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The Valley of Death's Shadow

Even in the darkest valley, we can trust that God is with us and in control.

Everyone walks through valleys.

Donald Barnhouse was the pastor of Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church when his wife died and left him with young daughters to raise alone. He did something that I could never do: he conducted his own wife's funeral. It was while driving to that funeral that he realized that he had to say something to explain all of this to his girls, to somehow put in perspective for them something with which he himself was already struggling.

They stopped at a traffic light while driving to the funeral. It was a bright day, and the sun was streaming into the car and warming it. A truck pulled up next to them, and the shadow that came with the truck darkened the inside of the car. It was then that he turned to his daughters and asked, "Would you rather be hit by the shadow or by the truck?"

One of them responded, "Oh, Daddy, that's a silly question! The shadow can't hurt you. I would rather be hit by the shadow than by a truck."

It was then that he tried to explain to them that their mother had died and that it was as if she had been hit by a shadow. It was as if Jesus had stepped in the way in her place, and it was he who had been hit by the truck. He quoted the familiar words of Psalm 23: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me."

There are many ways in which death has the darkest shadow of all. It strikes the greatest fear because it is the one valley through which we all must walk. There are no exceptions, no exemptions given to any of us who are here.

There is an old story about a mother who, shortly after she gave birth to her son in a Greek village, went to a nearby village to visit the old wise man there. She took her baby boy to the old sage and asked him to predict the future for her child. He held the child and said, "There's only one thing that I can tell you for sure about your baby, and that is that he will die." No exceptions.

But death is really not what these familiar words of Psalm 23 are most about. The Hebrew word in the original poem literally means "the valley of deepest darkness." While death may be the last shadowy valley through which we pass, it is not the only one. It is not the only valley that is dark and can be difficult. Life has many other valleys through which we must walk.

Shepherds in mountainous areas usually keep their sheep at home. There's usually a fenced area where they can graze and where they are fed grain in winter time. But when the snows subside in the high mountain, it is then that the shepherds take their flocks and move with the snow melt up the mountain, there finding fresh pasture land, eventually moving up to the timberline. Above the timberline, there are all types of pastures that are green and fresh. The air is clean. The water is clear. And the spectacular views are available to them.

They say—and I suppose you might argue that it is the shepherd imagining for the sheep—that there is a sense of excitement that builds as they prepare to go through the gates, a sense of anticipation when they are going to get out of that confined area and at last be able to go up the mountain side. Unfortunately, it's not always an easy path up to the top of the mountain because there are sheer cliffs that the sheep can't climb. So they have to snake their way up circuitous routes, through canyons and valleys. It's the only way it can be done, and it can be very dangerous. There are flash floods. There are predators. There are risks of falling and dropping significant distances that can injure, if not kill, the sheep.

But there's a wonderful part of it: while the shepherd may leave the sheep alone in the pastures in winter, the shepherd in summer always goes with the sheep. In fact, shepherds usually won't even go home. They'll just sleep out with their sheep at night. It is the shepherd's responsibility to care for them, to know the canyons and the valleys, to scout them out, to know where the dangers are, and to pick the path that, while still dangerous, is the safest path of all.

I need not tell you about the deep, dark valleys of our own human experience because it is something we all have in common. We each have different experiences, but we all experience these dark valleys. We don't all call them by the same name. Some of us refer to walking through the dark valley of failure or the valley of broken relationships, or there is the valley of sickness. Or we refer to the valley of divorce or the valley of the shadow of robbery or bankruptcy or betrayal. There's also the valley that is filled with shadows that is called unemployment and another one that is labeled addiction. There are valleys that are called assault and depression and death.

Some are very difficult at the time, but once we get through to the other side, they don't seem quite so bad. In fact, those are the valleys after which we get together with friends and we talk about them, with those that share the experiences. Or we compare our valleys one with the other. You talk about that experience back in school when you didn't cheat but you were accused of cheating. "Remember that teacher? Remember the bad grade and how painful that was and what criticism there was?" And yet you know it's all okay. You remember it, and you talk about it.

But there are some valleys that are difficult to talk about, some that are so deep and so dark that even though the years have passed, it is hard to come up with the words and to fight back the emotions. Like the deep, dark valley of the death of a child. Or the valley with those indescribable shadows where a marriage that was thought to be for a lifetime crumbled, shattered, and fell apart.

The valley of a terrible, inexplicable illness, one with pain for which there are no words, of seeing someone you love with all your heart walk that valley with all its disabilities and disappointments. And to have your own valley that is not quite the same cut but runs alongside. Or there is the valley of the crime that victimized you in unspeakable ways; even the thought of it is a painful memory, it is not a thing to be discussed.

