I often imagine the seasons of life as hills and valleys, ups and downs, highs and lows, ascents into light and growth, descents into darkness and trial. And when thinking of the seasons of decline, with the exceptions of those that we seem to be drop-kicked into, I tend to think of myself on the edge of a cliff with two options ahead of me: I can either work on finding the staircase into the valley, or ignore the chasm until I am inevitably pushed over the edge. Either way, the valley is coming.
The descent seems to be the worst part for most of us because we are headed in a downward direction of suffering, despair, persecution, depression, or any host of other negative experiences in life. And since we know (or hope) these times to be valleys, there promises to be an upward incline on the other side of this season. But the valley floor is covered in shadow and we don’t know how far we must descend until we have truly reached our lowest low, and not knowing that becomes more tortuous than what sent us over the edge in the first place.
In his novel, Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter describes a character named Shane who is about to pitch a movie script and looking for a big break. Shane has had an extended season of downward spiraling, from losing jobs to a recent divorce, but believes this script could be the rope he’s been looking for to kickstart the climb out of his valley. When asked if he truly believes his script will be picked up, he responds:
‘Yes. I do,’ Shane says, and he does. It’s the key sub-tenet of Shane’s movie-inspired ACT-as-if faith in himself: his generation’s profound belief in secular episodic providence, the idea – honed by decades of entertainment – that after thirty or sixty or one hundred and twenty minutes of complications, things generally work out.
This theory of secular episodic providence could not be more true of myself and my generation. We have been conditioned to believe that life will be filled with miscommunications and misunderstandings that will rattle around and cause damage in comedic fashion between friends or co-workers, and a witty or sarcastic monologue is all it will take to force the guilty party to realize the error of their ways and provide the injured party with vindication. It’s why we are so obsessed with the mic drop, and while this trend shows us an incredibly unhealthy form of one-sided attack-mode communication, it also reveals a basic misunderstanding about the struggles we face: We believe we have the ability end our crises in a neat and tidy fashion in the amount of time we deem appropriate. We believe that, through our own efforts, we get to say when our seasons of darkness are over, or how long the valley floors will be, or when it is time for us to head back uphill again. But the reality is we don’t.
However, while we cannot command our seasons of struggle to end, we can make choices that will honor God and help us navigate our way down and through them.
Choice Number One: We choose to abandon our attempts to call the shots and end our valley seasons.
Proverbs Three encourages us to “not be wise in [our] own eyes,” which is exactly what we do when we try to figure out when the darkness will end and the light will return. I do not encourage abandoning the learning process or giving up the pursuit of understanding the circumstances that got us into the pit in the first place, but we can’t cling to the hope that once we figure out what the problem is, the darkness will subside and we will find ourselves on a plateau once again. We are not promised that.
Choice Number Two: We choose to remember and believe that God is with us in the midst of our valleys.
Richard Foster mused on seasons of difficulty and sorrow in his work Celebration of Discipline, and used St. John of the Cross’ phrase: “the dark night of the soul.” But Foster did not imagine that some people might avoid the dark night of the soul, nor did he believe that God abandoned his people to encounter it alone. He states:
When God lovingly draws [you] into a dark night of the soul… recognize the dark for what it is. Be grateful that God is lovingly drawing you away from every distraction so that you can see Him. Rather than chafing and fighting, become still and wait.
Foster sees that God, in his commitment to work for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28), lovingly brings us to the dark night, walks with us to the edge of the cliff, and invites us to go through it with him rather than in our own strength. By highlighting the care with which God takes us through the valley, Foster also unveils for us the third choice we can make in our seasons of darkness.
Choice Number Three: We choose to believe that the Lord’s delight in us remains and trust in him above ourselves.
Proverbs Three contains one of the most frequently used passages among Christian circles, and it isn’t without reason we hear these words so frequently.
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight…
My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke,
because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” – Proverbs 3:5-6, 11-12
Our God is concerned with our process, the process by which we look more and more like his Son. And as we continually learn to think and behave and love and give like Jesus did, we must unlearn our selfishness, pride, envy, and hate, and that unlearning usually happens in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death. It is in those places that we are most vulnerable and exposed, attentive to the voice of God because every other sense has been suffocated in the deep darkness of our suffering. In those places, God helps us unlearn the destructive habits and character flaws that keep us distanced from and hostile to him and the people around us, and teaches us those things that make unity with God and healthy inter-dependence upon each other possible. We must learn to trust our God and, “rather than chafing and fighting, become still and wait.”
Unfortunately I cannot tell you how long to wait, though it will probably be longer thirty or sixty or one hundred and twenty minutes. I once waited through depression for two years, and I too fought my way towards the bottom, only to get so exhausted that I couldn’t help but give up and trust in God, because I had nothing else to hold on to. Once I did, he began to clear the fog and tend to my wounds, and once he helped me up we walked together the rest of the way down, across the valley floor, and up the other side. God is working for your good; I encourage you to let him.