A Way Through the Valley

I sat on the couch and stared blankly out the window, my eyes blind to tiny green shoots sprouting everywhere in the garden—usually a cause for joy. Depression loomed over me like a black-robed villain, pressing down on my soul, while despair tightened its grasp. I was sinking—I could feel it. I leaned forward and put my face in my hands, keenly aware that the divide between me standing firm or falling was so fragile, there was almost no barrier to stop me plummeting.

For a moment, I teetered on the edge, wondering what would happen if I let depression take hold. I was justified, wasn’t I? Wouldn’t anyone be low in my position?

Three years ago, our family uprooted and left our home state of twenty-five years to move north. While we relished being closer to my family and living near the coast, the process of establishing our career paths and forming new friendships was slow, hampered further by the 2020 lockdown.

Once COVID restrictions eased, we dusted ourselves off and ventured forward again, keen to build on the small foundations we’d already laid. Doors of opportunity began to open and our sense of belonging was growing when, wham! Our second lockdown hit. This one lasted much longer and its impact reverberated all the way to the laws of our nation. This time, along with rules and restrictions a clear message was proclaimed, challenging our ideas about what matters most and dictating the way we should view and treat people. Like the ripples of an earthquake, we felt its effects as key aspects of who we were as Australians began to shake.

Normally, I’m an upbeat girl, ready to believe the best of people and hold hope of better days beyond a trial. It’s rare for me to find myself in a place so deep and dark, I can’t see any way out. Lately, though . . . well, it’s been tough. I won’t go into detail beyond saying there are significant changes happening in my sphere and I’m facing heartbreaking loss in several areas, particularly relationships. When I see the people around me also struggling, my grief is multiplied.

We didn’t see this upheaval coming, nor can we see where it will take us. Almost every day the information seems to change. If ever there was a time to be confronted with our powerlessness, it’s now. We cry out to God and use the strength He gives to make the best of our situation and support others. Sometimes, though, the constancy of the battle wears us down and its length stretches us far beyond what we think we can bear. Hope fades and the gloom becomes so heavy, it immobilizes us. That’s where I found myself on the couch that day—staring into a darkness so thick, it seemed as if it could swallow me whole. Oh, God.

Then, softly, like a light shining through the fog, I sensed an echo of my own words from a couple of months back:

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels

‘The hardest of times became the high points in my life because of what God did through them.’

Those were words of hindsight, reflections on the darkest seasons in my journey. Through trauma, anorexia, relationship strains, burnout, life-threatening illness and tragic loss I’d felt God’s loving presence so close, known the wisdom of His counsel and seen His goodness poured out, even in the littlest details.

The hardest of times can become the best of times? Could that really be true in this situation?

Surely not this time, God. This is too big, too hard.

His response? You have a choice.

I paused, breathing deep. I did, didn’t I? I could let myself be pulled into the vortex of despair, or I could choose to put my hope in God and believe He would turn all of this—somehow—for good. Sitting up, I rubbed my hands against my legs and released a slow breath. I knew my emotions were shaky, far too weak to leap all the way from hopelessness to instant joy. I had a journey ahead—and from my former times of struggle I knew the steps I needed to take:

Photo by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash
  1. I asked for help

I picked up my phone and sent messages to my connect group leader, my church prayer team and a bunch of close friends, telling them how low I was and asking them to pray.

God puts us in community for our good. When we feel like we’re drowning, He urges us to confide in others, allowing them to lift us with their encouragement and prayers.  

‘Admit your faults to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and wonderful results.’ James 5:16 TLB

2. I switched off the noise

Some words I’d been listening to offered hope. Others gave interesting information but stirred up anxiety and despair. I chose to switch off the second set.

When our emotions are too frail to deal objectively with negativity, we need to be vigilant, setting limits to protect our mind and heart.

‘Fix your thoughts on what is true and honourable and right and pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.’ Philippians 4:8 NLT

3. I simplified

I took a step back and chose to simplify what I could—clearing out clutter, putting aside big projects, giving myself time and space to rest.

Weary hearts and minds are easily overloaded. Sometimes we need to slow the pace for a while and just do the basics.

