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Valley Times Are Profitable Times

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Valley Times Are Profitable Times

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Every now and then, I have to get an MRI done to check for changes in an unwanted alien (tumor) inside my head. I slide in the narrow cylinder like a human cannon ball. The process is long, really noisy (it sounds like a bunch of chimps pounding away with hammers on the outside of my cannon—and laughing too) and gives me a bit of claustrophobia.

One of the main things that gets me through it without going crazy is slowly rehearsing David's Psalm 23 and praying in tremendous detail about every aspect of it.

"The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me" (Psalm 23:1-4).

In the Bible, valleys can symbolize periods of hardship and suffering. David evokes a particularly dangerous and painful image by referring to "the valley of the shadow of death" (verse 4). In the midst of a psalm meant to provide comfort and assurance is a cold reminder that spiritual valleys are inevitable. And believe me, I realize my valley right now is peanuts compared to what many readers might be going through at this moment.

But if we fly through the psalm like I often did in my youth, we read only of green pastures and quiet waters, and miss the heart of Psalm 23 and a really big point about the Christian life.

A Promise

The valley verse contains a promise not found among the lovely first lines. In hardship, we discover "You are with me" (verse 4). God's unflinching presence becomes most obvious to us when we are vulnerable. And along with our experience of His assurance and comfort comes the understanding that the Lord goes with us daily—even into the depths of our despair.

When people do not recognize His constancy, they turn to other coping methods, such as endless chatter, rehearsing and processing, distractions or burying themselves in work. However, when we are filled instead with the understanding that God holds us close to Him no matter how deep or wide our "valley" is, we can release fear and endure suffering.

The Good Shepherd

As the Good Shepherd, Jesus protects and guides His lambs through trials. Even in these low places, we cannot be snatched from Him (John 10:29). His rod beats away predators trying to drag away or take out one of the flock. And His staff's crooked neck pulls a wandering sheep back from the cliff's edge—out of harm's way.

When we are in a dark valley (or a long cylinder), God may be our only comfort. But we can take heart because He's always there—our Shepherd never forsakes His beloved lambs. When I say the "only comfort," He is the real comfort and the only one that can really do something about it.

Psalm 23 concludes: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever" (verses 5-6).

Maturing Spiritually

People rarely think of suffering as profitable. But when facing the difficulty and pain of a valley experience, we mature spiritually—it is His way of "growing kids God's way." We make discoveries about ourselves when trials peel away any facade we might typically display and instead expose who we truly are.

As our life is for a time shaken, we learn what forms our faith: the Scriptures or opinion. Consequently, valley experiences reveal priorities, spiritual crutches and whether we boast of Christ or our own strength. God's purpose is to use the spiritual crowbar to pry away everything we depend on until nothing competes with our Lord and Master's reign in our lives.

Crutches, rhetoric and bravado are to be replaced by a real dependence upon God. We are encouraged to recall that He provides for our needs—"prepare[s] a table for me in the presence of my enemies"—and heals our wounds—"anoint[s] my head with oil" (verse 5).

A good shepherd rubbed oil onto the scrapes his sheep received. In that way, healing began before the animal left the valley floor. As a result of relying on our Shepherd, we experience renewed intimacy and a sense of inner peace that sustains us through the challenge and beyond.

God's children can profit from pain only by accepting the Father's work in the valleys. Fighting or crying for a way out gains us nothing, I've found. Accepting means asking the Lord a few big questions and requests: What is Your goal for me this time? Please help me not to squander the opportunity.

As I told Him, "Well, you have my complete attention. How am I to respond so I can make good on this opportunity?"

I just did not want to waste His time! Whatever the Lord's response, our next step is submitting ourselves and all we have to Him with the knowledge that our valley is really a gateway to His purpose and our profit. UN

Stuart Segall is the pastor of the Crescent City, Eureka and Red Bluff, California, congregations.

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