Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

What we can do when we live in a time without any sense of security.

Today’s newsletter isn’t going to be theological. It’s going to be practical. It’s one person’s thoughts on how to live when we simply don’t know if everything is going to be okay. 

I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again. It starts in the very early morning hours of November 22, 2007. It was my first night in Iraq, and I was huddled with several hundred troopers from the Second Squadron, Third Armored Cavalry Regiment near a helipad in Balad Air Base. We were waiting for a flight of CH-47 Chinook helicopters to take us to Forward Operating Base Caldwell in Diyala Province. “Caldwell,” as we called it, was to be our home for most of the next year.

I was nervous. I was an older reservist, a 38-year-old JAG officer, joining an active-duty combat arms unit on a mission into an area of operations that was largely held by al-Qaeda. It was our mission to take that territory back. Not only had I never been deployed, I was fresh out of JAG school. As recently as Halloween I was still living my civilian life, running the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Academic Freedom.

My nervousness turned to outright fear when we boarded the helicopter. We took off, flying low and fast, packed like sardines into the back of the Chinook. From my perch, I could look right over the shoulder of the door gunner. Off in the distance I could see fires and tracer rounds from a faraway firefight. In that moment, everything became very real.

I was just a JAG officer—an Army lawyer—but I knew that I would be going outside the wire, outside of the relative safety of our base. I knew that many of the men all around me would go outside the wire far more than I would. I had the keen sense that I might not see my family ever again. I freely admit that I felt afraid.

So I prayed, fervently, that God would give me some sense of assurance that I’d make back home. I also prayed for courage and competence, that I could do my duty supporting the men who would face far more daily risk than me. I knew I was entering what the psalmist called, “the valley of the shadow of death.”

God never answered the first part of my prayer. I never felt that sense of assurance. In fact, it diminished by the day as our unit began to take casualties. It diminished each time I journeyed across roads that we suspected were mined with improvised explosive devices or walked streets in towns and villages where al-Qaeda cells hid. It diminished even more as I lost dear friends. There were weeks at a time when the days were so dark that we wondered if all the members of our “band of brothers” would make it back to Caldwell—or to one of our far-flung combat outposts—at the end of each night. 

For almost a full year, I lived each day deprived of any sense of security, of any sense that things would be okay. And there were many days when things were not okay, when death prevailed. 

I thought back to that time when the shelter-in-place orders started to roll in. I was reminded of it again when one of my kids asked me if I thought we might lose a family member to coronavirus. “I don’t know,” I responded. People we love are in the most vulnerable categories. I thought of it more as the death toll spiked this week. We’re now losing Americans at the rate of more than a 9/11 every three days. That death toll accompanies an emerging economic downturn that’s leaving few Americans unscathed.

In a very different time and in a very different setting (and with a very different enemy), we’re living in that uncertain space where soldiers live. Many parts of our nation are walking in the valley of the shadow of death. How do we walk through that valley? How do we achieve a degree of peace, meaning, and even joy in the face of such fear and loss?

What follows are a few things I learned in Iraq, and I find myself returning to them now. These thoughts don’t come engraved on tablets from Mount Sinai. They’re one man’s opinion based on one man’s experience. I’d be eager to hear your own thoughts in the comments. But here are the things that got me through Iraq and are guiding me today:

Find your band of brothers (and/or sisters). How do you endure a crisis? How do you face an uncertain future? Together. I’ve been blessed twice-over. I deployed to Iraq with men who were among the best I’ve ever known, men who are my brothers still to this day. I’m sheltering in my house with my wife and all my kids, including my new son-in-law. 

I’m also keenly aware that there are people reading this who are alone in their houses, either distant from families or suffering after their families have fractured. It’s imperative that you find a way to hold tight to your friends, that you reach out to your family—even if you can only do it virtually. I’ve seen strong people break when they face a crisis alone.

Find and pursue your purpose. I’ve written before that this crisis presents Americans with a unique and frustrating challenge. At our best, we’re people who run to the danger. At our best, we respond to an emergency with immediate, courageous action. And now those of us who aren’t “essential” are supposed to stay home? Doctors and nurses have all the purpose they need. So do the people who maintain America’s critical infrastructure.  

But social distancing doesn’t mean simply hunkering down, taking care of yourself, and waiting. Do you have financial security? Seek out and support those who do not. Do you know of people who are facing this crisis alone? Be their friend. Does anyone lack supplies? Make sure they have what they need, not just by supplying them yourself (not all of us can), but by linking them to ministries or public services who stand in the gap. 

I’m going to brag a moment about my wife. I’ve watched amazed as she’s become a one-woman logistician, arranging food deliveries to shut-ins hundreds of miles away, all while spending hours in the kitchen to keep vulnerable people we love supplied with home-cooked meals. And then, at night, her phone dings constantly as she plays scrabble with her elderly aunt. The message is simple: You are not alone. 

