Walking in the Valley of Shadows

By: David Stephens
When you walk in the valley of shadows, it’s messy. There’s no sunshine. And, since there’s no sunshine, there’s mud. And it gets on you. And it’s hard to get off.

They say hindsight is 20/20. I guess that’s right, because, looking back, I can see the markers on the path that brought me to that place, to the valley. The unexplained anger, the moments of unbridled fear, the sense of impending doom. The isolation.

The helplessness.

The hopelessness.

For years, this feeling of fear and gloom had followed me, clung to me, like mud. But I became very good at pushing it to the side and carrying on - being the guy who had it all together, the guy who could always come up with the right scripture, the best anecdote, the perfect analogy to guide others on their journey of faith. 

But the more I pushed it away, the stronger it became. And the stronger it became, the harder it was for me to push it away. 

Enter anxiety, stage right. 

Many panic attacks and sleepless nights later, enter full depression, center stage.

I had never experienced such darkness, such emptiness. Such desperation. Visits with counselors were followed with trying different medications, with different results. I remember a counselor asking me to describe what this felt like. The only word I could find was death. It felt like death. Or at least how I imagined at that time that death would feel. Despair. Emptiness. Loneliness. Hopelessness. Isolation. Death.

If you’ve been there, you know. 

I would spend every morning on my knees, begging God to take this away from me, asking Him to restore me, to rescue me. Then, feeling no different, I would get up, go to work, come home again and spend my evening in dread of the next morning and the thought of having to do all this again. I would go to bed each night, terrified that I was going to lose everything, starting with my mind. 

But one morning, something changed. The depression was still there. The fear, the sense of doom, of death, was still there. I can’t fully explain this, or understand it, but God spoke to me in my despair. I remember where I was and the position of my body. I was on the floor of our spare bedroom, bent over with tears running down my face.

“So the Lord must wait for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion.
For the Lord is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for his help.” Isaiah 30:18

“I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.” Psalms 40:1-2

“God intends to restore to the Manufacturer’s original specifications and He often uses mighty blows to reshape us. At times, it is excruciatingly painful.” Bill Elliff

In that moment, hearing God’s whisper,  my prayer changed. I stopped praying for God to rescue me and began to pray for Him to transform me. I stopped asking Him to take me away from the valley. Instead, I asked Him to keep me in this place for as long as it would take for Him to complete this work in me. Instead of praying for me, I asked for more of Him. I didn’t know exactly what I was asking for, but I knew I had nothing left. 

So, in His faithfulness, He answered, “Yes.” He kept me there, but He made sure I knew that He was there with me, working.

My depression and anxiety didn’t suddenly go away. I struggled every day. I remember one morning, after my wife, Kelly, asked me how I was doing, I broke down. 

“I know I’m supposed to ask God to keep me here so that He can do His work in me, but I just don’t know how much longer I can do this!”

“You keep praying your prayer,” she said. “And I’ll keep praying my prayer. I’m praying for healing for you.”

So the journey continued. And after some weeks, there would occasionally be a morning when I would wake up without the heaviness. I danced on those mornings. Not a fast celebratory dance, but a slow waltz with my Father, standing on His shoes, still a little fearful to dance on my own. And then there would be more  hard mornings. Mornings where it took all that I had just to get out of bed. But with time, they became less hard. Less isolating. Less death-like. 

And all along, God heard my prayers. He heard my cries. He heard my heart. And He was faithful. He held me. 

And so today, three years into this journey, I’ve experienced healing. Not the healing I had prayed for. Something better. I wanted everything to be “normal.” I wanted everything to be like it was before. But God wanted more, because he is the God of more. He wanted me to be different. He wanted me to see Him differently. He wanted me to stop striving and to lean into Him. He wanted to hold me and for me to want to be held. 

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, He is with me. When David wrote those words in his psalm, he wrote it in the present tense. I can still find myself in the valley. 

In the presence of fear and despair, He prepares a feast for me. In the valley.

My cup overflows. In the valley.

His goodness and mercy follow me. In the valley.

So the valley is always there. Even though I’m walking on level ground today, I can still look down at my feet at times and see the mud from the journey still on my shoes. Because when you walk in the valley of shadows, it’s messy. There’s no sunshine. And, since there’s no sunshine, there’s mud. And it gets on you. And it’s hard to get off. 

But I walk. And, maybe, the more I walk, the more the sludge will fall off. But I hope it doesn’t all fall off. Because I need a reminder of where I’ve been and where I might be again someday. 

And I need to be reminded that there are others in the valley of shadows right now. You need to be reminded. Maybe they work beside you each day. Maybe they sit next to you in church. Maybe they live in the same house as you.

If you’ve found yourself in the valley, don’t stay there alone. 

I think the best thing I did was speak to others about where I was. I shared with my wife. I shared with leaders at my church. I shared with a trained counselor. And I shared with my physician. When trusted friends asked me how I was doing, I stopped saying “fine.” And when I shared, I felt heard. The crippling isolation lost its power. I allowed others to become the hands and feet of my Father. 

And I learned that peace is not the absence of problems. Peace is the presence of God in the midst of the problems. 

This has been my journey. Someone else’s journey may be similar or completely different. But the journey is hard and it can be so lonely. So, my story is not everyone’s story. But my God is everyone’s God. And my Father wants to be a Father to everyone.


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