We live in an age which longs for forums and facts and surrogate experiences that might inform our own. We rule out the unpredictable and scale down the inscrutable through the constant flow of information, through gathering more details and hedging our bets. Google can be a one stop shop for finding reassurance from others that a new experience or challenge will work out for us, taking the sting out of our apprehension and future fears.
Much of this is, of course, misleading. We are tasked with ultimately living our own lives, facing our own battles, walking our own path. The projected experiences we encounter through research are often different to our own, so that rather than being prepared for what we might face in a given situation we find our unique feelings at odds with those described by others.
Nothing brings this home more forcefully than the final valley we face as human beings. The road through that pass is obscured to our sight, with the Psalmist’s imagery (Psalm 23:4) perfectly capturing for us the idea of a journey, a sense of descent, a forbidding landscape.
Unlike so many of the other dilemmas and difficulties we face in life, we cannot consult the experience of another to help us with our own. We see but the thinnest horizon ahead of us, we can walk thus far with our friends and our families, but no further. And no pilgrim who completes this journey can share with us the steps they take beyond our line of vision.
There is, however, one who has walked this way and who speaks to us from the farthest reaches of the valley. The writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus Christ as the ‘pioneer’ of our salvation (2:10 NIV), as the one who has trodden the dry earth of death’s valley on our behalf, who has gone before us and ministers back to us a hope which is unique to the Christian gospel. Listen to the writer’s perspective on what Christ has done:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Christ has walked death’s path ahead of us, breaking the dread of uncharted territory, speaking hope to us as we waver at its edges. He has ‘tasted death for everyone’ (2:9), not metaphorically but in reality. More alone than any other pilgrim on this path, Jesus has walked ahead of us, he has borne the full heat and horror of the valley, so that he might in turn walk it with us, showing to us all the terrain he has subdued, and the glorious destination which lies on its farther side.
When John Bunyan portrayed the believer’s experience of their final journey in Pilgrim’s Progress, he used the image of a river crossing. Christian approaches this point of his pilgrimage with fear, with a wish that he might find another route to heaven, but his final testimony as he reaches the other shore is that God himself grants assurance, ‘When thou passest through the water, I will be with thee, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee’.
Herein is real hope, herein is real confidence for the whole journey home to heaven. Our faith in the crucified, risen Jesus Christ does not provide a diversion from the dark valley – there is no bypass – but there is one who marvellously goes ahead and yet also walks beside, and that means more than we can possibly express.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me – Psalm 23:4