Faith in the Valley

Dear contemplative follower of God, 
Recently, I have been thinking about what it means to be free and to live a full and abundant life; the one that Jesus talked about so often and even died for. He told us to come to Him in our hopelessness, tiredness, and our day to day living, and that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). So, why does life feel so heavy sometimes? Why are there times when it feels so hard to love Him and love people well? Why are there days when it seems like there is deep and continual hardship. These are the days when I ask myself if the Lord is actually near, and if there will ever be breakthrough in the areas I am contending for in my life.
 
To be honest, I don't really have an answer to any of the proposed questions in my mind in every circumstance. There are obvious answers like, maybe it feels heavy because of what I am carrying, or maybe I haven't been taking good care of myself. But there are other times when I am not carrying more than I should and I am paying attention to my needs, and life can still feel like a battle. However, I do know that the one thing that I can put my hope in is that God is good and He will never leave me. He has good things for me, even if I don’t directly see or feel His abundance in moments of grief, confusion, and worry. I am learning now more than ever that the abundant life and the yoke that Jesus was talking about is not a life absent from processing pain, feeling abandoned, not knowing what my future actually holds, and wrestling with God and my understanding of His ways. In fact, I think a significant part of the abundant life, freedom, and a life empowered by the Spirit encompasses seasons of all of these processes.
 
Yes, I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but it's also where His rod and His staff comfort me (Psalm 23). Jesus said Himself, we will have trouble in this world and we will have peace (John 16:33). Solomon told us that there are seasons for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). But, we will overcome if we don't run away from these seasons of being in valleys or times where we are not feeling great at the time. It is the valley where we find growth. It is in the dark cave where we find treasures. It is in pruning and testing by fire that we become strong for God's purpose in our lives.
 
I think Jesus would want us to know that the abundant and a life full of love is not absent of grief, depression, anxiety, pain, physical ailments, death, trial, and testing.
 
It is also not absent of hope, joy, grace, peace, triumph, love, healing, and beauty, either.

We must learn to acknowledge both at the same time and to not run from either, but embrace the fullness of it all.

In the life full of glory to glory and also disappointment and pain, I think the best way to understand God's love for us, love Him back, and live abundantly is to accept His perfect will for us. It is to know that He is with us, rejoice in our thankfulness to Him, and to follow Him wherever He goes. He may be leading us through the valley of the shadow of death or to the highest peak of His majesty.

In retrospect, if we don't understand that He is good in His purposes for our life, thus not actually knowing His character, it is hard to believe in anything good and hopeful through all the twists and turns of life. It's hard to love a God who we think is punishing us, teasing us, and continually putting us through tests just to teach us something. It's also hard to love His creation with the same misconceptions about Him. But what if He uses everything, even the pain in our life, to bring us to glory with Him? Isn't that the gospel—that Jesus came and suffered, died, so that we may be covered from actual death and have abundant life with Him?

 I think much of the misunderstanding of who God is to us and the gospel itself is attributed to our experiences in the world, the misunderstanding of hardship in our lives, disappointment in our earthly relationships, and what we believe is best for our lives. If we look at the abundant life in society, it tells us that abundance looks like fulfilling dreams, chasing the heart, meeting a goal of prosperity (whether that is relational or financial), having the perfect career, being "happy" all the time, being able to always provide for self or family, etc. If we look at love the way most of society operates, it is represented as relative to the world we create for ourselves. i.e. "love is subjected to your own morality." i.e. "love can be anything you want it to be." In this, there is no absolute truth for what love actually is, thus creating no standard for purity, righteousness, and actual fruit in our lives. Not to mention, this sort of thinking actually creates mini gods in our lives. To break this down a little, love being "subjective" as the world has determined for so long actually looks like perversion, impurity, selfishness, flattery, a means to an end, half truths, and acceptance of every thought/opinion/way of life. All of these ways of "love" actually lead to death and are not the abundant life that Jesus was talking about. As followers of Jesus, we actually do have a standard to follow and that is to obey the way He has set out for us, by which we are loving Him, and to love other people.

