Even 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 23:4 ESV)
Recently I have been giving much thought to the theme, purposes, and the role of suffering in our world at large and — more specifically — in the lives of our friends and in our family. So much to think about and so many different questions pertaining to this immense subject; does God cause suffering or allow it, why is there suffering, is pain an indicator of sin in the life of the one who is suffering, why do some suffer and others don’t, and what purpose does suffering serve? All of these are valid questions and these, and many others, have been covered by volumes of books. I don’t intend to address these questions today, but there is a thought I would like to briefly think about.
Psalm 23 is one of the most familiar passages in all of the Bible. I would suppose that most people are aware of this passage. Even among people who are agnostic or who don’t attend church regularly there is a certain level of familiarity of well known passages of Scripture and Psalm 23 would be one of those passages. There is much to learn from those six short verses, but I want to focus my thoughts solely on verse 4. Specifically, I want to focus on the the walk of the road of suffering.
Psalm 23 is a Psalm of David that speaks of God’s care and provision for those He loves. It speaks of His comfort in times of plenty or in times of need. That God will take care of those He loves and that His goodness and mercy will be showered upon those who place their trust in Him. But it also speaks of times of suffering, pain, and enemies as if they are something we can be certain will happen in our lives. That all of us will at some time in our life face pain and suffering and trials. If this is the case, and it is, does this Psalm or the Bible help us with understanding how we are to respond?
Many years ago I heard Jill Briscoe speak on Psalm 23 and while all of what she said was quite good there was one point that she made that has stuck with me. Her statement went something like this, “When we began to walk through the valley of the shadow of death we too often want to put on our running shoes and get out of that valley as soon as we can. God did not say when we run through the valley of the shadow of death.” When faced with suffering and trials how do we respond? Often times with prayer that God would remove it from us, or that we would be removed from it. “Please God just make it stop!” And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact the Psalms and the rest of the Bible are filled with the anguished cries of God’s children crying out for mercy in hard times. Yet I suspect that most often what God wants us to learn in our pain and suffering is not that He can remove us from those, but rather that He is with us in our pain and suffering. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian has this to say, “God never promises to save you from your suffering. He promises to save you in your suffering.”
Psalm 23 verse 4 is not a death walk, but it is a walk that feels close to death. It does not say that we walk through the valley of death, but rather that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It gives the impression of a deep darkness that covers us in our suffering. A darkness that may cause us to think we are close to death and to wonder how much more pain and suffering we can take. Fortunately, verse 4 doesn’t end with the valley. No, it points us to the comfort of His rod and staff. A thought of something to build on for another post, but don’t miss that His rod that leads us into the dark valley is held by the same hand that will comfort us in the valley. To ask to leave the valley of suffering may very well be asking to leave the very place where God is.
James chapter 1 helps us see this a little more clearly and it ties very well into Psalm 23:4. In verses 2-4, James wrote this, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” First off notice that it doesn’t say if you meet trials or pain. No, it says when they come. The verses finish by telling us that the trials we face are for our good and will ultimately make us “perfect and complete“, though not in any Salvific way. Rather what we see is that our trials make us more like Christ by increasing our faith and trust in Him. That trials and pain and suffering bring us closer to Him, not something that drives us away from Him. But let us not miss specifically how this happens. We can’t jump from the trial to perfection. Notice that the “testing of our faith produces steadfastness”, or patience. Patience in suffering and walking through the valley of the shadow of death sound like the very same thing to me. The testing of our faith produces within us a patience that brings us to completeness in Jesus Christ. It is the long walk of suffering that causes our faith to increase, not decrease. Pain and suffering are not be viewed as a punishment that drives us away from God, but rather they are to be seen as a mercy that unites us to Him.
So what do we do with this? Simply settle for a que sera sera attitude in pain? No. We are to ask as Paul did for God to remove the pain from us while at the same time resting fully in the knowledge that God is sovereign in our pain and comforts us in our needs. That our sufferings and trials conform us to be like Christ. That pain drives away unbelief, increases our faith, and unites us with Jesus Christ. The rod that leads us into the valley will lead us out in His good time and through it all, and in spite of how long it may take, He will be our Comforter.