The valley of the shadow of death
Here in southern California, the sun shines 300 days out of the year. We have summer followed by cooler summer, then back to summer again. We can go to the beach in February, wear flip-flops year-round, and never have to shovel our driveways. All this comfort has led to an interesting attitude among southern Californians. We’re all supposed to be living the dream, happy all the time. “It’s all good” is a favorite saying. One of the most common bumper stickers I see reads “No bad days!”
But reality is different. Whether you live in San Diego or Fargo, you still have to get up and go to work every day. You have bills to pay and a car to keep running. You have relationships with people, broken people, human beings who are flakey and quirky – just like you. You get sick. Or your kids do. Your dog dies. Even people die. The gentle weather of California is nice, but life still happens. Whoever created the “No bad days!” bumper sticker isn’t living in the same world as the rest of us.
The trials and troubles that come into our lives can be deep, dark valleys where we struggle to find our way and may even lose hope of ever seeing the light again. But we must never think that dark valleys mean God isn’t good or doesn’t care about us or simply isn’t there. Without valleys there would be no plains or mountains. Without troubles in life we would never appreciate the blessings. Think about how much more you appreciate being able to breathe through your nostrils after a few sleepless nights of a nasty cold! Think about how good your bed feels after you’ve slept on a 1-inch sleeping pad for a week in the wilderness. God’s goodness, His grace, His mercy and His salvation only make sense in light of a world that is broken. We actually need the valleys.
And, much like mountaintop experiences, God can redeem the valley experiences in our lives, bringing good and light out of pain and darkness.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28
Any of us over the age of about 10 have experienced one or more deep valleys in life. Death of a loved one. Financial struggles. Loss of a marriage. Unrealized dreams. Poor grades in school. A close friend moving far away. The moral failure of an admired spiritual leader.
Now officially middle aged, I have had my (un)fair share of struggles, failures, and disappointments. Recently, I had a health scare that had Ann and me questioning whether I would ever be able to work again. It started with my digestive tract misbehaving. The routine lab tests all came back normal, but the symptoms persisted. Within two weeks a multitude of other symptoms hit me: vertigo, nausea, body aches and chills, and extreme fatigue. I was so weak in the mornings when I woke up, my wife had to help me from the bed to the bathroom and back again. My lack of appetite along with the nausea and weakness made eating difficult and led to the loss of about 20 pounds (and I didn’t need to lose any weight!). Seven weeks of CT scans, MRIs, unmentionable-oscopies, and just about every other test known to man revealed that I am so healthy I should live to be 110 years old! So what was making me so sick?
One doctor said I was the healthiest sick man he’d ever met. Another said I’d had the million dollar diarrhea workup.
The gastroenterologist was the first (but not the last) to recommend I go to psychiatry. My ego didn’t like this one bit. It’s all in your head, was what I heard. But the symptoms were very real, every bit as real as the norovirus infection I’d had a few years back. How could this be psychological?
In the end, it turned out that I was suffering from generalized anxiety disorder brought on by cumulative stress. For ten years I had been sprinting through life, not realizing that it is a 26.2-mile marathon rather than a 100-meter dash. The busyness of an intense career, a fixer-upper house, and a wife and three kids combined with a personality that borders on perfectionist was the ideal recipe for a crash. It came as a shock that I was so physically ill, yet my diagnosis was psychological. I never knew that my body could be so incredibly sick if my brain was sick.
Seven months later, thanks to counseling, medication, and behavioral changes, I am back to work and on the road to recovering. But there were at least two times in the midst of my illness, before we had a diagnosis, when I began to doubt that I would recover. Ann and I had the dreaded conversations about where to find the will and trust and how to best care for the kids without me, if it came to that. We were in a deep, deep valley.
Take-home point: Valleys happen.
Take-home verse: Romans 8:28
Questions for thought
What hardships have you faced in life? Have you been able to see God working it out for good yet?
Do you ever feel like you have to put on a happy face, even when life isn’t so happy?
Do you know anyone who denies the struggles of life, always insisting that “it’s all good”? What are your relationships like with those people?
Lord, we know that life sometimes includes valleys. And we trust that you are still good, and that you will work out those valley experiences for the good of those who love you. May we always live life with joy, but not in denial of the trials of life. Let the struggles show us our need for your salvation and your blessing. Amen.