All of these are the valleys that we fear. And it is in their depths that we are frightened that life's happiness might be snatched away from us, taken away in some horrible experience, never to be regained. It is a path that is one way, and there is no going back.

There is no need to try to avoid these valleys, for they seem to be an inevitable part of everyone's experience. It is sometimes in them that we may quote or have quoted to us the words of Psalm 23, and it is then that we may take special comfort in hearing that even though we walk the deepest, darkest valleys, we fear no evil because he is with us.

But what we tend sometimes not to connect with those lines are the earlier lines that he guides us, leads us in paths of righteousness, and we sometimes forget that the paths that are right—the good paths—are paths that also wend their way through deep and dark valleys. The deep and dark valleys of life are not necessarily there because we have done something that is wrong. In fact, often that is precisely the path that we trod because we have done something that is right.

Lest all of this becomes just too depressing, be sure to take special note that the deep, dark valleys are never a destination. They are just a part of the way along the journey. The words are carefully chosen: we walk "through" the valley of the shadow of death—through it, not to it. There is high ground on the other side, and that is always the ultimate destination.

So we see that the intent of the Lord, and the experience of many that have gone before us in the dark valleys, is that on the other side is the bright side—that toward which we walk and pace and climb and struggle. Many of you could say: "That's right! That's right, because I've been there. I've experienced that for myself." The truth is that people do make it through discouragement and divorce and sickness and a host of other difficulties—even death. But I'll tell you, it sure can be scary, really scary, along the way.

Going through valleys can produce fear.

I'll confess to you that I personally find fear an easy thing to come by. There are some things that I do poorly, and some things that I do well. But when it comes to getting scared—well, I'm very good at getting scared. I rather identify with one woman a man told me about: he said his wife should be employed by NASA because she could think of everything that could go wrong. I understand that because I find that when I enter into some experience, I can also think of pretty much everything that could go wrong.

There have been a number of nights when I have been here in this building alone, and it's late. While on a Sunday morning with a lot of people and bright lights it seems like a cheerful and safe and happy place, let me tell you that alone, late at night, this place is designed to be creepy. You start imagining how many places there are for bad people to hide and jump out at you as you walk through the hallways trying to get to an exit.

We have here a security system, and it has these perimeter sensors on windows and doors and motion detectors throughout the building. One of the last things that we're supposed to do as we close down the building at night is to set that security system. You're supposed to make sure you're the last one out.

When you go to the console, what you're supposed to do is punch in the security code, and then there are two dashes that are supposed to show up as cat eyes—that's good news; that means everything is secure. You can punch the OKAY button and activate the system, and you have so many seconds to get out of the building.

The bad news, especially when you're alone late at night, is when a number comes up, which you have to look up. That means that, depending on the number, one place or another in the building is not secured. Then you have the opportunity to walk through this creepy place all the way to that door, which always seems to be a long ways away, and to lock it up.

Worse yet is when multiple numbers flash. Worst of all is when you find out that one of those is for a motion detector, because that means it's not a door that's left open but that somebody is in the building. One time I just left. I just walked out of here! I thought to myself, What's the worst thing that can happen? And I decided the worst thing that could happen would be they could steal the organ. So, we'll get another organ! I thought that was the reasonable thing to do.

Once it's all set, the distance to the car becomes miles. We also have this furnace that, in the winter time, has an electronic ignition that sounds like gun shots. As you walk, you hear "Boo boo-boo-boom!" Then you get to the car and look in the back seat to find out who's there and whether you know them or not! And then you get in the car and drive out.

All of these things—and I forget there may be a shepherd who is there to care for me.

There are a lot of reasons fear strikes in our hearts like that. There's fear because of past experience. We've been there. You know what can happen because it's already happened before. The horrors of yesterday come back to the surface of what can be a repeat experience.

Or if it's not experience, it's ignorance. You wonder and have those panic attacks, thinking about all of the options that can go wrong and everything that can happen to you. Sometimes we fear evil because there is evil. It's not a figment of our imagination. It is reality. It is not because we're paranoid. It is because we live in a world where bad things do happen to people, even good people.

Make your own list. What are the evils that you fear? It doesn't take any of us long to come up with a list of what could happen.

We can overcome fear by trusting God.

Don't you wish you could take all of those fears that come to mind, write them on a piece of paper, hold the piece of paper up, look straight into all of those fears, and say, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because you are with me"? Wouldn't it be grand to be fearless in the face of all of the dangers, to have that delight that you could go into the scariest, the creepiest, the most dangerous places and not be afraid? Is it possible? Is it possible to live fearlessly in a world where evils abound?

It is. It is.

We have a choice. We can either assume full responsibility for every problem in life, or we can trust the shepherd. We can make an assumption that the shepherd knows the way through the valleys and has checked it out, that if ever there is a time when the shepherd is closest to us, it is precisely in the deepest and the darkest of valleys and that he has promised to take care of us.

