Giants are a bit of a theme in our house lately. We have just completed a giant detox eating plan for two weeks to stop us from becoming giants ourselves (it helped somewhat). Also, Paul wrote a blog series on the giants in the Bible, and that made me think of another kind of giant – the Giant named Despair, one of the fascinating characters in John Bunyan’s book, the Pilgrim’s Progress. By the way, if you’re a Christ follower and have not read it yet, this Christian classic written in the 1600s is highly recommended and you can get it for free.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is an analogy about all the things a typical Christian journey might include, from when we are saved until we die and everything in between. On his journey, a man named Christian (yes, pun intended) eventually ends up in Doubting Castle on his way to the Celestial City. The castle is owned by the savagely cruel Giant Despair and his wife Diffidence. They wanted Christian and his friend Hopeful to commit suicide, but Christian had The Keys to unlock all the heavy iron gates in the castle and escape Despair’s plans…. Though at that point he just did not realise it yet.
More about The Keys a bit later, but for now, let’s look at some like-minded giants that we might encounter in our daily walk as Christians.
Recognise these Giants?
In this Covid-19 stricken twilight zone, it seems that more types of giants opportunistically leave their shadowy dens to sneak up on us, ready to devour. A bit like the devil described in 1 Peter 5:8, who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”. These giants use fear as their weapons, and they can even shape-shift faster than Michael Jackson in the Thriller video. It’s not just Despair we see out there. Despair morphs into Anger, Anxiety, Depression and Addiction to name but a few. Frankly, each scenario of suffering comes with its unique set of giants to face.
Suffering is present worldwide because of things like political conniving, racism, wars, human cruelty and disease. But it is also present on a smaller scale in our lives or the lives of those around us.
I witness personal battles daily as I try to counsel people at the hospital where I work. A mother who has given birth to a stillborn baby; a daughter who tried to commit suicide because she thinks her family will be happier without her; a family torn apart by a dad who were unfaithful to their mother; children who are heartbroken as they care for their frail, cancer-stricken parent; parents who are despondent about their child’s addiction problem. The list goes on.
The Covid-19 pandemic and its logistic complexities add to the level of suffering for these people I am seeing. There is also the looming fear of contracting the disease itself. These giants and their shadows quickly looks larger than life itself.
Closer to home, I have a few familiar giants I battle with sporadically. I have discussed some of them in my previous post Rooibos tea and World War Z. Currently it feels like the rules of engagement change daily regarding schooling, work environment and financial capabilities. Add to that my bathroom scale that is more volatile than the government’s lockdown regulations (hence the Giant detox!), a wild puppy who has the obedience of a wild orangutang, a son whose head strong personality matches my own (Paul maintains this is not a pretty sight to behold). And there’s it. Right there, I hit panic mode.
My inability to control my environment and the uncertainty of our family’s future freaks me out. It feels like I am standing in a desert of shifting sand.
My natural reflex is to try to control everyone and everything. Paul normally dives into his office to escape these bouts of control-attacks. (Interception by Paul: I just say “sorry I have a Teams meeting!” and disappear. That usually works :-). End of interception). However, the poor kids and the dogs don’t get away so easily. Nothing soothes this empty fear: How am I going to get my family and my kids through this? Will I ever be able to manage any of the responsibilities given to me? In times like these, it is the Giant Despair who is seeking out my friendship.
Where do the Giants hide?
Wether it be a pandemic, social injustice, personal loss or fighting lies from the satan in our head, these giants all hang out in the same habitat. It is the same place we started with, the desolate, dark valley of suffering.
In the Bible, our seasons of pain and suffering are compared to valleys. It represents the low points in our life’s journey. Even if you are not a Christ follower, you have probably heard of the term “the valley of the shadow of death”. It comes from one of the songs David wrote, Psalm 23. There is a secular organisation called Mindvalley who aims to overcome focus and distraction problems. In our very own Cape Town, in the Table Mountain Reserve, there is a Valley of Isolation (where many of us probably find ourselves during the lockdown).
Giant Despair and his shape-shifts have some good strategies. They like to sneak up on us while we are in the valleys of our lives. They mock and scorn us while we are experiencing adversity. Our vulnerable state as human beings get exposed when we journey through these valleys. There’s no escape. I for one, certainly know the tight-chested, shallow-tears emotional response when I look at the grim financials of my counselling practice. I cannot depend on my own skill, experience or ability to dodge the giants in these valleys.
A Giant Valley Survival Guide
If we cannot depend on our own skill and ability to overthrow these giants, how are we to get through these valleys and not be devoured? In a future post, I will spend some time on how to battle with the actual giants. For today though, I want to offer you the most important survival tip when walking through the valleys in your life.
Remember I mentioned that the Pilgrim actually had The Key to escape from Doubting Castle owned by Giant Despair? He did not know it was a key at first. Like him, you also have it, and perhaps you also don’t know this is a key you could use to escape. That Key is…
Actually, there are more than one Promise God gives us to hold on to. As long as you hold on to these promises, you will survive. There is hope to not only get through the valley but even thrive through it, spiritually speaking. Let’s unpack two important promises God gives to us:
Promise 1: “I will never leave you nor forsake you”.
Experiencing God’s closeness during darkness and pain is all-encompassing. I will never forget one of my lowest points in life. It was the day I got news that my brother, at 27 passed away due to the cancer he was suffering from. It was anticipated, and I was so afraid of the pain of losing him. As the news of his death settled in my mind that day, I experienced God’s comfort like never before. I remember thinking, “I am not afraid of death any more. Not of my own, nor my brother’s. God will comfort and guide me through this”. And he sure did. Now, 14 years later, I can still testify about my brother’s love for our God and his awesome witness during his walk through the valley of death. On the other hand, God has eased the rough edges of the painful memories for me, and I remember the beautiful. Things like these make verses like Hebrews 13:5-6 real for me: God will never leave us nor forsake us. We can testify, like Paul in Romans 8:38, that nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love. Sometimes the Giants’ shadows make us shiver with fear and we don’t know where to turn to or where to hide. In times like these we can trust, like David, that God is our fortress and our refuge (Psalm 91:2; Psalm 142:5).
Promise 2: All things work together for good for those who love God
Being witness to my brother dying from cancer is no joke. But, incredibly, he was grateful for his circumstances because he said it drew him back into his Father’s arms. That’s eyewitness testimony to God’s redemptive power over suffering. I have seen many more patients in hospital on the brink of passing through the Gates of Eternity. I noticed a common thread: They testify that their suffering only drew them closer to their beloved Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Suffering was no stranger to Jesus himself. He redeemed suffering on a much higher plane; he went through his crucifixion so that the barrier of sin could be removed between us and Yahweh (1 Peter 3:18-19). The real sting of suffering has been removed, but trials are still part of this life for all of us.
For Christ followers it serves as a “faith gym” so to speak, to build our “trust muscles”. It serves like a pair of pruning shears, helping us to bear more spiritual fruit (John 15:2). We can trust that God will never test us with more than what we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13), but will rather use the adversity to help us grow spiritually (James 1:2). As our trust in God grows, our experience of His grace, love, comfort, blessing, provision and guidance intensifies. Our relationship with Him deepens and matures.
And in the end, things work out for good, for those who love Him and obey His commands (Romans 8:28).
With these Keys, these Promises, you have God on your side if you are a Christ follower. The locks in Doubting Castle cannot resist The Keys of God’s promises. As I bear witness to many hundreds of clients who have survived suffering and have grown spiritually through suffering, I can safely confirm that what I read in the Bible on this topic corresponds to what I see in real life.
And it is true for you as well.