We couldn’t see a way forward.
The Lord Is My Courage
By K.J. Ramsey
The Darkest Valley
I kept walking out my prayers. Day after day, I climbed over the fence to the mountainside to forage for wildflowers and sing or scream at the sky, depending on my mood. But I started falling. More days than not, one of my ankles would just collapse under me, sending me straight into jagged rocks or gnarled bushes of sagebrush.
As each day passed, walking became harder. I woke up every morning with burning in my hands and cold fear in my heart. The inflammation in my body became so fierce that I had to crawl up the stairs from our basement bedroom. It took a couple of hours every morning before my spine could straighten.
When we left our church, we also left our insurance. My old specialists didn’t coordinate care well to my new ones, and so, for the first time in almost a decade, I had to go without treatment for a month and a half.
In years past, sometimes when I injected my weekly neon-yellow chemotherapy into the fat of my stomach, I wondered whether I really needed to be on such intense immunosuppressive medications. Were all of the side effects and risks necessary? Now I was getting the cruel gift of no more doubt.
Without access to my weekly chemo shot, monthly immunotherapy infusion, and daily anti-inflammatory pills, my body became an incinerator. Fire in my fingers. Fire in my toes. Fire in my bones. Our decision to leave behind harm at our church seemed like it was burning through our whole hope.
We couldn’t see a way forward. We didn’t know where to look for a pastoral job that wouldn’t just chew Ryan up and spit him out again. We knew leaving was the right choice, but the consequences were brutal. Each night, we headed down to our bunkbed room dejected, whispering the same fears and pains over and over to each other in the dark.
Then my hands started to shake. I was trying to write through the pain, working on the proposal for the book that would become This Too Shall Last, but I kept scratching out illegible sentences in my notebook and missing the right keys as I typed at my laptop. I spilled my coffee most mornings just trying to lift it to my mouth. The tremor in my hands was nearly constant. It was as though my hands were now shaking to make up for all the shaking I didn’t have time to stop for in the fast fury of having to resign and leave town so quickly.
My body had gotten me through confronting wrong, leaving without defending ourselves or getting to tell our side of the story, packing up our life into boxes, and getting to a safer place. And now she was a bewildering bonfire of trembling and pain.
There was no way around my pain. I could not leap over the losses in our life. I could not burrow underneath the brokenness into belief again. The only way was through.
Psalm 23 paints a picture of a journey with a dark valley that cannot be circumvented. Israel is filled with places where streams have cut gaping crevices in the earth, and these are the dark valleys where shepherds guide their sheep to water, lush vegetation, and higher ground. These dark valleys are also places of danger, with both predators and people who can harm the sheep, including bandits and robbers, hiding in the cleft of rocks.
From a shepherd’s perspective, Phillip Keller comments that this portion of the psalm parallels the journey many shepherds take their flocks on through the summer, away from home into the high country of the mountains and their meadows. “During this time the flock is entirely alone with the shepherd,” Keller writes. “They are in intimate contact with him and under his most personal attention day and night. That is why these last verses are couched in such intimate first-person language.” David would have known these long trips through dark valleys well from years of experience tending flocks of sheep through dangers like “rampaging rivers in flood, avalanches, rock slides, poisonous plants, the ravages of predators that raid the f lock, or the awesome storms of sleet and hail and snow.”
The way to the water the sheep most need is through the dangerous, dark valley. Psalm 23 shows us that our dark nights of the soul are not punishments or problems but places to walk closely with the Shepherd while all other comforts fall away. Here we are shown the daring path named Through. The only way to a life without lack is through the darkest valley.
Most of us don’t know the way through our dark valleys because we’ve been discipled to believe we are supposed to rise above them. In Sunday school and sermons, we’re taught to want faith like a kite, truth that liberates and lifts us above the weary world. We’re discipled to tie up our painful emotions with string to the kite of Christ’s resurrection, as though the string could sail us on the wind over this world’s weaknesses, rising high into a cloudless sky, until our problems are out of sight.
Faith is not a kite. It is a long walk on a dark night.
The life of faith includes seasons through which we must walk alone with the Shepherd, far from the ease of our old certainties and com- munities. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
Faith without feet that follow Jesus’ steps into the dark valleys of suffering is no faith at all. It’s spiritual bypassing, a term coined in the 1980s by a psychologist named John Welwood. Welwood defined spiritual bypassing as our “tendency to try to avoid or prematurely transcend basic human needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.”
We Christians like to draw a straight line between the resurrection of Christ and the rejoicing we’re supposed to feel all the time, but that line ends up crossing out all of the parts of Scripture that include having fears and crying tears.
Even Jesus wept before raising his friend Lazarus from the dead, even though he knew he was going to bring him back to life. The power to raise Lazarus from the dead emanated from Christ’s energy of compassion, which in Greek could be translated as Christ being full of “anger” or even “rage.” And even Jesus protested drinking from the cup of his suffering before choosing to drink it anyway.
Why do we race past our pain and anger and grief when they are what fueled Christ’s compassion? Why do we silence grief when God incarnate paused to feel it? Why do we push down our protests when Christ himself prayed through his? Why do we attempt to be holy without allowing ourselves to be human first?
Grief, fear, and anger can be fuel in the fire of redemption, but we’re over here dousing it with all our churchy expectations to quickly jump from hurt to hope and pain to praise.9 We pass out platitudes like kleenex, anxious to wipe each other’s tears away. We use Scripture on ourselves and each other as a silencer instead of a solace. We subconsciously take scissors to all the parts of Scripture that show us that our crying, confusion, and even contempt are central parts of prayer—preferring to keep the picture of our faith more pleasant and tidy than the psalms and Christ do.
Romans 8:28 isn’t a pill to pop like aspirin to make the head- ache of your hurt pass in thirty minutes or less. Like too much sugar destroys kids’ teeth, a faith of spiritual bypassing rots our souls.
I could not avoid the pain ravaging my body. I could not ignore the fraility of falling in parking lots or just walking through a door. I could not pray my way past the truth my body was telling about how terrorized I felt. My body wouldn’t let me bypass my brokenness, and for her feral wisdom, I give her thanks.
Nourishment starts with our needs. And life starts in the dark. Priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that “whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it [new life] starts in the dark.”
When we bypass the darkness, we kill courage. When we avoid our anguish, we bypass our healing. When we anesthetize our ache, we end up letting wounds fester that could be the place of our greatest healing and hope.
We cannot heal what we will not feel. Remember, the only way back home to the top of the autonomic ladder is by climbing each rung. We might want to jump from distress or doubt to delight in God, but unless we tend to our emotions and sensations, we’ll just be pretending at praise. We cannot grow if we will not go—through the dark valley—with Jesus, walking the same well-trod path he walked before us, that thousands upon thousands of saints before us have walked as well.
In the middle of my darkest valley, physically trembling and afraid that whatever was happening in my body was a harbinger of even more darkness to come, I started looking to Christ not as the conclusion to my courage but my companion within in. I didn’t know what we’d find in the darkness, but I was resolved that the only way home was through.
Excerpted from The Lord Is My Courage by K.J. Ramsey. Copyright © 2022 by K.J. Ramsey. Used by permission of Zondervan. Zondervan.com.