My late brother Thomas was a Reformed Presbyterian pastor in Singapore. He died many years ago in his early 50s from nasal cancer, leaving a wife and four children. When Thomas was still alive and suffering from cancer, some insensitive person asked if he still believed that God could heal him. I will never forget Thomas’ reply: “I believe God can heal, but God doesn’t have to.”
My brother taught me that our faith and trust in God is not dependent on God’s bounty or “blessings” (as popularly understood). We do not trust God only when things are going well. The flip side of that is trusting God does not necessarily bring us material blessings, either.
Psalm 23 is a beloved psalm for many. We love the promise of how we will lack nothing if the Lord is our shepherd. We want God to lead us to those green pastures and quiet waters. We long to dwell in the house of the Lord forever, enjoying God’s goodness and love all the days of our lives.
Yet sandwiched right in the middle of this psalm is walking through the valley of the shadow of death (v. 4). The God who guides us along the right paths (v. 3) also guides us through the darkest valleys. Following God’s paths does not ensure we avoid trials, suffering, or pain. But it does ensure that God is with us, even in the dark valleys. Therefore, we always have hope that the darkness will end when we eventually climb out of the valley.
In these difficult times with the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us may feel like we are in the darkest valley. Due to restrictions, many have lost jobs and financial security. Thousands have lost loved ones to the virus. Front-line health workers are overwhelmed and exhausted, risking their lives daily. Most of us are grieving. Doing the right thing does not mean we won’t suffer in the process. But God will help us get through the valley.
My father died about 10 days after my brother’s death. I think the heartbreak of burying one of his sons was too much for Dad. Those were dark days of grief for my family, especially for Mom. And unfortunately, at the time I was half a world apart in Canada while my family was grieving in Singapore. It didn’t work out for me to travel then, and I would have been too late for the funerals anyway. I visited all of my family and the gravesites months later. But it was difficult to process grief alone. My wife discovered me in my study one evening sobbing uncontrollably.
God knows many have suffered far worse than I have. I know I am privileged and blessed, and I thank God for those blessings. But when I do suffer and walk through the dark valleys, I will still trust Jesus, the man of sorrows acquainted with grief. In Jesus Christ, God knows our suffering intimately. But Jesus also triumphed over death, ensuring that life—God’s resurrection life—has the last word.
Hence, I will confess that God is good, all the time. As one of my favorite worship songs reminds me, “on the road marked with suffering; / though there’s pain in the offering, / blessed be your name. … When the darkness closes in, Lord, / still I will say, / ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord’” (Matt Redman, “Blessed Be Your Name”).