French artist Henri Matisse felt his work in the last years of his life best represented him. During that time he experimented with a new style, creating colorful, large-scale pictures with paper instead of paint. He decorated the walls of his room with these bright images. This was important to him because he had been diagnosed with cancer and was often confined to his bed.
Becoming ill, losing a job, or enduring heartbreak are examples of what some call “being in the valley,” where dread overshadows everything else. The people of Judah experienced this when they heard an invading army was approaching (2 Chron. 20:2–3). Their king prayed, “If calamity comes . . . [we] will cry out to you in our distress, and you will hear us” (v. 9). God responded, “Go out to face [your enemies] tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you” (v. 17).
When Judah’s army arrived at the battlefield, their enemies had already destroyed each other. God’s people spent three days collecting the abandoned equipment, clothing, and valuables. Before leaving, they assembled to praise God and named the place “The Valley of Berakah,” which means “blessing.”
God walks with us through the lowest points in our lives. He can make it possible to discover blessings in the valleys.
Don is a border collie who lives on a farm in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. One morning, he and his owner, Tom, set out to check on some animals. They rode together in a small farm utility truck. When they arrived, Tom left the vehicle but forgot to put the brake on. With Don in the driver’s seat, the vehicle rolled down a hill and across two lanes of traffic before it stopped safely. To watching motorists, it appeared the dog was out for a morning drive. Indeed, things are not always as they seem.
It seemed as if Elisha and his servant were about to be captured and carried off to the King of Aram. The king’s forces had surrounded the city where Elisha and his servant were staying. The servant believed they were doomed, but Elisha said, “Don’t be afraid . . . . Those who are with us are more than those who are with [the enemy]” (2 Kings 6:16). When Elisha prayed, the servant was able to see the multitudes of supernatural forces that were in place to protect them.
Situations that seem hopeless are not always the way we perceive them to be. When we feel overwhelmed and outnumbered, we can remember that God is by our side. He can “command his angels . . . to guard [us] in all our ways” (Ps. 91:11).
High in a fold of Jughandle Peak in the mountains north of our home in Idaho lies a glacial lake. The route to the lake goes up a steep, exposed ridge through boulders and loose scree. It’s a strenuous ascent.
At the beginning of the climb, however, there is a brook—a spring that seeps out of soft, mossy earth and flows through a lush meadow. It’s a quiet place to drink deeply and prepare for the hard climb ahead.
In John Bunyan’s classic allegory of the Christian life, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian arrives at the foot of a steep ascent called the Hill Difficulty, “at the bottom of which was a spring . . . Christian now went to the spring and drank to refresh himself, and then began to go up the hill.”
Perhaps the difficult mountain you face is a rebellious child or an abusive spouse; perhaps it is a serious medical diagnosis. The challenge seems more than you can endure.
Before you face your next major task, visit the spring of refreshment that is God Himself. Come to Him with all your weakness, weariness, helplessness, fear, and doubt. Then drink deeply of His power, strength, and wisdom. God knows all your circumstances and will supply a store of comfort, of spiritual strengthening and consolation. He will lift up your head and give you strength to go on.
A young Japanese man had a problem—he was afraid of leaving his house. To avoid other people, he slept through the day and stayed up all night watching TV. He was a hikikomori or a modern-day hermit. The problem began when he stopped going to school because of poor grades. The longer he remained apart from society, the more he felt like a social misfit. Eventually he broke off all communication with his friends and family. He was helped on his journey to recovery, though, by visiting a youth club in Tokyo known as an ibasho—a safe place where broken people could start reintroducing themselves to society.
What if we thought of the church as an ibasho—and far more? Without a doubt, we are a community of broken people. When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he described their former way of life as anti-social, harmful, and dangerous to themselves and others (1 Cor. 6:9–10). But in Jesus they were being transformed and made whole. And Paul encouraged these rescued people to love one another, to be patient and kind, not to be jealous or proud or rude (13:4-7).
The church is to be an ibasho where all of us, no matter what struggles or brokenness we face, can know and experience God’s love. May the hurting world experience the compassion of Christ from all who follow Him.
During a walk at a local park, my children and I encountered a couple of unleashed dogs. Their owner didn’t seem to notice that one of them had begun to intimidate my son. My son tried to shoo the dog away, but the animal only became more intent on bothering him.
Eventually, my son panicked. He bolted several yards into the distance, but the dog pursued him. The chase continued until I yelled, “Run to me!” My son doubled back, calmed down, and the dog finally decided to make mischief somewhere else.
