December 15, 2017

Dining In The Valley

Editor’s note: Read this essay by Joe Spann slowly and prayerfully. It was written in the midst of pain for those who are in the midst of pain.

“Son of Adam,” said Aslan.  “Are you ready to undo the wrong that you have done to my sweet country of Narnia on the very first day of its birth?”

“Well, I don’t see what I can do,” said Digory.  “You see, the Queen ran away and—”

“I asked, are you ready?” said the Lion.

“Yes,” said Digory.  He had had for a second some wild idea of saying “I’ll try to help you if you’ll promise to help my Mother,” but he realized in time that the Lion was not at all the sort of person one could try to make bargains with.  But when he had said “Yes,” he thought of his Mother and he thought of the great hopes he had had, and how they were all dying away, and a lump came in his throat and tears in his eyes, and he blurted out:

“But please, please—won’t you—can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?”  Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face.  What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life.  For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes.  They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.

“My son, my son,” said Aslan.  “I know.  Grief is great.  Only you and I in this land know that yet.  Let us be good to one another.”  (From The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis)


When I read this passage to my two oldest daughters about two years ago I had a hard time not breaking down right in the middle of my reading.  It had only been a few short days since my oldest daughter, who was five at the time, had been diagnosed with type I Diabetes.  That is the genetic type where you are immediately insulin dependent, immediately faced with a complete change in life.  At the ripe old age of five she was faced with being “chronically ill.”  The idea of her own mortality and the mortality of everyone she loved came crashing in on her, at five.  I also own a business.  My business was entering a dry period.  Making payrolls became difficult and paying myself became even harder.  At a time when my family needed me more than ever, my business needed me too.  And both needed more money than they had ever needed before.  This season was the beginning of what has proven to be the hardest two years of my life, and the most magnificent.

Before I continue, let me acknowledge the fact that there are plenty of people out there who have suffered much more than I have.  You may have lost a loved one, a spouse, a job, or be fighting a losing battle with a terminal illness.  Let me say something incredibly insensitive: It doesn’t matter.  Whatever you are suffering, someone has suffered worse than you.  And if you are suffering you know that the thought of someone else suffering more than you is of no use whatsoever.  It only complicates your own pain by adding guilt.  So let’s all agree to leave the whole “people are starving on the other side of the world” argument out of this discussion for now.

Let me also say that I am venturing on to well-trodden ground here. There are books-a-plenty about the theology of suffering.  In fact, many of you may notice that I leave out some of the most oft used quotes regarding megaphones and whatnot (inside joke for C.S. Lewis junkies).  I am not attempting to write a complete theology of suffering here.  This is just my journey, a piece of my testimony.  I tell it here now because, well, what good is a testimony without the telling?

I believe in the power of Christ to heal disease, to raise the dead, and even that he bestowed that authority on his followers as well.  Jesus has done all that is necessary for the redemption of sin and the setting all of creation right again.  Yet, pain abounds.  Suffering is everywhere, even in the lives of believers.  There is obviously a part of the story that isn’t complete yet, our part.

Suffering is bad.  It sucks.  It isn’t to be sought out.  Satan wants us to suffer; God does not.  However, God gave us free will.  Free will is more dangerous than every weapon of mass destruction combined because with it comes the necessary possibility of suffering.  Buddha taught that suffering is the essence of existence.  In one sense this is an astute observation.  The world we know cannot exist without suffering.  If Christ removed all suffering for those classified as believers, it would unravel our free will and we would find ourselves slaves by compulsion.  End of story.

Buddha also teaches that the path of enlightenment is ultimately an avoidance of all suffering.  Yes, suffering is bad, but should we really mark our path by its presence or avoidance?  How many of us as Christians are taught a gospel of pain avoidance?

When suffering comes, we haul out our token scriptures to “build our faith.”  We shout at the devil and “believe for” miracles.  There is this sense that if we only our faith muscle were big enough, we could flex and pronounce this suffering bit to be over.  I am not even going to get into arguments against asking for healing, or the fervent belief that miraculous healing can and does occur.  When the Infinite One splits time and interrupts our lives, the supernatural happens.  I plan to ask fervently and continually for my daughter’s healing from diabetes.

But I think that a single-minded focus on our own deliverance blinds us to the richness of fellowship that is available to us in the midst of trouble.  We use our Jedi faith tricks to fend off bouts of brokenness when sometimes the brokenness is our deliverance from a much more heinous enemy than suffering.  It is in the brokenness that death truly loses its sting and our victory is truly complete (Philippians 3:10-11).

