The Valley of the Shadow of Death

As many of you know, we walked through the valley of the shadow of death in March as we watched our oldest son, Nathan, and his wife, Melanie lose their precious daughter, Susannah Joy, after she lived only three days. We were not total strangers to that valley having lost two babies, ourselves, to miscarriage. As Susannah’s life was held in the balance, we felt like our lives were on hold as well. At that moment, it didn’t seem like any semblance of reality or normalcy could ever continue again. But a month later, we found ourselves celebrating Joseph’s eighteenth birthday with life moving forward—without the grandbaby we had so excitedly anticipated being part of each special event.

I was with Melanie the day she was in early labor. Because of her serious back labor, I rode to the hospital with Nathan and Melanie to rub Melanie’s back while Nathan was driving. For four days, I ended up living at the hospital with them during the time Susannah was in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I was Melanie’s companion when she needed to be in her room to eat or rest, enabling Nathan to be with Susannah. I was their secretary and messenger since cell phones weren’t allowed in the NICU. I was also the one to sit with Susannah in the middle of the night when Nathan and Melanie were forced to leave her to sleep a few hours.

When Job’s seven sons and three daughters perished in one day, Scripture tells us of Job’s response. “Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly” (Job 1:20-22). In the very early morning hours of Susannah’s last day, I was able to hold her during my turn at her side while her parents slept. I memorized those verses with that precious, tiny baby in my arms. They were words of comfort, truth, and hope for my hurting heart.

We wanted to go through this trial as Job went through his trial, but we didn’t really know what that meant in a real-life situation of a baby dying. Job grieved, but he also worshipped the Lord in the midst of that grief. Throughout those most difficult three days, we found our continual words to each other and our family members were, “God is good.” He is good in the midst of pain just as He is good when all is going smoothly. We were determined to praise the Lord Jesus even when our hearts were breaking with the seriousness of the situation we faced. In hindsight, I believe the confession of God’s goodness was a part of our worship of Him at that time.

Nathan would regularly say to Melanie and me during those hospital days, “We aren’t going to ask questions. We are simply going to trust the Lord.” Of course, they asked many questions of the doctors and nurses about Susannah’s care and how she was doing. Those were not the questions to which he was referring. The unasked questions were concerning why this was happening when they had waited five long years for a baby and the Lord had finally filled their empty arms. There were so many of these kinds of questions we could have asked for which there were no answers. I saw Nathan’s wisdom in his direction to us. What would we accomplish by dwelling on those questions? The trials in our lives produce tests of our faith. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). I can’t understand; will I still believe?

“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). That trust Nathan was calling us to rest in was based upon the truth of God’s Word. While we continually cried out to the Lord Jesus for Susannah’s healing, there was a sense in our hearts that He might not answer that prayer with physical, earthly healing, which would have been the “work together for good” that we would have chosen.

“Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). I experienced that comfort through my miscarriages, and I experienced it again with Susannah’s death. In the hospital, especially when we knew Susannah wouldn’t make it, I felt like maybe I would start crying and never stop, but I didn’t. One way the Lord comforted me was to keep me busy. There was always a phone call to make, something to be carried to the NICU, or a job in the room that needed to be done.

When Steve and I were on the way home from the hospital after Susannah’s death, we stopped at a convenience store. As we walked in, the first sight I saw was a young mommy coming out with a tiny baby in a car seat. How many times during Melanie’s pregnancy had I seen a similar situation and thought to myself, “Soon that will be Melanie with her baby”? As I looked at that mommy and baby, my eyes filled with tears thinking that Nathan and Melanie would never put Susannah Joy into a car seat. At that moment, I realized I had a choice in front of me. I could gaze at the baby and think about all the “what if’s,” focusing on my pain and grief and Nathan and Melanie’s as well. Or I could turn my thoughts away from myself and onto the Lord Jesus Christ through thanksgiving. “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Thanksgiving is a daily, ongoing choice I have to make. I can wake up in the morning thinking about Susannah and start to cry, or I can wake up praising the Lord. When something hits me out of nowhere that reminds me of Susannah, and I begin to cry, I can continue to cry, or I can take those thoughts captive. “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). The truth is that while we wanted Susannah to be a part of our lives on earth, she is with the Lord Jesus—a place filled with the joy of His presence without any pain or sorrow. The span of this life is but a passing moment compared to the eternity we will spend with her. Where will I put my thoughts—on myself or on my Lord Jesus?

We are very grateful to each of you who have prayed for Susannah, Nathan, Melanie, and our family. You have been a part of God’s rod and staff that brought us comfort. Your prayers and words have sustained us, and they have caused us to thank God as we walk in this valley of death.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Psalms 23:4). Perhaps you have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Maybe you have faced or are facing another type of trial for which there are no answers. May I encourage you that God is good. Trust in the truth of His Word. Allow yourself to be comforted by the God of all comfort. Set your mind on thanking Him rather than on the grief or difficulty.

Don’t Let Balaam Seduce You

“Several years ago my husband and I got rid of the TV. Over the last year my husband has been traveling a lot for his job. Since this has happened, he has started watching TV and movies again because TV and movies are everywhere as you travel. I have seen him slowly give up his godly convictions and be pulled back into the world and its entertainments. He says there is nothing wrong with it and even gets angry if anyone encourages against these things.

“I pray for him all the time. I know God can get to his heart. I just don’t understand God’s timing. It breaks my heart, and I worry now about the kids. We still do not have TV at home, yet when my husband is home he has a little hand-held video game player that also plays movies. He spends most of his evenings with it, so the kids see Dad’s heart drawn to this.

