As my friends out there know, I am ill. I have a degenerative neurological condition that has put me in a wheelchair much of the time and left me weak, stiff and in pain.
This illness, I call it my “affliction,” (though I am certainly no Paul) has challenged me physically, mentally and spiritually. Prior to falling ill, I led a very active life. I had a successful career as a real estate appraiser and worked with the local Search and Rescue as well. I was an outdoorsman, enjoying hunting, fishing and camping deep in the wilderness. Unfortunately, my “affliction” progressed to the point that I had to give up most of the things I loved and eventually I had to take an early retirement. Not exactly how I saw my life turning out…
Needless to say, this was devastating. The effect it had on my family was just as devastating. My children saw their dad go from an energetic and playful daddy to a pain wracked crippled husk of his former self. My wife watched her husband and life partner go through hell on earth. Everything we hoped and dreamed of was forever changed by this turn of events.
Normally this would be the point where I would interject some inspirational and encouraging words and some verses from God’s Word and turn a sad story into something uplifting. Certainly, I have experienced glorious blessings from God in the face of this affliction. He has blessed me with a wonderful family, I have a roof over my head, food and clothing and even a couple of ornery horses. Many times my illness has been a vehicle for touching lives and for God to touch my family and myself. That is not the topic this time however.
This essay is about the low times. Times like now, when I am deep in the valley. When the shadows stretch their spindly arms over my head and I feel as if my illness is swallowing me alive. When weakness and pain wrack my body and my spirit. When affliction and the cares of this world overwhelm me, stifling my witness and hobbling my walk with Christ. At times like these it seems my faith hangs on only by the barest thread. It comes down to sheer endurance. Just keeping the faith.
The first time that I hit a low point like this, I wondered if God had indeed forsaken me. I fell into a dark depression wondering how long I could endure such physical and spiritual agony. Satan certainly takes advantages of these low points and the spiritual oppression that darkened my thoughts and smothered my spirit was profound.
I learned a lot from that first time and subsequent times that I have passed through that same dark valley I was better able to cope. I learned that no matter how bad it gets God never allows me to be overwhelmed beyond my ability to, with His help, endure. He showed me how His Word strengthens an oppressed spirit and how prayer can free me from the machinations of the enemy. God proved to me that He will never leave me or forsake me. It is His strength which sustains me through these trials.
Despite this knowledge, there are still times when I have asked Him why He would allow something like this to happen to me. I have wondered if I had done something wrong or offended Him in some way. I know He is beyond all that of course. Nevertheless, it is especially in these times of weakness that the enemy fires off the fiery darts of accusation, doubt and guilt. They find me too weak to hold up the shield of faith and some of them find their mark. Illness and pain can lead to fear and doubt in the strongest of Christians and I am no different.
These journeys through the valley of shadows, though mercifully infrequent, still shake me. Maybe that’s why God occasionally allows me to encounter them. The fear of calamity that seems to come when the shadows grow and the feelings of guilt, feelings that I should try harder, do more, all wash over me. A sea of shame. Compounding the psychological affliction is the physical. Pain. Weakness. Fatigue that is so profound it is as if my life is ebbing out of me. The disjointed feeling of arms and legs that don’t do what my mind tells them to. Fingers that press random keys on the keyboard of their own accord. The darkness of these days is almost unbearable. While out of context I can’t help but think of the verse from the 13th chapter of Mark, "And unless the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh would be saved. But for the elect's sake, whom He has chosen, He has shortened the days." I pray the Lord shortens the days I spend in the valley.
As I said, I am no Paul. Even in the face of horrible affliction he soldiered on preaching and teaching no matter what. I, on the other hand, well… Yeah, I’m no Paul. When I am in the valley I just try to stay focused on God’s Word. I pray and seek His Face knowing that He will sustain me. Before long I will emerge from the valley into the green pastures beside the still waters. Each journey through the valley is shorter and I emerge stronger and, perhaps, even a little wiser. It is never easy but with God, it is not impossible. It just comes down to keeping the faith.