In God’s miraculous deliverance from bad circumstances we sense his goodness, but in the pain that precedes we sense his nearness.  The nearness of God IS my good (Psalm 73:28).  If we are still following Christ for the simple promise of utopia, then we are not disciples.  Our redemption is not in pain anymore than it is in the avoidance of pain; it lies in Christ and Christ alone.  But if there is fellowship with Christ to be had in suffering, then let’s not just endure, but rejoice at its coming.

The 23rd Psalm has the green pastures and still waters, but it also has the valley of the shadow of death.  It is here in the presence of David’s enemies that God prepares a table for him.  A couple of years ago, when I had finally stopped quoting scripture long enough to break down and look for comfort from Christ, I turned here to the 23rd Psalm.  The Holy Spirit gave me a somewhat humorous vision of the imagery in the Psalm.  In my meditation, I was in the valley of the shadow of death, and Christ was with me.  I was filled with urgency and the need to be gone from the place.  This was the leg of the journey that I was ready to be done with.  What do you say we move on to some higher ground Lord? The Lord looked around us and saw where we were.  He saw the enemies surrounding our position.  He saw death looming and he saw my fear.  It was as if he had the audacity to smile and say, “Let’s eat!”  Surely you don’t mean here God?  Let’s move on and we can enjoy a nice celebration meal on the other side of the valley.  But Christ said to me, “I want to be with you NOW and HERE.”  That was all I needed.  His nearness was good enough.  Actually his nearness was better than healing, better than riches, better than life itself.  He wanted me to do more than endure the hardship, he wanted me to partake in the brokenness, like tasting a wine.  It is intentional and to be sure it is an acquired taste.  But finding the brokenness in the pain is how we train our spirit to thrive only on the nearness of Christ, then riches or poverty no longer matter.  It isn’t that suffering is preferable to ease but that the nearness of Christ makes short shrift of both.

Christ came to give our suffering a point.  He joined and still joins in our suffering so that he might lead the way in undoing the curse.  According to Revelation 12:11 there are two parts to overcoming the evil one at the end of time: (1) the blood of the Lamb and (2) the word of OUR testimony.  Christ did his part.  Now we do ours.  You cannot believe yourself out of suffering.  You can surrender into the faith that he is working in you.  You can humble yourself so that he may exalt you in the proper time (1 Peter 5:6).  Your job is being broken; his job is to deliver you.  It is this fellowship of suffering and his redemption of our pain that becomes our testimony.  In this way, our pain goes the way of the cross, which does indeed lead to the grave, but does not end there.

When we sense our journey leading us into the valley of the shadow of death many of us pine for Eden and wonder when Christ will finally take us home.  What we should realize is that the way home leads through Jerusalem (read Luke 9:51-62), through the valley of the shadow, through the cross.  Some part of us should smile because we know inevitably whom we will meet there.  While the enemy hopes to sow doubt and despair we can laugh at the foolishness of the devil’s plan.  Jesus’ nearness is evident at the worst moments and his nearness is my good.  So literally EVERYTHING works together for the good of me because I believe.

When we come out the other side of the grave, much deeper is our journey with Christ if we have been willing participants.  Then instead of simply thanking Christ for his deliverance and carrying on without him so long as we are in the green pastures, we journey with him.  We hear his footsteps beside us in every single detail of our charmed lives.  It is no longer where the journey takes us that matters, but that it continues to be with Christ.

That is faith to me.  Not some hyped up thought process that yields miracles for the strongest “believer.”  It is looking up at the Lion’s face and seeing his tears.  It is tasting and seeing that he is good right in the midst of the darkness.  It is laughing at the table with my savior while we are still in the worst part of the journey.

Could this be what Christ means when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  I have seen poor people and rich people alike who are obsessed with the state of their relative wealth.  The poor man is embittered by his need, and the rich man is scared to death of ever feeling the need in the first place.  But those that allow themselves to simply be broken by need, those are the poor in spirit.

