One of the most eventful parts of my night is usually between the hours of 7:30 and 8:30. That’s the time when my wife and I put our two boys down to sleep… which is about one step away from negotiating a hostage crisis. Once the boys are in bed, the fun really starts… because they don’t like the dark. Zach is notorious for suddenly developing the urge to pee out of nowhere and Jon will typically demand a fifth recital of the Itsy Bitsy Spider (or Itsy Pider!! as he likes to call it). As they finally quiet down, I hear one of the boys usually say… “Dad… It’s a little dark. I’m a little scared.” As exhausting and hilarious as it can be, my boys remind me every night that being in the dark can be uncomfortable and frightening.
Eventually we all grow up and we aren’t afraid of the dark anymore. Well… sort of. The truth is, we’re still easily spooked by darkness. We may not be afraid of falling asleep in the dark. But we’re terribly frightened by other forms of darkness. In particular, we hate the darkness of the valley. In this darkness, we can’t see what’s happening. We lose our orientation. Much of life during these seasons is obscured in pitch black and we can’t see the way forward. What once seemed so crystal clear and certain becomes utterly cloaked in darkness. Often, we have absolutely no idea what God is up to. In the previous post, we talked about the most important thing that God is up to in the valley – He is with you. In this post we’re going to explore some of the processes that occur in the valley. Sometimes, we need to just camp out in the truth that He’s with us before we even try to understand the processes taking place in our heart and soul. But for those who are ready, we’re going to pull the veil back on this darkness and look at 5 processes that the Shepherd is cultivating in our hearts while in the valley. I hope you’re encouraged!
One of the best passages of Scripture to understand these 5 processes is Psalm 73. The Psalm is written by Asaph who is reflecting back on a time he felt covered in the darkness of the valley. His experience provides a lot of encouragement and wisdom for us. He writes the following:
1 Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. 2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. 3 For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 4 They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. 5 They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. 7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits. 8 They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. 9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. 10 Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. 11 They say, "How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?" 12 This is what the wicked are like-- always carefree, they increase in wealth. 13 Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. 14 All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. 15 If I had said, "I will speak thus," I would have betrayed your children. 16 When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me 17 till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. 18 Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. 19 How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! 20 As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies. 21 When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. 23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds. (NIV)
Process 1: Formulas Give Way to Relationship:
One of the first ways that we are shaped in the valley is that our formulas are replaced by relationship. The problem with formulas is that they keep Jesus at an arm’s length. They’re an attempt to live “in control” and “pain free,” but they come at the high cost of blinding us to the love and grace we so desperately need to experience each day. They turn a life giving relationship with Jesus into robotics, or worse, religion. We subconsciously attempt to control God… to keep Him in our little man-made boxes to avoid being hurt in this life. But these boxes of our own making often imprison us.
And so it is with Asaph. He’s hurting. He says he feels plagued and punished. There is real pain in this man’s life. The pain, he says, is intensified by the fact that he has done his best to obey God. It’s here that we begin to see the formula deep down in his heart begin to bubble up. It seems righteous on the surface, but it’s not so righteous the more you drill down. In his anger, Asaph reveals what he actually believes about God in the depths of his heart. The formula looks something like this:
A = B
“If I live an obedient, good, or moral life,” then “God will bless my life in ways I’ve predetermined.”
But Asaph’s situation doesn’t line up. The math doesn’t work. He’s kept his heart pure. He’s washed in hands in innocence. But he’s been plagued. He feels punished. Asaph likely thinks that there are only two conclusions from this:
But there’s a third option. And Jesus is often waiting for us by the quiet waters of restoration to reveal it:
Process 2: Religious Masks Give Way to Mature Authenticity
Asaph has walked out Option 1 and tried hard to please God through stricter obedience. In verses 16, 21 and 22 Asaph speaks of digging his heels in and taking Option 2. He got ticked off at God because he felt God did him wrong. He describes this place as “oppressive,” and his heart as “embittered” towards God. Apparently, he didn’t hold back either. He told God just how hurt and angry he was and describes himself as being like a “brute beast” during this season of life.
Beneath his anger, there is a process taking place though. Asaph’s religious masks are melting away and being replaced by authenticity. Quite frankly, this is often a messy and ugly process. But it’s necessary. Over time, Asaph’s formulas had hardened into religious masks for him to hide behind. Often these masks look like one of the following:
What a kind, good and loving Shepherd we have that he would wade into the valley with us. This process is no picnic. The darkness and pain of the valley have a way of melting down our masks. Here, the Shepherd begins to cultivate a mature authenticity within us. Prior to this experience, we are too prideful, busy, religious, afraid or angry with God to be honest with Him. As a result, it’s difficult for grace to penetrate past our masks to heal our wounded hearts. But as the masks come down, authenticity grows… as does humility. And where there is humble, authentic acknowledgment of our pain, brokenness and neediness – you can be sure that there is fertile soil for the grace of the Shepherd to take root and begin a work of restoration.
Take a look at the end of Asaph’s inspired reflection (verses 23 -28). We see a man who has been with Jesus – the Shepherd of the Valley. He has journeyed through what was undoubtedly a very messy process. His formulas have given way to relationship. His religious masks have given way to a mature authenticity. He has drunk deeply from the Shepherd’s cupped hands at the still waters of restoration and now writes: 23Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
The illustration I used at the beginning about my boys has spiritual parallels that I think can be encouraging if you find yourself or someone you love in the valley today. The darkness can be scary, but the Father is with you there. Even when you can’t see Him, He has you by the hand. What was once clear may be obscured in darkness now, but your Father is at work even in the dark. Morning is on the other side of rest. The darkness eventually forces us to rest in our Father’s gracious embrace. On the other side of this rest is the light. Hang in there today and be encouraged. You have a Shepherd of the Valley who loves you and I more than we could ever imagine.
Next Up: The Final 3 Processes and God in the Valley
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I'm married to an incredible woman, Joni. We have two little treasures, Zach (4) and Jon (2). We moved out to Valley Haven Camp and Retreat Center in Hickory, NC in April of 2015 and are excited to see Jesus cultivate a relational context for restoration and renewal in His Gospel and grace out here under these beautiful mountains.