Seek joy. One of my favorite memories of my Iraq deployment is of the weeks and months after one of my friends took delivery of a video game called “Rock Band.” After missions and after shifts, we’d rush to his room, fire up Rock Band, and deliver the worst, most screeching renditions of Rush, Bon Jovi, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana that anyone has ever heard. 

After Rock Band came World of Warcraft. We connected with a satellite internet service using an old Iraqi Army satellite dish, and soon enough we were fighting through high lag to quest through Azeroth. 

Young people pursue joy by nature. As we get older—especially in uncertain times—the pursuit of friendship and fun often has to be intentional. We need to laugh, even when living in the shadow of pain, loss, and death. 

Have faith. Throughout my deployment I must have listened to the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” more than a thousand times. The song, which presents one of the most potent and straightforward depictions of the Gospel I’ve ever heard, contains the following lyric:

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me
From life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.

There is no promise of long (earthly) life in these words. Rather it is a declaration of God’s sovereignty and power. Never before or since had I encountered such a keen sense that I had no control over my destiny. Never before or since did I encounter such a visceral feeling that I might be living the last moments of my life. There is no sensation quite like crawling into the back of a vulnerable Humvee to begin a long, late-night mission down roads that haven’t been cleared of IEDs. 

Nothing about the Gospel told me that I would return. But everything in the Gospel told me that God is sovereign, and that no weapon formed against me could tear me away from Christ. That’s not fatalism. It’s providence. It’s the knowledge that the person who commands my destiny formed me in my mother’s womb, sacrificed himself for me, triumphed over death to grant me eternal hope, and is the author and finisher of my faith to this day.

That was of immense comfort then, and it is of immense comfort now. 

One last thing ... 

I’m sure you saw it coming. “In Christ Alone.” And as a shout-out to my LDS readers, here’s a phenomenal a cappella vocal performance of the song from BYU. Enjoy.

Photograph of Martha's Table volunteer Poet Taylor distributing hot meals donated by the Clyde's Restaurant Group by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

How An Evil Virus Points to the Crushing Weight of the Fall

And also to the glorious hope of redemption.

There is always a moment in every human life when the myth of our own invulnerability is punctured, and we’re keenly reminded of our own fragility and mortality. For me that moment occurred on September 23, 1995. I traveled that morning from Nashville to Knoxville to watch Peyton Manning’s Vols play Mississippi State. By the drive home, I was in unexplained, horrible pain. What I first thought was possible food poisoning turned out to be something much worse, and days later I was in the hospital faced with the possibility of facing major surgery to save my life. 

What happened next is a story for another time (I recovered, and it’s quite a tale), but I bring it up because it represented the first time that I truly, from the bottom of my heart, asked God, “Why is this bad thing happening to me?” Make no mistake, this was not the first time I’d faced adversity, but always before my petition to God began not with “why?” but with “forgive me.” My clearly identified and obvious sins had consequences, and I was asking God for grace. Here, however, an illness struck from the clear blue sky. It had nothing to do with my behavior. It had nothing to do with my choices. I was healthy. I ran every day. Like every red-blooded Kentucky kid, I played basketball. And I was flat on my back in the hospital, wracked with pain. 

It was then that I learned of a concept called “natural evil.” It was then that I learned of the role of a savior beyond one’s personal destiny of heaven and hell. And it was then that I began to understand what Paul meant when he wrote in Romans 8 that creation itself suffers from a “bondage to corruption.” 

What does any of this have to do with coronavirus, you ask? Hang with me for a moment, and you’ll see. It boils down to understanding a reason for suffering that transcends our own sense of individual injustice (“what did I do to deserve this?”), highlights some interesting differences in Christian thinking, but ultimately demonstrates the full glory of God’s redemptive purpose. 

To borrow a bit from pastor and Bethlehem Seminary chancellor John Piper’s framework for understanding suffering, we often focus on the mystery or justice of the “micro” cause without pondering the “macro” cause. We often feel a sense of odd comfort when we can understand and appreciate the micro cause. When a person dies from lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, we lament the loss but we understand its reason. When a person spends money irresponsibly and faces financial adversity, we feel sympathy, but there’s still a sense of cosmic justice. We get the notion that dangerous acts have terrible consequences.

But we know that not all suffering is so easily explained, and rarely is that truth so apparent than in times of general disaster. This month, many thousands of Americans are lying in hospital rooms, gasping for air, and they did nothing irresponsible. They did nothing wrong. Think of all the wise, entrepreneurial, and hardworking men and women who are losing their livelihoods at this very moment. They had done everything right. Then came the virus. Then came the shutdowns. 