‘There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven.’ Ecclesiastes 3:1

4. I fixed my eyes

Once some of the mental and physical clutter had been cleared out, it was easier for me to define my focus. Again and again, I felt God urging me, ‘Fix your eyes on Me.’ So, again and again, I did. And every time I looked to Him, He brought new perspective to everything else.

No circumstance, person, disease or government determines the course of our lives. Above all, God is in control—and He is a good, loving Father.

‘Be still and know that I am God;

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth.’ Psalm 46:10

5. I nourished my spirit

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I spent extra time in God’s presence each morning, journaling and sitting quietly, chewing over portions of scripture and writing down verses He seemed to highlight. Like a starving child desperate for good food, I devoured every word that brought truth and perspective. Through the day I fed on the wisdom of others, listening to sermons and reading articles that built my faith.

God’s word is our food, His Spirit our life-giving water. To gain the strength we need for the path He’s marked out for us, we need to eat and drink daily from His provision.

‘When your words came, I ate them;

They were my joy and my heart’s delight . . .’ Jeremiah 15:16

6. I remembered God’s faithfulness

One day I listed in my journal the many trials of my past, each one so difficult I’d wondered if they would ever end. I remembered what God did, the profound truths He taught me and the way He led me all the way through—making me richer and wiser through the process.

The trials we face don’t last forever. They have a beginning and an endpoint. How we come out of them depends on how we go through them. If we’re willing to yield to God’s refining and receive His guidance on the way, He’ll work it all for good in our lives.

‘Consider it pure joy . . . whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.’ James 1:3

7. I let go

Finally, after dealing with all the other issues, I realised how entangled I’d become in all my imaginings of what might or might not happen. My attempts to figure and plan had woven a tight web around my soul, pinching me with disappointment and despair whenever circumstances didn’t work out as I’d hoped.

God alone could see the future.

Just as He was with me now, He would be with me in the days to come, supplying all I needed at every point along the way. To try to do His job was a waste of time and energy.

So, I surrendered.

I laid down my need to know how God was going to work everything out.

I chose to trust Him, believing He would bring me through and take care of me on the way.

I chose to take one day at a time, fixing my eyes on His face, following His nudges and giving my best to the people around me.

Scrawling that prayer of surrender in my journal brought great release, lightening the burden I’d been carrying and giving me freedom to focus on each day as a gift. It didn’t fix everything—our world is still in turmoil. But I find I’m more able to manage the fluctuations between anxiety and confidence, sadness and thankfulness by choosing to stay anchored in the truth that is stronger than my feelings:

This season won’t last forever.

God’s promises are true.

He is with us and, if we keep our eyes on Him, He’ll show us the way through—choice by choice—for however long it takes to come out the other side.

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

And when we emerge from this battle,

we’ll be closer to God,

stronger in His truth and

more confident in His sufficiency

than we were at the beginning.

‘And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.’ Romans 8:28

Personal Training

Their numbers are growing, this army of people. We see them more often now COVID has pushed them outdoors. Clad in cotton, spandex and microfibre, they leave their homes just as the sun stretches its fingers across the sky and take their place in pairs along the Wollongong waterfront—the eyes of one fixed on the other, their ears hungry for instruction.  

I watch them as I stroll past—the trainer giving guidance and encouragement, the client pushing their body through the motions. They squat and crunch, lift enormous weights and stretch beyond what seems natural, their faces contorting with effort yet radiating hunger for more. The transformation they’re experiencing—it seems—is worth the pain.

I’m impressed by these people. They care enough about their health to commit time and money to glean from another person’s skill and experience. Funnily, we also engage in personal training—almost every day—though we don’t often realise it.

A few months back God whispered to my heart. As I drifted up from slumber, His words echoed through me with clarity and conviction,

You are discipled by whatever you give your time and attention to.

Now that’s confronting. And thought provoking.

