Do you find yourself tearing through life at a rate of knots, constantly on the go? Are your days packed from beginning to end, leaving you with little time to yourself? Do you find yourself wishing your life away, counting down the days until your next holiday? Do you ever find yourself pondering ‘why’? Why are you working so hard? Why do you bother? Why can’t there be some other way to live?Perhaps your life has become so busy, demanding and stressful that you have suffered physically or emotionally. Maybe you’ve worn yourself down to the point of exhaustion, where you literally cannot pull yourself out of bed in the morning. Or perhaps you’ve found yourself suffering from stress and had to take time off work. Maybe you’ve even suffered anxiety or panic attacks, brought on by the stressful nature of daily life. Perhaps you’re unfortunate enough to have had a breakdown of some description.
Whoever we are, whatever we do, however we feel, most of us have had that moment when we question the point of it all: what is the point of getting up day after day, doing the same things over and over again? Many of us have been in the situation where we feel our life lacks purpose. We can’t see ourselves making a difference, and we question why we bother. Sometimes, our daily routine can seem utterly pointless. This can leave us with big questions about ourselves: do I have any purpose in the world? Do I have any worth? By the time we get to this point, we often find it is practically impossible to establish any kind of peace within ourselves. Thoughts like these can lead us into very dark places, places from which even our closest friends and family can struggle to pull us.
A few years ago, I found myself in precisely this position. After a stressful time at work, I found myself getting more and more depressed. I suffered from a panic attack, which at the time I thought was a heart attack, and was signed off work for several weeks. I eventually returned to work, but things got no better. My employer, who was supposed to ease me back into full time work gradually, immediately thrust me in at the deep end covering for an absent colleague who had also gone off sick. I continued working to the best of my ability, but was not getting any better. I started vomiting regularly when I tried to eat. I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. I was put on anti-depressants and sent to see a counsellor.
Throughout all this, I found myself getting deeper and deeper into the valley of despair. My thoughts turned to suicide, since life just seemed impossible. I came to believe what the demons in my own head were telling me: I was useless. I was incompetent. I was weak and pathetic. My life had no worth and no purpose. What was the point of it all?
I was really struggling, both physically and emotionally. I’d always been regarded as a confident, dynamic person who sails through life with no problems whatsoever. For probably the first time in my life, though, I didn’t feel like that person. Things just seemed dark and depressing. I felt alone. On several occasions I found myself thinking that I couldn’t cope.
It wasn’t just with work, although that was certainly a catalyst. My life away from work had practically disappeared. I worked such long hours that I couldn’t find time to do many of the things that I wanted. Previously, I had been actively involved with politics and my local Church. I had joined a committee that was planning a large fund-raising event. I even dabbled in hospital radio. Now I found that my life was being totally consumed by work, and felt I had no time to invest in other things, the things that kept me busy and happy.
My family and friends have always been vitally important to me. I have a good bunch of friends who I enjoy spending time with, but I felt pressure being applied to those relationships too. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find the time to meet up with them. I was not the only busy person in our group, and sometimes it seemed impossible to arrange a time to get together. I felt awkward pressing them, too. They all had good social lives, and could call on many people to spend time with. I began to wonder why they would want to spend time with me, when all I did was moan and whinge about how tough everything was.
Things went deeper with my family and friends, however. I was concerned about how they might view me. I felt that, by not coping, I was letting them down. I was the person that other people relied on; how could I be struggling with life? When my friends had problems, they would come to me, because they knew that I could offer advice, or just be a listening ear. I would help them to feel good about themselves again. Why would they want to see me now, though? How could I let them see that my life was a mess? I felt that I’d been a charlatan: I wasn’t strong. I was weak, pathetic. Weaker than any of them. And yet they had confided in me. What a joke.
Then it happened.
I was somewhere in the Surrey countryside. I remember it vividly. It was a Wednesday afternoon in late February, and I had well and truly reached the end of my tether. I had decided that I needed to go for a drive to get away from work, and to try and give myself time to think. As I drove my head filled up with thoughts of my own uselessness, and how weak and pathetic I was. I found it difficult to focus on the road ahead, because I was weeping so much. The next thing I knew, I burst into tears. I wasn’t just crying, I was crying hysterically. I finally felt that I had lost control of my entire life, and that I couldn’t cope. I didn’t know what to do. For the first time ever, I didn’t have any answers at all. I didn’t know where to go, who to turn to, or how to make things better.
Then a song came on my iPod, a song that I had sung before but never really paid any attention to.
[Lyrics removed from sample due to copyright restrictions]
Initially, it was just the chorus that caught my interest, particularly the line, “oh, no, you never let go!” That was just what I wanted to hear at that time, that through all my difficulties, all my problems, all of my weaknesses and all of my shame, there was someone that was still holding on to me, someone refusing to let me go on my own. As I drove, I really felt something profound, something that is almost impossible to describe. I knew then that, even though I felt that I was on my own, I wasn’t. I pulled my car over at the side of the road, and rewound the chorus over and over again, and turned it up as loud as my ears could bear. Through my tears and sobs, I sang along with that line, almost praying that it would be true, that I knew I wouldn’t be alone.
Eventually, I managed to pull myself together enough to drive on, and I played the song through in full. Once I’d moved on from the “oh no, you never let go!” line, the first ten lines of the song spoke to me in a way that no other song lyrics have ever done before.
