The strange thing about life is that it includes death. It was not always so, in the beginning. And it will not always be so, in the age to come.
If we follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and are born again of his Holy Spirit, we already have eternal life. Nevertheless, we know that one day we will die, even as we know that death is not the end. The only way we avoid death is if Jesus returns first.
When we read the scriptures describing the age to come, it is not difficult to see how our lives will be lived in shalom. In a world where evil is banished and death is no more, living in shalom will be our ‘natural’ state. Finally, we will live as true humans, with a resurrection body, just like Jesus.
But we do not yet live in the age to come. When sin entered the world, death came with it: this is the story of Genesis chapter 3. The Psalm also connects these two: the valley of the shadow of death, and the presence of evil. As we have already heard, neither of these will be part of the age to come, when everything will be shalom. So how do we live in shalom right now, knowing that death awaits each one of us?
As we considered in the second reflection, we will likely never achieve shalom entirely in the present world. Yet we recognised that it is possible to live at a much higher level of vitality, health, purpose and shalom than most of us realise. If we bring that future hope of living in shalom all of the time into the present, we will find that we can live in shalom some of the time.
To die is gain
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.
I am hard pressed between the two.
My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
Here, Paul is stating quite clearly that his desire is to choose death, because it would mean gain for him. He knows that when he dies he will be with Christ, and that is far better than anything in this life. Paul is writing these words from prison where the possibility of him being put to death was very real. He is not speaking abstractly — he is coming to terms with reality, and in doing so realising that for those who are in Christ, death is gain.
Have you come to terms with your own death? Does thinking about your death fill you with fear and dread or hope and joy? To live in shalom in the present age means we need to put death in its proper place because, as we have already stated, shalom means everything in the right place, and nothing in the wrong place.
For those who are in Christ, death serves us and also reminds us that the time we have for fruitful living in this age is short and finite. This is its proper place. Death means our ascension to Christ; our descent into the valley may carry us to very low places, and it may be deep and full of shadows, but even the darkest night of the soul compares as nothing to the weight of glory that awaits us as we ascend to be with Christ in his glory. This is death in its proper place, and therefore “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
Walk, not run
The Psalm also reminds us of a truth which we can only discover if we find ourselves in the valley. The Hebrew word for “shadow of death” can also mean “darkness” or “deep shadow”. Some of us may find ourselves in valleys of darkness and deep shadow, with no threat of death. If you have suffered from depression, despair, grief and a paralysing anxiety, you will be familiar with this kind of valley. When we find ourselves in this kind of valley, we find that we can’t run; all we can do is walk. The energy and vitality which seem so natural up on the mountaintop can be utterly drained from us in the valley. Above the clouds, the sun shines endlessly, the air is always clear and we can see to the ends of the sky. In the valley we can lose all perspective and every shadow can become a source of anguish and fear.
During these times, it is hard to believe that life can be anything other than this suffering. When we are forced to walk — even trudge — through these valleys, the days are dark and the nights can seem endless. How then can we live in shalom?
You are with me
The answer to this question is that the Lord who is my shepherd is with me. I am never alone. Knowing I am not alone when I can see that there is someone with me is easy. Knowing I am not alone when I am surrounded by darkness and despair is difficult. Yet this is somehow key to living in shalom. It is not the easy kind of knowing that shows us the true depth of the Lord’s love for us, it’s the hard kind of knowing which does.
Paul discovered one of the most profound truths in the midst of suffering. He writes,
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
(2 Corinthians 12:8-9)
Surely this is someone who has learnt to live in shalom even in the valley of deep darkness.
Perhaps the greatest example comes from the Lord Jesus. On the cross, he cried out,
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Yet we know that Jesus chose to die on the cross because he loved his Father and knew that he would not be forsaken. The writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith. Why? Because he endured the cross for the joy that was set before him (see Hebrews 12:2). Jesus knew that resurrection was before him and shalom forevermore. He also knew that he was making the way possible for us to also have what he has. His experience of being forsaken on the cross was surely real, yet at the deepest, darkest moment of loss and despair Jesus still utters these words:
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
This is the same as, “The Lord is my shepherd… I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Jesus surrendered himself fully to his Father’s love, even to the point of death, because he trusted him. We can trust him too.
Therefore, “Even though I walk through the valley of darkness, or the valley of deep shadows, or the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
May you live in Shalom, and may you know that for those who are in Christ, death is gain.
May you know that Christ’s power is made perfect in your weakness.
May you know the Lord is ALWAYS with you, and especially in the valley of deep shadow.