When the world is bleak, where can comfort be found?
Last week, after the US election results came in, even the mood here in the UK was sombre. While many rejoiced that Donald Trump was elected, my Facebook thread was full of people genuinely fearing for their life, home or livelihoods. Whether it was because sexual assault survivors weeping because a man who boasted of sexual assault had been rewarded with the highest office in the land, or that they were fearing that changes to healthcare laws would mean they could no longer afford essential medication, or facing racist or misogynistic attacks, there were plenty of people who lamented.
This is a time for lament, and to offer space for those lamenting. It’s a time – especially for Christians across the whole political spectrum – to speak out against hate crime.
I’m more distant from the direct consequences of the US election, but I remember weeping at the re-election of David Cameron as Prime Minister in 2015. I was watching essential welfare benefits being taken systematically from disabled people, and close to despair at the seeming apathy as the public ignored these rights being eroded.
Perhaps you are unmoved by politics or pleased by the election results, but you are floored by a more personal tragedy – death, or ill-heatlh, or bereavement, or trauma – and you’re still reeling. The explosion in my life has been an autoimmune illness, which for the past six years has meant I’ve been housebound, needing to be in bed 22 hours a day.
Sometimes we look at the world, and all we see is darkness, and we’re not quite sure of our footing anymore.
I look at the evil that’s happening around me, and plot the trajectory into the future, and see only more darkness. Lament is important. You can’t go forward until you have grieved.
But after the lament, where do we go? How do we continue to walk when all we see is darkness ahead? And where – WHERE – is God in all this darkness? Where’s the comfort? These are the questions I’ve been pondering.
On dark days I’ve turned to Psalm 23. Bear with me here: I know that Psalm 23 conjures an images of happy sheep frolicking in green fields with blue waters, merrily trusting in God; Jesus as a blurry haloed figure with a stick. Choirs sing about it in harmony. For those looking into the future, wondering if they will be attacked in the street, being quoted verses like this can seem like a slap in the face.
But look at verse 4 and change your mental image of what it means to have God as shepherd. The scene is not happy fields but a valley of the shadow of death. It’s one, lone sheep going through the darkest valley, with potential predators all around. It is terrifying. The only comfort here is that the Shepherd is with the sheep, guiding with the slap of the rod or the wrench of the staff when you get stuck.
Though the writer says he’s not afraid, my tendency in these kinds of situations is to feel paralysed with fear. But the psalm insists – God is still there, right in the darkness. Not in a slick, ‘it’s all going to be okay, stop moaning’ kind of way, but in a mysterious, ’this really doesn’t feel good right now’ way.
The dark is still dark, but God is there.
It’s not just this psalm – Jesus was always drawn to the forgotten ones, the despised, the desperate, the displaced. Wherever they were, that’s where Jesus could be found – in the messiness.
Even the next verse talks about God preparing a table for the writer in the presence of his enemies. In my head, I’ve often erased the part about the enemies, focusing only on the laden table of goodness with God. It feels nicer to imagine that God is there without any enemies troubling us. But this is real faith, real life – blessing side by side with oppression. There is a table prepared for you even as you are surrounded by danger.
For anyone who is stuck in the middle of a nightmare, Psalm 23 speaks truth: you are seen and honoured by God, even as your enemies lick their lips.
The only trouble is – we don’t know how long the valley is. Psalm 23 doesn’t tell us. Neither does life. We don’t know how dark it’s going to get.
Right now, your calling is to walk into the unknown, with faltering steps – but with God right beside you in the darkness. The guidance comes in the dark, too, and often feels like a rough push from the Almighty. It’s a strange comfort, a bittersweet hope. As my friend Amy Young says, to walk in dark times with God beside you is at once inadequate, yet enough.
For anyone looking into a dark future, I don’t have much to offer. It’s still dark. It’s still scary. But this much I know: God is right beside you. You are not alone. You are not abandoned, even while you feel utterly bereft.
The dark is still dark, but God is there: it doesn’t change much; it changes everything.
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.”
Over to you:
- Do you find Psalm 23 comforting in hard times, or not? why is this?
- When all you can see in front of you is darkness, how do you continue to walk? What keeps you going?
‘The dark is still dark, but God is there.’
For those who lament: “How do we continue to walk when all we see is darkness ahead?
Right now, your calling is to walk into the unknown, with faltering steps
This is real faith, real life – blessing side by side with oppression.
You are seen and honoured by God, even as your enemies lick their lips.
You are not alone. You are not abandoned