“I want my kids not to be drawn into this, and I also want to be a submissive, loving spouse. What can I do, though, to protect the kids and submit to my husband? I know that I can’t be his ‘Holy Spirit.’ I can’t make him stop desiring the world’s entertainment. I just wonder if only one parent (and being the parent who is not to be the leader) can make enough of an influence on the kids that they will choose to follow God wholeheartedly and not turn to the world’s pleasures. Do you have any ideas on what I could do?” Excerpts from a concerned mom’s e-mail (used with permission)

Because my articles are addressed to the fathers, I am not answering this mom’s questions. However, I want to use her situation, which is quite common in the e-mails I receive, to try to grab fathers’ hearts and attention. I would love to see the solution to this mom’s problem be a husband who is convicted of his sin, repents, draws close to the Lord Jesus Christ, and brings his family along with him. We men have to see the seriousness of our personal choices on not only our own lives but also on the lives of our families.

One reason e-mails like this are such a heartbreak to me is that they remind me of the problems Israel encountered in Joshua, chapter seven. After the God-given victory of the Israelites over Jericho, Israel is defeated by the much smaller city of Ai with a consequence of thirty-six Israelite lives lost. How could Israel experience such a conquest of Jericho but humiliation by Ai? This story presents an example to us of how God’s people are defeated both by their love of the world and by their disobedience to God.

Before Israel attacked Jericho, they were told that they could only take silver, gold, brass, and iron and then put it into the treasury of the Lord (Joshua 6:18-19). The Lord was very specific in His command. Conquering the city would have been a horrific job because it involved killing everyone except Rahab’s family. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to carry out those commands, particularly regarding the young and old. Some of the Israelite soldiers may even have questioned what they were told to do. However, those were God’s instructions.

In Joshua chapter 7, we read that the Lord’s anger was kindled because Achan took from Jericho that which was accursed. Achan confessed: “When I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them; and, behold, they are hid in the earth in the midst of my tent, and the silver under it” (Joshua 7:21). Achan loved the world; he looked, he coveted, and then he disobeyed the Lord’s direction.

Were there any consequences for Achan or his family? Following Achan’s confession and retrieving of the forbidden items, they took his family and everything he owned to the valley of Achor. Then we read: “And Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? the LORD shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, after they had stoned them with stones” (Joshua 7:25).

I wish with all my being that I could tell the mom who wrote the e-mail that her husband’s choices would not impact the children. However, I honestly believe that the terrifying and heartbreaking reality is that every father has tremendous influence in the lives of his family, and he can cause them great suffering—even destruction. That is the price of leadership and the way God has ordained it.

I also can see that God had a greater purpose in Achan and his family’s death than simply punishing Achan. I think He was using them as an object lesson for the rest of the nation. The Israelite men not only were to stone Achan but also his whole family, children included. I can hardly imagine the agony those men experienced as they killed Achan’s family. I expect out of that pain, though, was born a prayer in each man’s heart that would go something like this: “Lord God, please may I follow You wholeheartedly and never bring this on my family.”

Now let’s look at a stark contrast found in Joshua 5:13-15. “And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn in his hand: and Joshua went unto him, and said unto him, Art thou for us, or for our adversaries? And he said, Nay; but as captain of the host of the LORD am I now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said unto him, What saith my lord unto his servant? And the captain of the LORD’S host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy. And Joshua did so.”

The captain of the Lord’s host was likely the Lord Jesus Christ because, if he had been an angel, Joshua would not have been permitted to worship him. Joshua has his face in the dirt worshipping the Lord, and the Lord tells Joshua to do something strange. He commands Joshua to take off his sandals because it is holy ground. Joshua is already showing he knows this is a holy moment and that complete reverence is called for, yet that wasn’t enough. Joshua’s sandals would have had the “dirt of the world” on them, and they were to be removed.

Joshua didn’t argue. Joshua didn’t say, “But Lord, I’m already lying on my face in the dirt. What is wrong with my sandals?” Joshua chose to obey what his Lord told him to do at that moment and as he led Israel.

Can you picture the delight of the mom mentioned at the beginning of the Corner if her husband were to say he has recognized the destruction in his life and his children’s lives of his worldly pursuits? What a joy it would be to her to have her husband stop watching TV when he travels and throw out his hand-held video game player. What would her heart do if he desired to lead his family in worship and spend time with them? No longer would she be torn by her biblical command to submit versus wanting to have a family who follows God wholeheartedly. Don’t we fathers want more in life than to pursue personal pleasure and then reap the consequences of it?

Dads, what I am convinced is needed is the fear and realization that our families will be blessed or suffer as a result of how we lead. God is not to be blamed. We aren’t robots, but we are to make right and obedient choices. It isn’t our wives’ fault that they aren’t praying enough for us, or that they aren’t submissive enough. We own fully the choices we make. If a dad is saved, the Holy Spirit will be convicting of sin. Dad will either listen and obey, or grieve the Holy Spirit by pursuing the world and the lust of the flesh.

As fathers, we can choose to be a Joshua who obediently removes his sandals soiled by the world. We can bless our families through this kind of leadership. However, we can also choose to be an Achan, who ignores God’s command while destroying himself and his family. As fathers we have a choice set before us: we can follow Achan’s example or Joshua’s. May deep conviction from the Holy Spirit be at work in all of our hearts as we follow our Lord Jesus Christ.