Let me be vulnerably honest with you about this. I can tell you that I've seen this kind of trust and fearlessness in the face of others. I have seen men and women walk through evil that stinks and they were strong and fearless. And I've experienced it myself.

There have been times when I've been lost, away from home, and panic struck my heart—and yet alone I experienced the wonder of the comfort of the shepherd. There have been situations in my home and family that brought me to a point of worry that I don't even have any words to begin to describe—only to discover that the shepherd was there and that it was okay, there was a calmness of heart.

I've lain on my bed, and I have wept for people in the horrors of their circumstances and somehow felt responsible that I've got to do something to help—yet knowing that their needs far exceeded any capacity or capability that was mine, and seeing and feeling the transformation of those tears to trust.

So in my own, limited way, I know what it's about to fear no evil. But if I'm going to be candid with you, let me tell you that it's often not like that, that I forget that the shepherd is there, that I reach out and take the problems that a moment ago I thought I gave away, and I pull them back, and I hold them close, and I struggle and grope with them. I let my imagination run wild, and I can worry myself sick about the evils that endanger me and those I love.

What I need to do always is what we all need to do always: trust the shepherd.

Understand that it's not some power of positive thinking; that it's not some manipulative self-talk; that it's not some yoga technique. It is hard reality that I will fear no evil because the Shepherd is with me.

It is believing what is absolutely true—that the Lord is God, that he is in charge, and that he is in control. He knows things that we would never be able to know. He's close. He understands. He has it all figured out. He is greater than the greatest difficulty. He is more powerful than the most horrendous of evils. He's there. He's there! He keeps his promises—he really does, in even the deepest and the darkest of valleys. Faith is the conviction that the Lord will do the job that a shepherd is supposed to do. He will do what he is capable of doing. He will keep us safe, and he will be near.

We say to ourselves, "How can I trust a God I can't even see? I can see the problems. I can see the threats. It's God I can't see!"

I'm sure in a simple sense that must be the worry of the sheep. In the darkness of deep valleys or in the lateness of the night, they cannot see the shepherd and are worried about the sounds of predators howling in the distance or the stream that is rushing nearby, its waters rising, or the precipice that is so near and easy to stumble over—until the sheep somehow learn by experience that though they cannot see the shepherd, it does not mean that the shepherd is distant.

We do it in our own experience. We know that if you have an immunization, you can't see the antibodies. But you know that which you cannot see protects you against the risks that are real. It's what we do with gravity: we assume that the gravity that we have never seen is operative constantly and effectively and efficiently within our lives. Yes, we understand that which we cannot see can make a powerful difference in the life that we can see.

Harry Emerson Fosdick was a national radio personality, a teacher and preacher in the early part of this century. He once did a sermon entitled, "Why I Am A Theist." He said that when he was a boy, he would look out the window and watch the branches and leaves on the tree move. He would sense the wind blowing, and he put it together. He concluded that it was the moving of the branches that he could see that caused the movement of the wind that he could not see. But he explained that when he grew to adulthood, he understood it differently, discovering that it was the wind he could not see that moved the branches that he could see.

In the same way, this great, invisible God is as real as anything else we count to be reality. Invisibility makes him no less real, no less powerful, and no less present. He's like the wind—the wind that blows where it pleases and chooses, the wind that makes things happen. He makes things happen. He is close; he is not distant. He cares, and he can be trusted even through the valleys of the shadow of death.


One final thought about these amazing and familiar words. Did you note their intimacy, how carefully pronouns are chosen, how personal they are? It is not even though "we" walk through this valley. It is even though "I" walk through this valley. "My" shepherd. "You" are there. It is a one-to-one relationship with God.

I've often told my wife that when I die, I would like for her to be near to me. We have known each other all of our lives. We have been in love and in marriage most of our lives. So when my day comes, when my life ends (knowing that there may well be circumstances that neither of us can control), I would like for her to be near my side. But death is a journey that not even a lover can share. It is a valley through which we walk that is not wide enough for another. It is the one valley through which we must walk alone—except there is room for the shepherd, for the Lord. He is the shepherd who is always there. He sticks closer than the best of friends. It is I, You, Lord.

When we walk through that dark and deep valley, be sure to be the Lord's sheep, to claim him as your shepherd, to trust him alone to get you through all the deep, dark valleys, even the valley of the shadow of death itself. And when he is so trusted, he who is always there, we need fear no evil, for he is with us.

© 1994 Leith Anderson
A resource of Christianity Today International

Leith Anderson is president emeritus of the National Association of Evangelicals and Baptist pastor emeritus of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Everyone walks through valleys

II. Going through valleys can produce fear

III. We can overcome fear by trusting in God