In the summer of 1998 I was between 8th and 9th grade. My mom heard of a Christian theatre seminar called Art Reach and though money was tight, my parents scraped together the tuition and sent me to it. The seminar was not age restricted, so, though I was only 14, I attended classes with all ages. I especially enjoyed interacting with the older women who were all so impressed with me for some reason. I recall one poignant conversation in particular when I was having lunch with a lady. I don’t recall her name, or really even her face, but I will never forget what she said to me as we were discussing Psalm 23. She said, “Do you know what ‘the valley of the shadow of death is?” I had never really thought about it, I guess I had always thought maybe it was a real place, possibly a dangerous valley well known in biblical times. “The valley of the shadow of death is life.” she said. That assertion knocked the wind out of me. It absolutely blew my 14 year old mind. The older I get though, the more I see she was right. Life is, quite literally, the valley of the shadow of death.
Most people probably don’t think about death on a daily basis. We are all too preoccupied with life. We concern ourselves with the here and now, and what comes next on our to-do list, and managing our schedules for next week and on into the future. We make so many plans. We make dinner plans and vacation plans and retirement plans all with the blissful assumption we will be there to partake of those arrangements. In reality, none of that is promised to us. We are not guaranteed another 20 minutes on this earth much less another 20 years. At any given time our lives could be cut short, or at least, cut short from our perspective. From the perspective of an omniscient almighty God, our days (as well as our hours, minutes and seconds) were numbered long before we arrived on the planet Earth. Nothing comes as a surprise to God, but a great many things surprise the cheese out of us humans.
I’m grateful for that insightful woman, whoever she was. I am thankful God sent her to me so many years in advance of when I would need the knowledge and understanding that I live in the valley of the shadow of death. However, even though I spent 20+ years with that knowledge, it hasn’t eased the sting of death. Death is always horrifying. When my best friend Michelle died of colon cancer at the age of 35 after a three year long hard-fought battle, it was traumatizing. It was like witnessing an excruciatingly slow car crash. Some people are unceremoniously ripped from life in an instant, and the shock is unbearable. In the case of a slow death, the shock is also slow. It doesn’t slap you upside the face, it’s more like the old metaphor of the frog hanging out in a pot of water on the stove as it slowly heats to boiling. By the time you realize the horror of what is unfolding it’s too late. It was never going to be easy. Death of a loved one is never easy. Michelle died peacefully in her sleep with her husband at her side, after having spent six days surrounded by close friends and loved ones. And while I’m grateful to God for the opportunity to say goodbye to her and to grieve together with her family, it wasn’t easy. I still carry the weight of it every day. Sometimes I still find myself dumbfounded, the only coherent thought ricocheting around in my head is, How did this happen? How could this possibly have happened?
The truth though, is that death is always possible. It lurks, hidden, around every corner. I could get in my car, get on the freeway and never come home. That happens to a lot of people, in fact. I could suddenly drop dead from an undetected medical condition like a ticking time bomb aneurism or a massive heart attack. This doesn’t even take into account the myriad of ways I could be killed by others either intentionally or through negligence. This isn’t even a surprising assertion. “Nothing is certain in life but death and taxes,” is a very old saying. So why then, is it important for us to know that we live in the valley of the shadow of death? So that we will put our trust in the only trustworthy one, that is God. He is the author of life, He is the creator of all things, He is the great redeemer, and He is the only one who reigns over death. In fact, God created death, and believe it or not, it’s a mercy. If it weren’t for death, we would have to live forever in this world of sin, evil, and darkness. Genesis 3:22 explains this. After Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “Then the Lord God said, “Look, the human beings[a] have become like us, knowing both good and evil. What if they reach out, take fruit from the tree of life, and eat it? Then they will live forever!”
Death doesn’t win though. We are each offered redemption through belief and profession of faith in Jesus Christ so that we can truly live forever, together with Christ.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death is not our forever home. As Christians we need not fear death. We can travel through this valley knowing we will go home when our days here are up, whether that happens in 80 days or 80 years or 80 minutes. As the psalm says, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”