My daughter’s diagnosis brought a crisis for her that has produced faith and intimacy with Christ the likes of which I had never seen before.  I remember one night I was in the kitchen making drinks for dinner, my wife was in the back of the house doing something, and the girls were all waiting at the dinner table.  My oldest tested her own blood sugar, adjusted her insulin pump accordingly, and then proceeded to lead her two younger sisters in the most sincere prayer of thanksgiving for dinner.  I overheard them in the kitchen and the Holy Spirit instantly said to me, “You hear that?  That’s the sound of giants falling.”  Victory had come, not in the miraculous healing I had been hoping for, but in the simple prayer of thanksgiving from a five year old little girl.  In the deep and sincere gratitude for the meal set before her in the presence of her enemies.

In that moment, diabetes had no sting.  In that moment, she was participating in the redemption of mankind.  In that moment, the enemy was overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of her testimony.  His nearness, his coming is our redemption.  If you are in pain or lacking anything, rejoice in his nearness!  Journey well, friends.

Comments

  1. Warren Worthington says:

    So the Cowardly Lion was really Christ, and Dorothy had to learn to believe in him before he could send her back to Kansas.

    • You are getting your Lions confused. The one in this post is the “dangerous One.” As C.S. Lewis wrote, ” he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

  2. Hi Joe,

    I had a virus in November and immediately went symptomatic for Diabetes. It took three months for them to diagnose me as type 1.

    You write: “And if you are suffering you know that the thought of someone else suffering more than you is of no use whatsoever.”

    For me that was not the case. Michael Spencer got brain cancer the same time that I got diabetes, and that really put things into perspective for me.

    I suffered because of a sever stutter, but eventually realized how lucky I had been when I realized that the same neurological problem had caused Schizophrenia in my Grandmother.

    So these things have helped me to look beyond the suffering to the things with which I have been blessed.

    • I should add that there is a big difference between discovering this for yourself, and having someone else inform you of it.

      • Good point Michael. That is probably more exactly what I meant. I don’t think it would be useful in the post to make the point that others suffer more than you.

        I have definitely found other’s stories great for perspective but I also found that it only sort of had a short anesthetic effect. It put off the grieving process some and was useful in avoiding self-pity. Ultimately though, I had to walk through my own valley and it provided a unique opportunity to be nearer to Christ.

  3. Sit down and eat. Come, sit down. Eat something. I made dinner for you, right here. Sit down. Don’t worry. Eat something.

    Joe, thank you for the essay. I don’t see the view you had of the 23rd psalm’s valley of death as humorous, but as insightful. I recall walks thru that valley as being dreadful, tho sometimes peaceful (and no, I’m sure that makes no sense to anyone but me). Perhaps had I been more aware of my Savior, I would have heard His call to sit down at the table He’d prepared for me there.

    Thanks in part to you, Joe, I’ll be listening better.

    • “I recall walks thru the valley as being dreadful, tho sometimes peaceful (and no, I’m sure that makes no sense to anyone but me).”

      But it does. There’s something about the honesty and helplessness that comes sometimes with brokenness that is definitely peaceful. In a small way at least, I have known what you’re talking about.

  4. Barbara Dax says:

    Thank you. My brother was the first of 4 family members to die within 4 years, and 3 died within 8 months of each other. I remember my own reflections on Psalm 23 and the very astonishing realization that this world that we presently inhabit is the valley of the shadow of death. We are overshadowed by death all the time, but Jesus is with us, walking in the this valley alongside of us all the time even if we don’t see him, he is here, he is near. Thank you for your post.

  5. Boethius says:

    Awesome post! I never thought of Psalm 23 in that way before. A timely lesson.

  6. Lisa Dye says:

    “Christ came to give our suffering a point. He joined and still joins in our suffering so that he might lead the way in undoing the curse. According to Revelation 12:11 there are two parts to overcoming the evil one at the end of time: (1) the blood of the Lamb and (2) the word of OUR testimony. Christ did his part. Now we do ours. You cannot believe yourself out of suffering. You can surrender into the faith that he is working in you. You can humble yourself so that he may exalt you in the proper time (1 Peter 5:6). Your job is being broken; his job is to deliver you. It is this fellowship of suffering and his redemption of our pain that becomes our testimony. In this way, our pain goes the way of the cross, which does indeed lead to the grave, but does not end there.”

    Joe, thank you for this. It is something I am trying to learn. By telling your story, you have articulated this hard teaching in a beautiful and profound way.

  7. As one living with chronic pain, there are many days when I am convinced that God’s purpose in not healing my suffering is to keep my heart compassionate and caring.

    There are probably just as many when I find my furious with God, but then at least that forces me to talk to God….