In the same vein, Jesus's words tell us that abundance actually looks like letting go of ourselves and dying to the ways in which we are being led by our flesh; i.e. chasing our heart, chasing our own "happiness". Jeremiah tells us that the heart is actually extremely deceptive, and is pretty difficult to understand (Jeremiah 17:9). But then Paul then reminds us in Romans 8 to be led by the Spirit. I think in this, Jesus would say that it is the Spirit whom reveals to us what is actually good for us and if we follow those ways, we are actually loving Him really, really well! And the best thing is, outside of His warning to not fall into various traps of the enemy (read the Bible on this), following Him in this life isn't super formulaic and is very freeing for each person! It won't look like anyone else's journey and we can rejoice knowing that He knows exactly what He is doing for us to lead us into abundance and a life full of His presence. So, because we know that He is good, we will not be led astray.

In this, God's love is actually perfect. It is true and absolute peace, purity, extravagance, abundance, and actually leads to life! For me personally, loving God in this way is important because it is where I come to life over and over again. It is a place where my external and internal world can be crumbling and I am hidden in the love I have for knowing that He is good, in control, and is making beauty out of my life and this world.

I hope this satisfied or maybe brought revelation to some of the questions within your mind.

With all strength, love, and peace,
Emily

P.S. (If you desire some after thought)
This all makes me think of a few pieces of God's handiwork I recommend reading and watching. The book Hinds Feet in High Places, the movie the Shack, and even C.S Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia embody this journey of love perfectly for me. In the allegorical book of Hinds Feet in High Places, a young character named "much afraid" embarks on a journey to go to the high places with God, but she can only do this by letting "sorrow" and "suffering" to go with her through the mountains, valleys, beaches, and forests. The "good shepherd" is always leading her and is a call away, but she must learn to embrace the painful parts of life and to battle things like "fear" and "pride" to have true joy and peace and to be able to develop hinds feet to actually survive in the "high places" with the "good shepherd".

 The Shack is similar in that it tells a story of a man who walks through deep inner healing with the trinity after a traumatic event in His life brings pain and memories of His past. He must journey with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to forgive those who have hurt Him, and to get to know each part of the trinity for who they actually are to Him to then be free of depression, bitterness, confusion, and misunderstanding of God. He ends His journey in returning to a life, not absent of pain, but more free in knowing that the entire personhood of God is good, is always with Him, and loves Him deeply.

 I see the same picture in C.S. Lewis's fictional works. The Chronicles of Narnia are certainly not absent of battle, death, temptation, and division, but instead embrace the reality of the spiritual battle we are living in. The Chronicles show that it is possible for man to overcome, live empowered by the Spirit, and obtain the royalty that man was destined to know and represent in this world and the Kingdom to come.

 So, I would say to you—if you love Him and want to love Him well, understand that suffering is not absent from your life and neither is peace and abundance. Also, know that suffering is not necessarily from Him, but He will bring you to glory through it. Know that the abundant life is not emotional, financial, and physical prosperity or how the world determines it to be. Neither is love. And then, just follow Him. Embrace the season that you are in. If you are tested by God, do not despise it, but run towards Him in the darkness. If you are walking through pain, know that He is good and with you. God is in the darkness as much as He is in the light.
 
Be grateful for every season you are in and trust that He knows what He is doing with you. He doesn't want you to drown or die. His will for you is perfect and pleasing in the sight of His eyes. He is excited for this journey with you. He wants to plant a seed of love in your life. Know that it will cost you everything but it will never put you to shame. His way is the ONLY way. Do not be deceived by the "love" of the world. Have no other gods before Him and walk through that narrow path, and I can personally promise you that you will be lifted in glory with Him.

You will experience the actual abundant life that Jesus was talking about, and you will be able to do it all with Him by the power of His Spirit inside of you because He has already overcome. In your weakness of losing your life and carrying your cross- the one He asked you to carry, His grace will be sufficient for you and you will even be surprised by what you will be able to see and do with Him. Generations will be forever changed by your simple yes. So keep saying yes to what He tells you and follow that lion wherever He may go.

Author | Emily Helton

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