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
Recently, I have found myself in a rut. Again.
Like the rest of you, life has been turned completely askew. Work is gone as well as church, school, eating out, movies, sports, basically everything. I used to dream about what I would do if I ever had some extended time off and the first week, I did those things. I committed to reading half an hour, exercising forty-five minutes, writing for one hour, etc.
The only thing I have been doing consistently is watching TV and taking naps. I am the first to admit it, I am in a rut. A rut happens when I just start going through the motions and do things simply for the sake of doing them. Even when everything was open, I would still find myself in unproductive patterns, doing things that had little or no intrinsic value to my overall frame of mind. The true indication of a rut is when you recognize that you’re in one and have no desire to even try to get out of it.
Some people justify their ruts by calling them “grooves”. They accept the uniformity of their lives as the best it can ever get.
Three years ago I was in a major rut in my spiritual life. Since Jesus became the focus of my being in 1994, I have been on a path of trying to get closer to Him. I started attending church services on a weekly (or more basis). I joined Bible Studies and eventually started leading them. I volunteered to help in many church functions, sometimes finding myself gone from home most nights.
I had been attending a Saturday Morning Bible Study called the Fishermen when an old friend asked me to go on a Men’s Retreat. That weekend, the closeness that I had been trying to make happen with Jesus happened unexpectantly. One thing I saw very clearly was that I wasn’t in a rut. I was in a valley. Worse, I had convinced myself that is where Jesus wanted me to be.
For fifteen years, I sat in Bible studies and heard the word of God command to “Love one another.” In fact, I studied a lot of the “one another” passages. I justified these verses against my actions by pointing to what I was doing at church. I must be loving one another through my volunteer work, teach Bible lessons, etc.
At that retreat, I realized I had missed the point. I was preaching to the choir as the saying goes. Showing love to people willing to accept it is no sacrifice of time or talent. That was a very pleasant rut I was in but I knew I needed a change. I needed to do some climbing in order to see what was outside the valley I had found myself in.
I started going down to a food pantry a few blocks from my house and literally found a mountain! Going there reignited long sleeping passions like writing and giving encouragement. And going there now is what has made this time of isolation and social distancing bearable, focusing on how to still help others less fortunate than myself while still keeping safe and healthy.
In Psalm 23, David uses another word to describe his rut that he has found himself in. He dramatically refers to it as the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Regardless of the language, the effect is the same. When you’re in a valley, you are more disconnected to the world, or in his case, his Lord! David knew a lot about valleys and if you read through his story in 1st and 2nd Samuel, you see he spent a lot of time in them, both literally and figuratively. He understood the sameness, the loneliness, the despair. He understood the desire to leave was equal to the urge to stay where he was and accept the inevitable. In that valley, God’s word, which was so loud and clear at times, was nothing but a faint muffle that could be drowned out by the slightest noise.
The biggest thing David understood that “valley” moments are a part of the human condition. Notice his word choice in Psalm 23:4. He uses the word “When”, not “If”. “When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …” The valleys are inevitable, a fact of life as constant as the rising and setting of the sun. Whether you suddenly find yourself in the middle of one someday, like I expect many of us now have or have seen it coming from afar and still decided to go there, we will all find ourselves there at times in our lives.
The point of David’s Psalm is not about when we encounter the valley but, more importantly, how to get through it. While you may not have a choice of when you will find yourself in a valley, you do have control of two things: what you are going to do when you are there and how long you are going to stay.
As far as what you are going to do, David gives some excellent advice. First, you should fear no evil! Nothing can harm you! You may feel far from God but he has promised that he is always by your side, even in those places where you think he couldn’t possibly be. He knows you are in the valley and He is willing to guide you through it if you let Him. His word is full of people in valleys and how they moved out of them.
Second, he talks about a rod and staff as the answer to how long you are going to stay. The Rod and Staff are used by shepherds when the sheep require a course correction. Let’s be honest, God did not guide us to that valley. We got there due to our stubbornness, our pride, our sin. God knows if something doesn’t change, nothings going change. We are going to be stuck there in that valley for a long time. As much as we wish we could be on the mountain, we are never going to get there on our own. We need to learn where we went wrong and turn back to God and His path.
Leaving a valley is not easy and it’s worse when you escape one just to find a deeper one next to it. As I said, I have been through many valleys in my life, enough that I can now refer to myself as a Valley Master. After having negotiated my way out of several deep crevices in my life, I can now show others the way out. Although everyone’s valleys are unique as they are, there are still some fundamental things one can do.
First, recognize the valley for what it is. Don’t blame yourself or others for being there. Simply acknowledge that you do not want to be there.
Second, Pray. Pray that He shows you not only the way out but where you are supposed to be.
Third, Learn. Every valley I have been in was because I was missing something, some piece of info about myself and my relationship with God, other people and his creation. I found that once my lesson was learned, the path forward was made clear.
This situation has placed many of us in valleys. I will be praying for you on your journey until we meet again on the other side.
Prayer: Father God, guide my steps out of this rut and into your presence. Amen.
If these words impacted you, please feel free to share them by email or any social media platform. I don’t know if we can hope things will go “VIRAL” anymore, but let’s spread God’s word and his wisdom to those who need it.
Of course, your comments are always welcomed.