our daily lives and to provide insight into His character. He uses the Holy Spirit to speak to our souls and provide encouragement and correction when needed. He uses our circumstances to teach us very tangible lessons. And then He uses people to fill in the gaps.
While the details of most valleys are intensely personal, the journey is best done with company. And the best company is found in valley veterans – people that have been through their own valleys and know what you are feeling. All valley experiences have some aspects in common and it is possible for someone to genuinely empathize with you. The trick is finding these special “valley-goers”, or rather allowing them to find you.
The valley makes us want to hide – to pull the covers over our heads and not come out until after the winter snow has thawed. Pride, shame, condemnation, and even embarrassment are tools that Satan uses to keep us separated from the rest of the flock where we are prone to be devoured. The solution is two-fold:
- Remember the lessons learned
- Move in faith to someone close and ask for prayer
Notice I didn’t say to ask for HELP. Most people don’t know how to help someone in the valley, but we all need prayer. Asking for prayer is also a good way to signal to those valley-goers that you need their company – a coded message if you will. These special people are lights in the darkness and blessings from the Father.
Lesson #4: You are not alone. Certainly, God is with you and He will, at times, bring others into the valley with you to help carry the load. Embrace and cherish them for the gifts they are.
The valley is a metaphor for tough times in our life – the real-world experience of James 1:2-4, but if we can recognize it for what God intends, we will encounter Him in those hard places and as a result – experience Joy. The final installment in this series, Legacy, is what it means to take your valley experiences and give them away.