  8. I needed this, thank you so much

  9. Joe (and all), your post here hits a little too close to home.

    My eldest son (then 6) was diagnosed with type-1 right before Thanksgiving 2006. I remember it being very, very difficult to be thankful for much that year, except begrudgingly that he was still alive. What I ended up begging god for me to somehow take his place so he didn’t have to suffer.

    Just after the New Year 2008, I was diagnosed with adult onset type-1 diabetes (my experience was similar to M. Bell’s). So, instead of it being taken away from my boy, I got to join him in the struggle. Now, over three years later, I still don’t get it, but I do have a much clearer understanding of the Incarnation.

    Still, what little faith I had has taken a beating. You talk of free will, but neither your daughter, nor my son, nor Michael Bell or myself could have chosen differently to prevent this. Yes, we have the choice to keep our faith in spite of it all, but I’m not convinced it’s all that free. What type of god is God, then?

    Did god cause all this… I don’t know. Could he take it away… still, I don’t know. Does believing in god make a convenient opiate to ease the pain… perhaps, but not always. What I do know is that all the prayers for deliverance and religious supplications in the world haven’t made that popular slot-machine god pay off.

    In the end I have held on to one thing: if god is there, then somehow through Jesus he feels it and understands. What that looks like?… one day at a time…

    Thanks Joe… good stuff.

    • Thanks for your honesty Justin. One day at a time is literally the ONLY way to know an eternal God. I am convinced that that has been one of the valuable parts of my suffering. I am always imagining the future and defining what redemption should look like. Only at the point that the future is unimaginable do I finally have the chance to touch eternity. There is no future in eternity, only now.

      Suffering, if it doesn’t suffocate our faith, introduces us to the “otherness” of God. Many of us actually worship a projection of ourselves airbrushed into perfection. Somehow (can’t explain it yet) this suffering has introduced me to a God that is more frightening and more comforting altogether. His existence doesn’t rest on my ability to believe at any given moment.

      I have also had some amazing interactions with my (now) 7 year old through this. She has had some very authentic moments of comfort from prayer that I didn’t prompt. That has done quite a bit for me as well. Thanks again for sharing. Feel free to write anytime. I would love to talk specifics about your journey through the disease.

      • Joe, I would like that, too. Please send me your addy to the email associated with my posts and I can dish on A1c, BG, counting carbs, mmol/L -vs- mg/dL, beta-islets, test-strip codes, and bolus.

        Michael Bell, you too. As the new guy you have to bring the doughnuts, however.

        🙂

        • I have test strips littered through my carpeting like landmines. Those suckers hurt when they’re sticking straight up. Since they also cost somewhere close to a dollar a strip I get especially upset when I find that the strip that has just poked me is UNUSED.

          I’ll be in touch.

  10. Joe, the Holy Spirit used this psalm very similarly in regards to a job situation. My husband was in a difficult work situation & we grew more & more aware that the company executives were disregarding integrity & ethics in business. I was awakened in the middle of the night with the certainty that he couldn’t follow those “shepherds” because only The Good Shepherd would be with us to deliver us from evil in the “valley of the shadow of death.” My husband stood firmly for truth & integrity, and as the situation deteriorated, we put our faith in God. To make the long story short, we negotiated his departure & within 1 week, the Lord revealed a higher position w/ in the same industry in direct competition w/ the previous dishonest company. We were struck with the psalmist’s recognition that, for my husband, too, “You have prepared a table before me in the presence of my enemies…”

  11. Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

    I sometimes listen to our local EWTN affiliate (i.e. Catholic radio) as I drive around town. Something I occasionally hear in an almost flippant but-of-course way is how several of the show’s hosts mention suffering as a way we “offer up” stuff to the Lord and as a way of identifying with Christ. It’s almost like it wouldn’t occur to them to see it in any other way. The first time I realized that’s how they viewed it I did a mental double take. I’m thinking a lot more about how shallow my theology of suffering has been and trying to have a much more mature way of approaching the minute sufferings in my life.

  12. When the suffering is for someone we love, particularly child, parent, spouse, or other loved one, this is an especially awful grief. We feel a whole other layer of helplessness.

    When I came to Christ I began to realize how much the world deceives us into believing we are our own gods. In a thousand different ways we are told to grow thicker skin, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We are told to become so strong, tough and self-reliant that we need nothing from anyone.

    But Christ came for the least, the lost and the last. Our skin should be thin enough to feel the trembling in the hurting hand we hold. With love we suffer with the suffering. Instead of being deceived into believing we are tough enough to make everything right, we simply trust the one whose yoke we share.