[Lyrics removed from sample due to copyright restrictions]
Despite the near-torrential rain, I decided to park up and go for a walk. I was not far from Reigate Hill, one of my favourite local beauty spots, so I drove to the car park, parked up and ventured out onto the dark, wet ridge of the North Downs.
As I walked, I pulled up Psalm 23 on my iPhone Bible app, and read through it. The words of the Psalm, like the song, spoke to me very clearly indeed. I might have been walking at the top of the Downs, but physically, psychologically and spiritually, I really did feel that I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death. It seemed that everywhere I turned, people or events were jumping out of the shadows, determined to stop me, willing me to mess up and fail in everything that I did. I felt that I was caught in the middle of a huge storm that was blowing me around, preventing me from seeing where I was going, and trying its hardest to consume me. Never before had I encountered words that seemed to speak to me so directly, that seemed to describe so perfectly where I was.
And yet, both the Psalm and the song also offered an amazing promise: that God’s perfect love would cast out my fear, that God was with me, and when he was with me there was no reason to worry about anything, or anyone else, because God was stronger than anything that life could hurl at me.
I’d sung those lines countless times before. I’d read Psalm 23 time and time again. And yet the words had flowed over me, and, even though I wouldn’t have acknowledged it to be the case, I had subconsciously ignored them. I knew that I was a strong character, and could deal with anything that life threw at me. I had confidence in my ability, in my strength and in my resilience. There was nothing, nobody, that could knock me off course, because I was strong.
What happened that day proved to me – what everything that had triggered that incident had proven – was that, actually, I was deluding myself. I might be strong, I might be tough, and I might be able to deal with the knocks and blows that life threw at me, but ultimately, I was the same as everybody else. I was weak. I saw for the first time that life would sometimes throw things at me that I couldn’t cope with, that I couldn’t deal with. Even with the love, support and wisdom of my friends and family, there would be times when rather than trusting in myself, I should be trusting in God. Only he could carry me through. First, though, I had to accept that I was weak, that I couldn’t get through this particular valley of death on my own. In short, I had to recognise that I was not what Jesus described as “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). I was trusting not in God, but in my own resourcefulness. Jesus stated quite emphatically that, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I had tried to be strong in spirit, and had pushed God aside, subconsciously claiming that I could live without him, that I did not need him. Now, though, for probably the first time, it became clear to me that I did need God. I needed God big time.
It’s fair to say that God spoke to me vividly through that song in my car and through the Psalm as I walked over the Downs. Through Psalm 23, he showed me that what I regarded as my strength was actually, in his eyes, a weakness. My life changed that day. Over the coming weeks, I listened to that song, and read Psalm 23 over and over again. I put my trust completely in God, I accepted that I was weak, and tried harder than ever to rely on him, to draw not on my own strength, but on his strength. As a consequence, my outlook on life did indeed improve. Over the next few weeks and months, I began to feel better, to feel happier, and to turn my life around. I grew closer than ever to God, closer than ever to my family and friends. I even got married!
I really do believe that had God not spoken to me through the words of Matt Redman’s song and Psalm 23, I would not have made the recovery that I did. Through prayerfully reflecting on the Psalm, God continued to speak to me vividly. God, through the words of David, an ancient shepherd, helped me to discover that I do have worth and purpose. He helped me to feel at peace with myself and the world around me. In short, I learnt from God the meaning of life itself. God showed me where I was wrong, and helped me to see how to lead a better life.
During the course of this book, I want to share some of the things that God said to me that day as I got soaked walking across the Downs and over the next few weeks as I read through Psalm 23. I’m not usually one for sharing my feelings but I’m writing this in the hope that maybe, just maybe, God will speak to you too: that like me, your life will be impacted by the words of Psalm 23. It’s one of the best known of all the Psalms, and one of the most familiar pieces of text in the entire Bible, yet perhaps as a result many of us have almost become immune to the meaning of David’s words.
Each chapter of this book takes as its starting point some words from Psalm 23. I have tried to share how the Psalm spoke to me when I hit rock bottom in my own life, and have described some of my own experiences in the process. I have also sought to highlight other relevant passages from scripture that helped me to gain a deeper insight into the words of the Psalm, and ultimately helped me to recover from the severe depression that I was battling. Each chapter concludes with a handful of questions that you might wish to consider on your own or discuss in a small group, as well as a suggested prayer.
It is my hope and prayer that as you read through this book, God will speak to you too. I passionately believe that Psalm 23 has much to teach us, including how we can find peace, worth and purpose in a busy world. These three things are absolutely vital to our emotional health and happiness, yet so many people feel they are lacking in their lives. No matter where you are, emotionally and physically, whether you perceive yourself as a healthy, happy person, or feel, like I did, that you’re stranded in a pit of despair, I hope that my experiences, the words of the shepherd David, and, ultimately, God himself, will touch you and give you hope in a busy world.
As for me, well, those dark days of February seem so far away from where I am now, several years after the events I describe. At the time it seemed as if I would never get better, as if there was no future for me at all, but I can now see that those thoughts were simply not true. Indeed, I believe that having spent time in that dark valley and having emerged back into the light on the other side has left me a stronger, happier person.
I hope that by putting my trust in God and relying on his strength rather than my own that I will never return to that particular valley. I know that there will be countless more difficult times in my life, but I also know that if I put my trust in God, he will lead me through, because he loves me, and is always with me.
Text copyright © Simon Lucas, 2014. All rights reserved.