You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
— Psalm 91:1
This morning as I was reflecting on this scripture and others related to darkness and light and the strength we find in God, it occurred to me once again why Psalm 23 is so popular and comforting even to people who aren’t necessarily believers.
Verse 4 famously says:
The two hardest and coldest facts of life are that we all are going to die (and in fact we’re dying from the moment we’re born), and that we’re all going to have pain and suffering in this life.
Which is to say we’re all going to walk through some dark and scary valleys.
The darkness and low-down-ness may be from the loss of a child, which is as painful as pain gets, or news of a terminal disease inside of our body or that of a loved one. It may even stem from the loss of a faithful dog who loved us as unconditionally as God himself-herself loves us when unconditional love from family or friends ran shallow at best.
We Christians see Psalm 23 as an assurance that Christ will walk with us every step of the way through the dark valleys of grief and pain. As we move with our Lord closer to the light of relief toward which we’re moving through the valley, most of us learn we have strength within us we didn’t know we had. (That said, deep depression and suicide are topics for another day.)
Granted, we may believe that Jesus is bearing our cross along the way as we pray or cry out to him to help us through. But more often than not in the darkest and most painful depths of a valley, we can’t help but think we won’t have the strength to reach the gate to the fullness of a bright day again.
When I was active in pastoral care ministry as a chaplain, the wife of a man who died after a long and agonizing death in the hospital said to me, “I’ve always thought of myself as a very strong person, chaplain, but I can’t see me having the strength to get through this. That man was my whole life for almost forty years.”
Having gotten to know her for weeks as her husband of so many years fought through end-stage cancer, I said to her, “I assure you that you’re going to find you have strength you didn’t know you had. I’m not going to give you platitudes or tell you you just have to be strong because the truth is it will be dark and very hard sometimes.
“But I know that you’ll begin to see the light at the end of the valley in time and tap into that very strength that makes you think of yourself as strong.”
A year later I received a nice letter from her at the hospital in which she said her grief was still deep and profound. But, she said, “You were right. I found strength I didn’t know I had. I know I’m going to make it through this. I know now there is light at the end of the valley and Jesus will keep me going.”
Aside from the fact that I was pleased she remembered our talk so vividly, I have to say I actually I had pretty much that same talk with many folks I ministered to in hospital and hospice ministries. I spoke pretty much those same words to patients or their loved ones many times, depending entirely, mind you, on the situation and how much rapport I had developed with someone. (***See endnote.)
I do in fact believe we always have strength we’re not sure we have when we’re laid low by suffering or hardship.
I know this from personal experience. I’ve walked through enough valleys of pain and depression in my own life that there were times I didn’t think I had the stuff to carry on. But I always passed through the valley with the realization that I had strength or courage I either didn’t know I had or that I was unsure I had.
As I see it, that inner strength is the eternal light of God within us.
One of the many mysteries of the faith life is that the darkness in us and around us leads us to brighter light within us and around us. Recall that in the beginning God said let there be light. And in the light there is the power of transformation of weakness into sturdiness and even beauty. Consider that most plant life needs light to grow and transform.
God transforms darkness into light and in light there is the potential for spiritual growth and out of spiritual growth we find strength we didn’t know we had.
Thank you, God, for showing us the way to light and for doing the quiet work of strength conditioning.
***Mind you, there are no stock responses to people’s grief as everyone’s grief is so typical but also so utterly unique that no two people grieve in the same way or in any typical amount of time.
And the best response to someone in grief in so many cases is simply to sit with them in silence, holding their hand and holding our tongue and just listening to what they have to say without judgment or trying to be Abby of Dear Abby.
And please, dear reader, never tell someone in pain that “God never gives us more than we can handle.” First of all God doesn’t give us pain and suffering, but gives us comfort and strength when we are in pain and suffering. And that tired platitude is cold comfort to someone who feels like they have more than they can handle as they walk in the valley of darkness.