How do Christians process this? It’s a huge topic, of course, and I’m not going to pretend to speak for all of Christendom, but an interesting piece in Christianity Today exposed a key difference among Christians and helped me solidify my own thinking about the subject. In a March 17 essay, CT editor-in-chief Daniel Harrell asked the question, “Is the coronavirus evil?” and answered no:

[T]he inclination is to ascribe bacteria and viruses and the diseases they cause to Adam’s folly [the fall of man]. But unless God’s creation defies every characteristic of biological reality, bacteria and viruses are not bitter fruits of the fall, but among the first fruits of good creation itself. If the science is right, there would be no life as we know it without them. God makes no mistakes, and bacteria and viruses indeed are mirabilis (from the Latin meaning remarkable, or even amazing or wondrous, adjectives frequently used to describe creation) and part of the plan from the start. Death itself is required for organic life to exist. This is true of eternal life too. Christ died for the sake of new life (Rom. 6:9–11). Better to view creation not as something perfect gone awry, but as something begun as very good only not yet finished.

But this seems at odds with Paul’s words that “creation was subjected to frustration” and that it is in “bondage to corruption.” This may sound strange to a nonbelievers’ ears. It’s an assertion that rests on a supernatural premise – that sin has a metastasizing, cancerous effect on creation itself. In an excellent response to Harrell in The Gospel Coalition,  Kevin DeYoung, a pastor and a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, puts it like this:

Could viruses have existed in Genesis 1? Sure. Do fatal viruses exist prior to the events of Genesis 3? Of course not. Water was God’s good creation; the flood was the result of sin. It makes much better sense to attribute a rogue virus not to the supposed incompleteness of God’s very good creation, but to the “thorns and thistles” that now grow up in a fallen world (Gen. 3:18), part of the futility to which the creation has been subjected in its bondage to corruption (Rom. 8:20-21).

In other words, the virus is evil. It’s a “natural evil” that exists as the result of the fall. On Friday night my family finished rewatching Peter Jackson’s outstanding adaptations of Lord of the Rings (we will not speak of his Hobbit movies). As I watched, I was reminded again of how Tolkien so brilliantly tied good and evil to the natural world. His books are not allegories, of course, but rather more properly understood as myths that exposed and revealed truth.

Read Tolkien and you see the close connection between evil and physical decay. While physical appearances can be deceiving (remember Sam’s conversation with Aragorn where he suspected a servant of the enemy would “look fairer and ... well, feel fouler”), the true expression of evil invariably manifested itself in physical ruin and the despoiling of the natural world. 

Does this connection seem strange? It is no more strange than a virgin birth or a physical resurrection after rotting three days in a sealed tomb. Christianity acknowledges the physical laws of God’s creation, but it also recognizes the existence of spiritual truths that impact the physical, natural world. And the corruption of creation has unleashed a deadly plague upon our land. 

DeYoung reminds us of these words from John Calvin:

Before the fall, the state of the world was a most fair and delightful mirror of the divine favour and paternal indulgence toward man. Now, in all the elements we perceive that we are cursed. ... The earth will not be the same as it was before, producing perfect fruits; for he declares that the earth would degenerate from its fertility, and bring forth briers and noxious plants. Therefore, we may know, that whatsoever unwholesome things may be produced, are not natural fruits of the earth, but are corruptions which originate from sin.

That’s an awful lot of bad news. I remember pondering that bad news when I suffered on my hospital bed in 1995. My body was rapidly becoming a casualty of the fall. But as one of my old pastors was fond of saying, while the bad news of the fall is worse than we realize, the Good News of redemption is better than we can comprehend.

Last night, my wife and I were walking through our neighborhood and saw a pastor friend in his backyard. We stopped him and had a lovely conversation while maintaining proper social distancing from the sidewalk. As we shared our own burdens and stresses, he made an important observation – this moment demonstrates so clearly our need for a savior. 

By that, he meant far, far more than the idea that we need some of that “old-time religion” before we meet our maker. No, he meant that a broken world eagerly awaits the redemption declared in Revelations 21, when the Lord declares, “Behold, I make all things new.” He meant that we will one day see, as Paul prophesied, “creation itself will be set free.” Moreover, that redemption comes through a messiah who came to this earth, experienced the full weight of evil in spite of his own holiness, and then triumphed over death, the ultimate manifestation of physical decay. As Christians suffer, they worship a God who suffered also. 

“Why did this happen to me?” is a question that is often impossible to answer in isolation. We see through a glass darkly. We have no way of understanding why one of us falls ill while others remain healthy. But why is this happening to us is a question we can answer. We are being attacked by a natural evil that inhabits a fallen world, an evil that human beings can confront and God willing control through His mercy and grace. But it’s also an evil that’s doomed (as all evil is doomed) by a savior who comes not just to grant individuals eternal life, but to remake and renew creation itself.  

One last thing ... 

Many thanks to the readers who sent me this marvelous hymn from the Nashville quarantine:

And if classical music is more your cup of tea, here’s the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with “Appalachian Spring,” which is based on the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts”: 

Photograph by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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