“Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me…” Psalm 23:4 NLT
I remember attending the funeral of an old lady who had opened her home for our women’s meetings. I had only met her once before, and was struck then by the sweetness and sadness that seemed to have merged indefinably in her demeanour. A widow of many years, she had lived alone; her son who lived overseas came through the door midway through the funeral. Her other son, I heard, had gone missing years ago, while in university and was never seen afterwards. Much of her earthly life had been lived in a dark valley, but her attitude was one of meekness, acceptance and trust in her Saviour.
Many people associate this part of Psalm 23 with bereavement. Most versions describe the valley as the ‘valley of the shadow of death’. Having walked through that particular valley a few times, I realise that the death of a loved one can cause more sorrow than almost anything else. Yet, the valley, which David was talking about, means much more.
Maybe you are in the midst of a marriage breakdown or face sudden financial ruin or were defrauded of your life savings. Or you have been falsely accused of wrongdoing. You find your reputation in tatters. You fail at something that you have worked very hard for. Perhaps you are all alone, suffering from ill health or looking after a disabled child. Or your child goes astray. Perhaps you feel stuck in a very difficult place for a very long time, and despite years of praying and struggling, your breakthrough seems forever delayed. You are, perhaps, the woman who is waiting – interminably, it would seem – for a baby.
These experiences can produce many conflicting emotions within us. There is that sense of overwhelming pain, regret, self-doubt and hopelessness. We feel alone, abandoned and cast off like an old shoe. We wish something could be done, but feel helpless as we realise that nothing we do will change things. We want to keep trusting God, but feel unable to. With all our props gone and everything of value stripped away, we wonder – where is the all-powerful God in the midst of this wreckage?
Few people know the right things to say or do, when a friend is going through the dark valley. We can only heed the advice of the Bible and ‘mourn with those who mourn.’ Be available to listen and share in their grief. Never try and defend God to someone who feels abandoned by Him. He has no need for our defence, only our obedience.
And what should be our response when we are the ones called by the Shepherd to tread the dark valley? Again God’s word is the staff we lean on. “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the word of his servant? Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on their God.” (Isaiah 50:10 NIV)
All that is expected of us is to hold on with the little strength that we have and with the minuscule, almost non-existent faith we have. “Cast your burden on the Lord and He will sustain you” (Psalm 55:22 ESV). The verse goes on to promise that He will never let you ‘slip and fall’, ‘stumble’, ‘be shaken’, ‘waver’, ‘be moved’ or ‘be upended’ in different versions. I particularly like the Douay-Rheims version which says that He “shall not suffer the just to waver for ever”.
Indeed, we will waver for a time, for the things that can be shaken are being shaken in our lives. There is an earthquake, and how could we hope to stand upright? But He will lift us up and keep us from falling away. Job, when everything was taken from him, spoke words that saints have uttered ever since, in moments of utter desperation: “…The Lord gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21 ESV) and “though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15 NIV).
The promises of God may seem to have failed for us, but they haven’t really. The fulfilment of every promise is certain, but not necessarily within our desired time span or in ways that we had anticipated. Yet, the end is sure to be more glorious than we had ever imagined. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28 NASB). This is especially true for those whom God has trusted enough to let them walk in darkness for a season.
What God has promised us specifically for this spell in the dark valley is Himself – “I will be with you.” We may, especially at the outset, when we first set foot in the dark valley, see nothing of Him, only unrelieved darkness. Being numb from the shock of the upheaval in our lives, we may not feel the touch of His sustaining hand and all we can do is cry out, as Jesus did, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” But if we decide to seek Him – even in the place of darkness – His presence will become more real to us than ever before.
All suffering is for a season. The dark clouds will vanish and we will come out into joyous sunshine. “I will… transform the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope” (Hosea 2:15 NLT). “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, Berean Study). He will indeed “turn our weeping into joy” (Psalm 30:11 Douay-Rheims).
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36 NIV)