A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 [Part 7: Even though I walk through the valley ]
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
A competent, diligent, caring shepherd will know that his flock needs to pass through deep, dark valleys in order to ultimately be refreshed by the remote alpine meadows in higher elevations. This entails long "drives" where the shepherd is continuously with the flock. He is careful to search out any possible dangers, from deep ravines where sheep can fall and get injured, predators, poisonous plants, avalanches, and rock slides. There are difficulties in these treks to higher ground, many of which are found in the dark valleys. But the shepherd's presence makes all the difference for the sheep. They can follow him through the darkness of the valleys because they know he is beside them and will protect and provide for them.
This first part of the fourth verse of Psalm 23 is often used at funerals to comfort those who are grieving a loved one. The encouragement is that even the dark valley of death cannot keep them from traveling onto "higher ground". Keller experienced this personally when his beloved wife passed onto "higher ground" after battling cancer. During this painful time in his life, he experienced a deeper closeness to God: "During my wife's illness and after her death I could not get over the strength, solace, and serene outlook imparted to me virtually hour after hour by the presence of God's gracious Spirit Himself. It was as if I was being repeatedly refreshed and restored despite the most desperate circumstances all around me. Unless one has actually gone through such an experience, it may be difficult to believe. In fact, there are those who claim they could not face such a situation. But for the man or woman who walks with God through these valleys, such real and actual refreshment is available." (p. 103-104)
This verse is just as applicable while we are toiling and struggling on this earth since we will have to pass through a fair share of dark valleys. These dark valleys may look like disappointments, frustrations, discouragements, dilemmas, dark and difficult days, natural disasters, broken relationships. The pain is often severe and seems like it will never end. But there is hope. These dark valleys can serve a purpose for Christians as "a road to higher ground in our walk with God" (p 101). What a good shepherd is aware of, that his sheep are not, is that the dark valleys are often the only way to richer pastures and clearer streams of the high country. Those very scary and dark valleys are a way to a refreshment and satisfaction that is often stunted in the lower fields near the farm that are too-often grazed and overused.
"Our Shepherd knows all of this when He leads us through the valleys. He knows where we can find strength and sustenance and gentle grazing despite every threat of disaster about us. It is a most reassuring and reinforcing experience to the child of God to discover that there is, even in the dark valley, a source of strength and courage to be found in God. It is when we can look back over life and see how the Shepherd's hand has guided and sustained him in the darkest hours that that renewed faith is engendered... over and over He has proved His care and concern for my welfare. Again and again I have been conscious of the Good Shepherd's guidance through dark days and deep valleys" (p. 107).
Three Reasons To Be Comforted in the Dark Valley
1. Our Good Shepherd is with us in the dark valley. The comfort for the Christian is that the Good Shepherd is with them in the dark valley and He is the one leading them to higher ground. He will not leave us in our dark valley even though often we feel the stabbing pain of loneliness in those challenging seasons. We may feel broken and trampled upon, maybe even helpless and hopeless. But it is in these moments of distress that we need to remind ourselves that He is walking beside us in the valley. We need to recall His promises as well as what the Bible says who He is (His names and attributes). I find it fascinating that Psalm 23 highlights different names of God, including Yahweh-Rohi (The Lord is my Shepherd), Yahweh- Jireh (The Lord is my Provider), Yahweh- Rapha (The Lord Heals), Yahweh- Shammah (The Lord is There), Yahweh-Shalom (The Lord is Peace). For a refresher on the many attributes of God, here is a great summary of fifteen. I would also recommend Jen Wilken's books, None Like Him and In His Image for a deeper study of the sharable (He is loving, compassionate, forgiving, etc) and non-sharable attributes of God (He is omnipresent, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite; we are not). A.W. Tozer's The Attributes of God is another great resource. And here is a great article from Compassion with fifty promises from the Bible. You may have other resources for reminding yourself who He is and what He has promised. Write them down and save them for meditating and reflecting on during those dark valleys when it is easy to forget these truths.
We need to also refresh our memories of the many times He has been faithful in the past. I find it helpful to journal while in a dark valley as a way to process and put words to my emotions. Other people draw, paint, or have another creative outlet to help them through difficulties. What a testimony of His faithfulness to one day look back and look at that journal, photo, or other work of art that can help recall those difficult moments as well as His presence through it all.
2. We can be comforted that we have the opportunity to grow because of our experience in the dark valleys. We can mature in strength, endurance, patience, stamina. No pain or heartache is wasted. God can redeem and use the pain we experience as we walk through the valley to shape us more into His likeness.
3. God can use your valley experience to comfort, encourage, and uplift someone when they are going through their own valley:"The one best able to comfort another in bereavement is the person who himself has lost a loved one. The one who can best minister to a broken heart is one who has known a broken heart. Most of us do not want valleys in our lives. We shrink from them with a sense of fear and foreboding. Yet in spite of our worst misgivings God can bring great benefit and lasting benediction to others through those valleys. Let us not always try to avoid the dark things, the distressing days. They may well prove to be the way of greatest refreshment to ourselves and those around us... The person with a powerful conscience in Christ; the one who has proved by past experience that God is within him in adversity; the one who walks through life's dark valleys without fear, his head held high, is the one who in turn is a tower of strength and a source of inspiration to his companions" (p. 104, 108)
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ." (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)
It is for these reasons that we can join David in saying "I will not fear". Keller boldly says: "Let come what may. Storms may break about me, predators may attack, the rivers of reverses may threaten to inundate me. But because He is in the situation with me, I shall not fear. To live thus is to have taken some very long treks toward the high country of holy, calm, health living with God" (p 107-108).
This seems impossible or unrealistic at first glance. But with Christ as our Good Shepherd, we can face dark valleys calmly and fearlessly. We may still have moments of unrest, anxiety, sadness, loneliness. But we can remind ourselves that our Good Shepherd is with us and He has a purpose to walking us through the dark valley.
1. How do I react to and cope with dark valleys in my life?
2. What attributes and promises of God can I meditate upon in the dark valleys to bolster my faith?
3. What can I do to prepare myself for walking through dark valleys? (For me, memorizing Scripture by writing them on note cards is a big help).
4. How can I be an encouragement and comfort to those going through a dark valley?
Here is a playlist I created with songs about Psalm 23 for meditation and reflection