In the Valley of the Shadow

We are due to start a series in the book of Acts at QBC, but I’ve had a message pressing on me which I feel is from God (as distinct from all the others where I just fluff along and hope for the best…) and it concerns the issue of how we see God in the midst of serious pain and suffering.

I’m not talking about how we deal with ‘first world problems’ ie. unexpected bills, a faulty air con or not enough holidays. I’m thinking of how we deal with life’s major disasters. When a child dies, a marriage busts up, a family member is diagnosed with a terminal illness… BIG stuff… ‘valley of the shadow’ type stuff.

If you read Psalm 23, a Psalm that typically gets read in tough times, you would notice that almost every statement in it is positive and encouraging, (ever noticed that?) but there is an allowance for ‘walking through the valley of the shadow of death’.

Its a powerful metaphor for the type of suffering that I am alluding to. And my theory is that sooner or later every single one of us will walk thru the valley. In one way or another our lives will involve significant pain and we need a theological framework for dealing with that.

If we don’t (and sometimes even if we do) we will end up ‘blaming God’ and berating him for his failure to be an adequate father. This can lead to ditching faith altogether and being disappointed with God because he didn’t meet our expectations

At another extreme is the whole idea of ‘thanking God’ for the suffering, as if it were a good thing. I have seen and heard people thanking God for the most bizarre stuff based on the idea of ‘giving thanks in all circumstances’. Now I’d want to say there is always something to give thanks for, but chances are it won’t be the death of a spouse, or the loss of a child…

I won’t give the game away in terms of what I want to say, (although its not rocket surgery) but I will point you to two posts that I have found helpful in this process and both know suffering firsthand.

The first is by a friend and an ex school student of mine who died on Jan 2nd this year of bowel cancer and it is his final words written a short time before his passing. Kristian suddenly became ‘famous’ after making a video for his wife’s birthday, putting it on Youtube and then discovered it had gone viral.

What I admired about Kristian’s journey was the way he honestly expressed his pain and struggle, and how he didn’t end up pinning it all on God. To the end he called a spade a spade but he also acknowledged God as good, in control and to be trusted. You can read his final words here. I watched the memorial service online and it was a real tribute to a both the way he and his wife dealt with ‘the valley of the shadow’.

And then there is this post by New Testament Theologian Ben Witherington, that is the start of him reflecting on the unexpected death of his 32 year old daughter from a pulmonary embolism. It takes a different tack and shows a biblical scholar coming to grips with the valley of the shadow. Here’s an excerpt:

So, for me, the beginning of good grief starts with the premise of a good God. Otherwise, all bets are off. If God is almighty and malevolent, then there is no solace to be found in God. If God is the author of sin, evil, suffering, the fall, and death, then the Bible makes no sense when it tells us that (1) God tempts no one, that (2) God’s will is that none should perish but have everlasting life, and that (3) death is the very enemy of God and humankind that Jesus, who is life, came to abolish and destroy.

So my theory – as dark as it may be is this: One day you will enter the valley of the shadow – if you haven’t already – and how you see God will be critical to how you walk that journey.

One of my deep convictions is that a healthy grasp of the true character of God can help us both grieve, express pain and not lose our way all at the same time.

So the question comes back to who is God and what is he like?

4 thoughts on “In the Valley of the Shadow

  1. Hamo, I agree with your theory. While I’ve lost some dear ones to death, and I’ve certainly been through some lousy times, I’ve never gone through the type of stuff you’re talking about. I have no doubt those times will come, though. Will you be recording those and putting them online. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

  2. I’m someone who suddenly lost a child, and am currently dealing with one of the nastier cancers. I have had a very strong assurance that God has been with me through all of the crap. I’ve had less comfort from my church community…but most people are really awkward at even knowing how to talk to you in such circumstances. I used to be really bad at it too.

    If you want to talk with someone whose faith was strengthened by losing a child rather than shattered (yeah, I know it’s weird), or have someone go over what you are about to say to see if it resonates with truth (from this side), contact me.

  3. In contrast Em, my church community has been a great blessing to me. Maybe what people need to realise is that nothing they say will help… it is being there that makes the difference. Exactly as you said God was there for you – he was with you through all the crap. And in particular I had a pastor who was there with me in the crappiest moments. I haven’t got a clue what she said… can’t remember a word… but I know she was there and that has stuck with me.

    Thank you for a thoughtful and relevant message this morning Andrew. I relate to your thoughts on the error attributing evil to God. One painful memory was of attending a funeral service not long after John’s death. The pastor firmly placed each and every death at God’s hand – his will, his timing. I questioned him later, and he condescendingly told me I’d understand and accept it later. I appeciate his desire to protect God’s sovereignty in all things but maybe accusing God of causing death is too high a price, and only required by human logic. I’m still thinking around sovereignty… don’t know if I’ll find answers.

  4. Thanks Kerryn – difficult topic and I only wanted to make 2 points – although we could have diverged down many more tracks!

    The question of sovereignty is a big one but as I said this morning I believe we need to begin any reflecting from the base of a ‘good God’ otherwise who knows where we will end up.

    And for the benefit of those who don’t know is well I will let your pastor know that you appreciated her 🙂

    (Kerryn is writing about my wife!)

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