There are moments in our lives when God calls to us and says, “Run to Me!” Something troubling is on our heels. The faster and farther we go, the more closely it pursues us. We can’t shake it. We’re too afraid to turn and confront the trouble on our own. But the reality is that we aren’t on our own. God is there, ready to help and comfort us. All we have to do is turn away from whatever scares us, and move in His direction. His Word says, “The name of the Lord is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (v. 10).
After being encamped near Mt. Sinai for 2 years, the people of Israel were on the verge of entering Canaan—the land God had promised them. God told them to send 12 spies to assess the land and the people living there. When the spies saw the strength of the Canaanites and the size of their cities, ten of them said, “We can’t!” Two said, “We can!”
What made the difference?
When the ten compared the giants with themselves and the giants loomed large; the two—Caleb and Joshua—compared the giants with God, and the giants were cut down to size. “The
Unbelief never lets us get beyond the difficulties—the impregnable cities and the impossible giants. It preoccupies itself with them, brooding over them, pitting them against mere human resources.
Faith, on the other hand, though it never minimizes the dangers and difficulties of any circumstance, looks away from them to God and counts on His invisible presence and power.
What are your “giants”? A habit you cannot break? A temptation you cannot resist? A difficult marriage? A drug-abusing son or daughter?
If we compare ourselves with our difficulties, we will always be overwhelmed. Faith looks away from the greatness of the undertaking to the greatness of an ever-present, all-powerful God.
Nearly every time an angel appears in the Bible, the first words he says are “Do not be afraid!” (Dan. 10:12, 19; Matt. 28:5; Rev. 1:17). Little wonder. When the supernatural makes contact with planet Earth, it usually leaves the human observers flat on their faces in catatonic fear. But Luke tells of God making an appearance on earth in a form that does not frighten. In Jesus, born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough, God finds at last a mode of approach that we need not fear. What could be less scary than a newborn baby?
Puzzled skeptics stalked Jesus throughout His ministry. How could a baby in Bethlehem, a carpenter’s son, be the Messiah from God? But a group of shepherds in a field had no doubt about who He was, for they heard the message of good news straight from a choir of angels (2:8-14).
Why did God take on human form? The Bible gives many reasons, some densely theological and some quite practical; but the scene of Jesus as an adolescent lecturing rabbis in the temple gives one clue (v. 46). For the first time, ordinary people could hold a conversation, a debate, with God in visible form. Jesus could talk to anyone—His parents, a rabbi, a poor widow—without first having to announce, “Don’t be afraid!”
In Jesus, God comes close to us.
Some young children have trouble falling asleep at night. While there may be many reasons for this, my daughter explained one of them as I turned to leave her bedroom one evening. “I’m afraid of the dark,” she said. I tried to relieve her fear, but I left a nightlight on so she could be sure that her room was monster-free.
I didn’t think much more about my daughter’s fear until a few weeks later when my husband went on an overnight business trip. After I settled into bed, the dark seemed to press in around me. I heard a tiny noise and jumped up to investigate. It turned out to be nothing but I finally understood my daughter’s fear when I experienced it myself.
Jesus understands our fears and problems because He lived on the earth as a human and endured the same types of trouble we face. “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isa. 53:3). When we describe our struggles to Him, He doesn’t brush us aside, minimize our feelings, or tell us to snap out of it—He relates to our distress. Somehow, knowing that He understands can dispel the loneliness that often accompanies suffering. In our darkest times, He is our light and our salvation.
In desperation, a woman called the housing assistance center where I worked. A heating problem had turned her rental home into a freezer with furniture. Panicked, she asked me how she would care for her children. I hurriedly replied with the scripted official response: “Just move into a hotel and send the landlord the bill.” She angrily hung up on me.
I knew the textbook answer to her question, but I had completely missed her heart. She wanted someone to understand her fear and desperation. She needed to know she wasn’t alone. In essence, I had left her out in the cold.
After Job had lost everything, he had friends with answers but little understanding. Zophar told him all he needed to do was live wholeheartedly for God. Then “life will be brighter than noonday,” he said (11:17). That counsel wasn’t well received, and Job responded with scathing sarcasm: “Wisdom will die with you!” (12:2). He knew the dissatisfying taste of textbook answers to real-world problems.
It’s easy to be critical of Job’s friends for their failure to see the big picture. But how often are we too quick with answers to questions we don’t truly understand? People do want answers. But more than that, they want to know we hear and understand. They want to know we care.