Walking through the valley of the shadow of death

For most of us; no, I dare say all of us, suffering is something we wish to avoid. This is a natural human response, and by no means wrong. Most of us are blessed to live in communities which are largely sheltered from the more vicious aspects of earthly life. This is a blessing from the Lord. Perhaps many of us as young people have not yet had to grapple with intense suffering, such as the death of a close family member, or a crippling physical impairment. But there are many who have. Regardless of one’s personal experience, the prevalence of the theme of suffering throughout the pages of Scripture merits meditation.

We are all familiar with the Scriptural teaching concerning our lives in this sin-sundered world. As long as we are “at home in the body” we are subject to the afflictions, sufferings, and calamities which daily ravage our world and pierce our communities. The harsh reality is that we live in a world which is under the curse, a world in which death reigns. Likewise, the somber reality (from a human perspective) is that suffering is an inevitable aspect of life. It is not a matter of whether suffering will come upon us, it is a matter of when it will come. “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.” (Phil. 1:29) Indeed, our life on this earth is a journey through the valley of the shadow of death. And often this is not a carefree stroll. It is a journey filled with stumbles and snares, and along the often wearisome road the devil prowls as a lion. In the course of this journey, we all acquire scars. In our world calamity strikes suddenly and seemingly without purpose; the recent events which have flooded our news channels attest to this fact.

The unbeliever adamantly objects to this truth. He imagines that humanity is the innocent and hapless victim of forces outside himself. In response he slanders God, self-righteously asserting that no good God could permit the sort of evils which we experience in this world and therefore, if God exists, He is a malevolent deity unworthy of worship. This is the so-called “problem of evil.” The unbeliever casts the blame for evil and suffering at God’s feet, and in doing so he both denies his own sin and culpability, as well as God’s right to punish injustice. We Christians know differently. The Bible not only reveals to us the inevitability of suffering, it also teaches us the reason for our suffering and its eternal significance. Indeed, in this world we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but as Psalmist said, we also shall fear no evil, for we trust in God, and in his rod and shepherd’s staff we find comfort. As a result we Christians have an entirely unique understanding of suffering, both with respect to its cause and to its ultimate end, and therefore our response to suffering is drastically different than that of the unbeliever.

First of all we know that suffering and evil are the products of humanity’s fall into sin. Mankind, through its connection to Adam, is responsible for every evil in this world. There is no such thing as an innocent human being. For all have sinned and are worthy of the judgment of God, and are therefore worthy of his wrath and justly deserve whatever evil comes their way. There is no “problem of evil,” such is only the fantasy of sinful men seeking to deny their guilt. However, as children of God our guilt has been expunged. Indeed, as children of God whose sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ, the evils which afflict us are not manifestations of God’s wrath toward us. We have peace with God through the blood of the cross. However, our redemption does not exempt us from the consequences of our sin.

Second, the Bible teaches the absolute sovereignty of God over suffering and evil. Every event in our lives, every suffering which comes our way is dispensed From God’s fatherly hand. God as our loving father works all things “together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). No matter what evil comes our way, we may have confidence that God has some good purpose for it, regardless of whether we see it or not.  God will never give us more than we can bear, that He has promised. His grace is always sufficient. Indeed, the tribulations which God sends us are for our spiritual good. Through them God refines and strengthens our faith, and it is often in the depths of suffering that we experience most fully the wonder of God’s magnificent sustaining grace, grace which is renewed every morning. In his City of God, Augustine gives us a beautiful expression of the purpose of our suffering:

“The sufferers are different even though the sufferings are the same trials; though what they endure is the same, their virtue and vice are different. For, in the same fire, gold gleams and straw smokes; under the same flail the stalk is crushed and the grain threshed; the lees are not mistaken for oil because they have issued from the same press. So, too, the tide of trouble will test, purify, and improve the good, but beat, crush, and wash away the wicked. So it is that, under the weight of the same affliction, the wicked deny and blaspheme God, and the good pray to Him and praise Him. The difference is not in what people suffer but in the way they suffer. The same shaking that makes fetid water stink makes perfume issue a more pleasant odor.” (City of God Book 1, Chapter 8)

Therefore, we have a great reason to rejoice in tribulation. As the Apostle Peter wrote: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.” (I Peter 4:12-13) This does not mean that our sufferings will be painless, or that we will never grieve. Read through the book of Lamentations. There one will find one of the most eloquent expressions of human grief ever written. The author is well aware of God’s sovereignty in his sufferings, and he accepts humbly the Lord’s will, but this does not preclude him from lamenting. Grief, rightly expressed, is genuine response to suffering.

And yet, we rejoice!

The world calls this insanity. But the child of God, seeing the purpose of earthly suffering with the eyes of faith, confesses along with the Apostle Paul that “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Rom. 8:18) We walk through the valley of the shadow of death, indeed we do; but we walk through this valley by faith, strengthened by power the Holy Spirit within us. “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (II Cor. 4:16-18) Above all we have the example of our Savior Jesus Christ. There is no greater consolation than the incarnation. Not only did Christ die as a propitiation for our sins, He is also our faithful high priest, who took on our flesh and who is able to be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.  Friends, what a comfort we have in this life. For us Death holds no terror and suffering no permanent despair. Rather in Christ we have permanent and unshakeable peace and joy, no matter what our earthly circumstances may be.  In Christ we have rest, both in this life, and the everlasting one to come.

JS

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