  13. Andrew Arndt says:

    Reverend Spann –

    You are a fine writer, a great theologian, and an even better example of what a life lived “in the depths of Jesus Christ” looks like. Thanks for sharing this.

    Andrew

  14. Rick Ro. says:

    Great post and great comments, everyone! I can’t say that I’m currently “suffering” like some of you others are, but all of this is great insight and theology into how to cope with suffering. Love the Psalm 23 perspective, too!

    And remember…when it comes to suffering, our Lord Jesus Christ knows exactly what it’s like, having been falsely accused, beaten and whipped, and nailed to a cross to die. That’s the kind of God I want to believe in and follow.

  15. Treebeard says:

    I am going through a divorce right now. For a year I had hoped our marriage could make it, but my wife has decided she wants out. We have two beautiful children, and we told them this past weekend.
    I honestly heard an inward voice tell me to look at this website today. I haven’t visited in a long time.
    Thank you so much for this article. It meets me exactly where I am right now. The pain really is excruciating, but I have never been so broken, and the Lord has never been so real.

    • Tree-

      So sorry. I know several in the same boat as you right now. Shalom. Truly Shalom.

    • TB… I had intended to type more than “I’m sorry”, but that’s all there is.

      I’m sorry.

    • I wish with all my heart that you didn’t need to go through this, but since you are, I’m glad that God brought you here today. I believe I can speak for more than myself in saying that you have been lifted up in prayer.

  16. Good word all around. Painful. Nothing like pain to make us honest. Praying, friend.

  17. black cat says:

    All I can say is AMEN long and loud. I have survived the terminal illness of my son, who was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disorder at the age of 1. He died when he was 15 years old. I don’t know how many times I was told by well-meaning people how to feel, what I must think, or how I must pray to God, etc., or that “God is faithful” or “God has a plan.” Really? I had no idea…. (feel the sarcasm). However, I was never reminded that other people suffered more. In fact, I was held up as an example of someone who was suffering more than others. Yes, I made lots of people feel good. And they made sure I knew it.

    My son had a godly, sweet spirit and a simple, childlike faith. He puzzled many people who could not see past his wheelchair and tremendous physical weakness. He was intelligent, talkative, and friendly. He became a Christ-follower at a young age, and I found out at his funeral what an influence he had been on the young people (and old people) around him. His sister said it best: “He had everything in Jesus.”

    Me? I learned compassion. When people are struggling with God, I understand what they’re enduring, after years of my own struggles. That is another story that would take eons to relate. I also learned that God can be near in our bad times – or, we can push him further away.

    My son put me to shame in the faith department.

  18. “When we sense our journey leading us into the valley of the shadow of death many of us pine for Eden and wonder when Christ will finally take us home”

    Some great thoughts. As I am discipling a group right now we have discussed how the message of Christ is that the Kingdom of God begins here and now. To think in only the future tense (all due respect to Lahaye and Jenkins) is positively disastrous to us spiritually. Eternity began the minute we were conceived and continues forever… may we live our lives accordingly.

  19. Some time ago my wife went though an illness that deeply affected me. I felt my heart tearing within me at times. Despite the valley I found myself setting my face to do what was right in my heart and completing that life’s chapter in victory. “Is so sweet to trust in Jesus”. It galvenizes our trust in him as our friend and ally. Your article expresses my heart and I appreciate your insight and willingness to share it with all of us.

  20. “A couple of years ago, when I had finally stopped quoting scripture long enough to break down and look for comfort from Christ, I turned here to the 23rd Psalm.”

    I didn’t turn to the 23rd Psalm, but from the carpet in my living room I began reaching for Christ and his comfort. It was just a few months ago. But suffering has brought me to this:

    “But finding the brokenness in the pain is how we train our spirit to thrive only on the nearness of Christ, then riches or poverty no longer matter. It isn’t that suffering is preferable to ease but that the nearness of Christ makes short shrift of both.”

    Thank you for this honest post. I would rather not have suffered what I’m still suffering, though I fear more losing the nearness of Christ than the reality of the cause to my suffering.

  21. Treebeard says:

    I’d like to express my thanks to those who responded to my comment. I didn’t expect that. Your simple consolations brought me to tears. Much grace to you all in your own journeys.

  22. Thank you for sharing the intimate privacy of your family. It helps to know how other people deal with pain and suffering.