‘Discipled’ is a word we rarely use these days. It refers to a form of training where one person is guided by another to become a follower of their way or belief system. Sound familiar? Like personal training, discipling goes beyond merely passing on knowledge. It equips the learner to so fully embody the key aspects of the new way that their life is completely changed. Like a rhythmic dance, this discipling process is an ongoing dynamic—the teacher offers ideas through word and example and the student takes them on, allowing them to infuse and shape their lives.

So how does this happen to us?

Each day, whether we make conscious choices or roll with our fluctuating whims, we take on the role of learners. Through our senses, we absorb ideas, values and priorities from a whole range of sources. People we meet, music and books, world events and the array of internet platforms each have their part to play.

Photo by Tofros.com from Pexels

When something catches our interest, we focus on it, opening not only our mind but our heart. If we dwell on it long enough it begins to seep into our soul, permeating our whole being and colouring the way we think and feel, the language we use and the way we relate to others. It filters the way we perceive the world and the events of our day.

How do we figure out which input has the greatest influence on who we’re becoming?

We look at what receives the largest measure of our time and attention.  

With every turn of the earth, we’re gifted with twenty-four hours of life. Most of that time is poured into the normal rhythms of eating, working and sleeping, but we still have a few hours through the week and more on weekends where we can choose what we do. In those moments, what takes first place in our list of priorities?

I wonder, if we took an honest, detailed inventory of an average week in our lives, what it would reveal about who we are, where we’re headed. If you’re anything like me, you have a clear idea of what’s important to you, but the reality of your day-to-day life often paints a different picture. Sometimes unexpected needs arise and we get waylaid from the priorities we’ve set. Other times we’re lured away by our own curiosity, or hunger for comfort, and find ourselves on a path far removed from where we truly want to be.

Those little everyday choices have more impact than we think.

Choice by choice, they accumulate and set the course of our life.  

It’s good to stop and recognize what is our primary focus. What gets us out of bed in the morning? And what is the most significant subject in our thoughts through the day—the focal point we return to whenever we can?

Who do we follow on social media and other online avenues? And what’s our motivation for following them? Are we after distraction? Entertainment? Do we crave their lifestyle and want what they have? Whatever our reason, the longer we linger over their photos and feed on their words, the more permission we give them to disciple us.

Do we really want their lifestyle and values to be reproduced in our lives? It’s worth thinking about.  

Three years and two children into our marriage, my husband and I hit a bumpy patch and needed some help to find our way through. Eager for guidance, we began a three-month marriage course with several other couples. For a girl like me who relishes deep connection, the weekly homework was the absolute highlight.

With hot drinks in hand, hubby and I would sink onto the couch, open our workbooks and pore over questions from that week’s lesson. Many times, we’d spend a good hour doing our homework. The questions weren’t the simple ‘tick-the-box, regurgitate-the-content’ kind. They were probing, the dig-deep kind that made us stop, reflect and pray over ideas that would shape the future of our relationship.  

Photo by Tymur Khakimov from Pexels

One lesson was a standout. The topic? Sowing and reaping. Two pictures were printed in the workbook—a sack bulging with seed and a sheaf of freshly harvested wheat—vivid reminders that the seeds we plant always produce a crop of the same kind, both in nature and in our lives. We were challenged to recognise the seeds we were sowing into the soil of our marriage and what kind of harvest they were producing, whether good or bad. From that place we could turn the dynamic around. We clarified our real desires—what we felt God wanted for our marriage—and listed what seeds we needed to sow to see those desires fulfilled. That lesson opened our eyes to some negative patterns we’d slipped into. As we prayed, we felt a new excitement and sense of vision for the way ahead. Those principles of sowing and reaping are integral to our lives now. They’ve built us into a strong team and guided our decisions—big and small—through the twenty-two years since that time.

Married or not, it’s helpful for all of us to stop and ask the question,

‘Where’s my life headed?

And how are my day-to-day choices shaping my journey?’

Just like those early risers who hurry to meet their personal trainer, we need to be intentional in where we focus our time and attention. We each have one life—a limited number of days to embrace and use well. Whichever way we choose to spend them, one thing is guaranteed—as we sow, we will surely reap.   

‘Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk—not as unwise people but as wise . . .’

Ephesians 5:15 CSB