I’ve had this song going round in my head lately, one we sing in church sometimes, I don’t remember the rest of the words, just this phrase that is repeated:
we walk by faith and not by sight.
which connects in my mind with that bit in Psalm 23 about how even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God will be there with me – that is a truth that we have to hang on to when we are walking through those difficult/painful/scary bits, even though we are not always going to see him there. we are so used to relying on our sensory perception, that even in our walk with God we tend to expect the equivalent: that we will sense his presence, hear his voice. ok, we know that actually seeing him is not something that’s likely to happen often, but hearing him speak and feeling his presence – those are things that do happen often enough and once they’ve happened to you, it’s so wonderful that you’re bound to want to experience it again. which is not a bad thing in itself, but the trouble is when we give those experiences a higher level of importance than they deserve, and we come to expect them as though we have a right to them, or as though if you don’t feel God’s presence then maybe you’re doing something wrong, maybe you aren’t filled with his Spirit, maybe you haven’t prayed the right way, maybe you haven’t created the right atmosphere, etc etc etc.
But God hasn’t promised to give us a nice warm feeling for the rest of our lives, nor has he promised that we will always see/hear/feel his presence with us – just that he will always be there. It’s up to us to hold on to his real promises even when we can’t feel his presence in any way.
I stress holding on to “his real promises” because I feel there is sometimes a tendency amongst Christians to grab a verse of Scripture out of context and claim it as a promise from God to them when actually God hasn’t given them that promise. (On the other hand, God sometimes in his sovereignty takes a verse of Scripture and gives it to someone personally, in which case I’d say of course you should hold on to it. Just don’t grab it yourself. If God said to Abraham that he will bless those who bless him, then that’s something God promised Abraham – not each and every person who puts their faith in God.) (though we may be able to find some principles that are relevant to all believers.) (goodness, that’s quite a lot of “on the other hand”s…)
end of digression, and back to my main point here: God has not promised us a life in which we will sense his presence with us all the time. He has promised to never leave us or forsake us – even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he is there with us, but it’s up to us to hold on to that truth even when it’s dark and we can’t see.
and now and again it’s up to us to help fellow believers hold on to that truth – to remind them of stuff they already know. though sometimes that’s not what they need to hear, sometimes this sort of thing can come across as insensitive platitudes, so we need God’s wisdom in each situation. when someone is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, you personally may be God’s rod or his staff to comfort them – but you need to know what kind of comfort they really need just then. there are times to speak about God’s love and faithfulness and then there are times to act it out instead, by sitting with someone and listening, offering a tissue, making them a cup of tea, or as I remember a friend doing for me at a particular moment of crisis about a decade ago, bringing them jam doughnuts “for medicinal purposes” and helping clean their cooker. God’s rod and staff take some very peculiar forms sometimes :)