Faith Matters

Andrew Watson: Finding light in the valley of the shadow of death

It can be hard to see the light in the current coronavirus crisis - but the Good Shepherd guides his flock through life's darkest valleys, and even death itself, says the Rev Andrew Watson in his latest reflection on Psalm 23

A marble statue of the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb, thought to date from between 300 and 350, from the Catacombs of Domitilla and now in the Vatican Museums

"THE Lord is my Shepherd," wrote David, the shepherd boy turned king.

"Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and staff they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows" (Psalm 23).

Of course, David made it look easy, defeating the giant Goliath while still a young teenager.

A careful reading of the Bible provides a more balanced and realistic expectation of life on earth.

For a start, we find that in many of the Psalms David wrote he is actually deeply distressed by his numerous enemies.

His courage only increases after earnestly pleading with God for help.

In this fallen world some hardship and sorrow are to be expected. Danger is common. People suffer accidents, become ill and die. Not everyone we meet or have to work with is nice.

Jesus told his disciples very plainly that we will have trouble in the world and on occasions may have to 'take up our crosses' to follow him.

The good news of Psalm 23 - and all Scripture - is not that God always lifts us above danger and difficulty but is with us through it. In the deepest valley and the darkest shadow, the Good Shepherd stays with and sustains his flock.

Along with this realistic expectation of life we should note carefully who, according to Jesus, the real enemy is.

In John 17 he does not pray for his followers to be taken out of the world but protected from the evil one.

We remember the Lord's Prayer where believers are instructed to regularly pray, "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil" - literally 'the evil' or 'the evil one'.

The worst enemy of our souls is the malicious deceiver known as the devil who will use the various circumstances of life to try and make us believe something false or abandon faith and wallow in sin - the idea that 'I'm good enough, I don't need to be saved'.

The Bible says none of us are good enough to stand before a holy God - it's why we need a perfect saviour, Jesus.

The opposite lie works just as well: 'I could never be good enough for heaven. And God doesn't seem to care.'

The good news of Psalm 23 - and all Scripture - is that in the deepest valley and the darkest shadow, the Good Shepherd stays with and sustains his flock 

The Biblical answer is just the same. Yes we have all sinned and fall desperately short but God values, indeed loves us so much, he has given his son to rescue us.

The third lie is very common in Ireland. It basically says: 'God is loving and kind so we really shouldn't worry. It will all work out fine in the end.'

But the Bible says God is holy so we must be willing to repent and turn away from things he says are wrong.

He is also gracious. He does not treat us as our sins deserve but offers forgiveness. However, each person must accept and follow the shepherd-saviour God has given.

In this life we'll have to navigate some shadowy valleys, the last of which is death itself.

But Jesus has passed that way before us and risen in victory. Good Shepherd that he is, he promises to never leave us. He will keep and sustain us through everything.

David often had cause for anxiety but it did not overcome him for he trusted in the Lord as his shepherd.

When living under the shadow of the threat of death, he writes that the shepherd's staff supports him, the shepherd's rod of discipline keeps him in line.

He is provided with all the encouragement he needs as an honoured guest even when in earthly terms he is surrounded by opponents.

In practical terms there's no greater source of courage than turning to God in trusting, obedient prayer.

He will comfort and support and provide the 'armour' we need for the battles we will inevitably face.

Like a shield, faith keeps us from spiralling down into cynicism. And like a sword, the Holy Spirit makes these inspired words come alive in our minds and hearts so our prayers can pierce and drive back the darkness with goodness and hope as we declare the praises of the Lord, our shepherd.

Rev Andrew Watson

Rev Andrew Watson is minister of the Presbyterian congregations in Dunfanaghy and Carrigart in Co Donegal and chaplain to Letterkenny Institute of Technology. He blogs at wordsurfers.com

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