Lessons from the Valley

This article by Sonya Shafer first appeared in Homeschooling Today magazine in the January/February 2008 issue.

We always knew that Hannah was a little different from her older sisters, but we are firm believers in letting each child develop at her own pace. It wasn’t until Hannah started to lose her ability to talk that we became concerned. That was the beginning of my valley.

Every valley looks a little different, but some things remain the same. A valley is a low point. When you are in a valley it is hard to see the big picture because whichever way you look, your surroundings are looming before your eyes. You feel hemmed in and trapped by your circumstances. You wonder if you have the strength to climb out, or if you ever will find your way out.

Here is how the scenery looked in my valley on Mother’s Day, 2002. My little four-year-old daughter, whose baby pictures were almost identical to mine, would not look anyone in the eye. She played in her own little world, but she didn’t play like normal children do. She would lie on her bed for hours just looking at one toy, turning it over and over in her little hands. She did not know how to pretend. She would simply line up all her books, blocks, or puzzles; or she would create a routine and repeat it continually (touch the chair, smooth the cushion, flip the light switch, open and shut the door, repeat). She didn’t acknowledge anyone coming or going around her, and she wouldn’t respond to her name. She couldn’t put together a sentence; instead, she would recite at random phrases from songs or computer programs that she had heard. If I tried to read a book to her, she wouldn’t look at it. She would, instead, stare at her own book or toy that she was holding. She wouldn’t point to anything; and if I pointed to something, she would look at my finger rather than the object. At meal times she would sit staring at her plate or with her arm over her face.

My valley had a name: autism. Yours probably has a different name, like cancer, finances, or moving. It’s almost certain that your valley looks different from mine. But the giants that inhabit those valleys are eerily similar.

Fear

God orchestrated things so I was reading through the Bible that year when I entered the valley. By May (Mother’s Day) I was up to Joshua, and I vividly remember reading Joshua 1:9 the day before I was to start doing a therapy that we hoped would storm into Hannah’s little world and bring her back to us. I felt a kindred spirit with Joshua. We were both standing on the verge of a long battle in unknown territory, and I was shaking in my boots. The giant of Fear was looming large in this valley. Yet God bolstered my trembling spirit with the words, “Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage. Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee withersoever thou goest.”

You know, there’s a big difference between having the Lord point down a path and say, “Go that way,” and having the Lord take your hand in His and say, “Here’s the path; let’s walk it together.” So much of our fear comes from feeling alone and uncertain. But God has not left us alone and uncertain. He is with us, and He knows exactly what is ahead and how to handle it.

The giant of Fear cannot stand in the Lord’s presence. He has promised that He will stay with us, He will walk with us, and He will uphold us with His mighty hand wherever we go. Whatever your valley looks like today, do not be afraid. Do not be dismayed. The Lord your God is with you!

Faltering Faith

Over the next few weeks the suffocating fear subsided, but then I met the next giant in the valley: Faltering Faith. My heart became angry with God for allowing this valley in my life. I figured, “If this is what I get for trusting God and trying to obey and serve Him, then forget it.” That’s when I read Psalm 78:56, 57: “Yet they tempted and provoked the most high God, and kept not his testimonies; but turned back, and dealt unfaithfully like their fathers: they were turned aside like a deceitful bow.” A bow is used to shoot arrows, and a deceitful bow will look like it is shooting the arrows in the right direction but will launch them the wrong way. God said the Israelites were as unreliable as a faulty bow because they were disloyal and faithless.

That word picture immediately brought to mind Psalm 127:3 and 4: “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.” Our children are like arrows, and we are the bows that launch them in the direction they will go. If we are faulty bows, our children will falter in their flight. I realized that if I turned back now from trusting the Lord, I would be a deceitful bow, a faulty bow, to all my children. I had to remain faithful and loyal to the Lord for my children’s sake.

Don’t get the wrong idea. My faith still seemed extremely weak. But once I purposed in my heart that turning away from God, being disloyal to Him, was not an option, He gave me the gift of faith for each day—each moment—in the valley.

Where is your heart, dear friend? Is it starting to turn away from the Lord? Don’t indulge your feelings. Purpose in your heart that you will be a faithful bow that will not misdirect your children. And in your weakness pray, “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.”

Uncertainty

Life settled into a routine of therapy sessions between schooling the other children. Each day I took Hannah by the hand (she never took my hand) and walked her to the room where I would rejoice over one baby step forward and despair over three steps backward. I felt like I was in over my head. I needed help, but when I tried to pray, but I didn’t know what else to pray besides, “Lord, help me!”

The giant of Uncertainty had me in its grasp until I read Isaiah 37:9–15. In this passage, Hezekiah received a threatening letter. What he did next gripped my imagination. He took that letter to the temple and spread it out before the Lord as he prayed. It suddenly struck me, “I can do that! I can take this planning book, lay it before the Lord, and point to the one activity that Hannah seems to be stuck on and say, ‘This one, Lord. It’s this one that we really need help with.’ ”

That idea of laying something tangible before the Lord when I prayed made the difference. The giant of Uncertainty lost its grip as each specific action was placed before the throne of God and discussed with Him in detail.

Do you feel like you don’t know what to pray for? Look around for something tangible that represents a detail of your valley. Take it with you to your quiet place, lay it before the Lord, and pray about that specific part. That little action can clear your foggy, uncertain mind and help you see the next step on the journey.

Guilt

As the year progressed, we started to see results—little results, to be sure, but they were results. It was then that I noticed certain thoughts kept popping into my mind and most of them started with the words, “If only I had . . .”: if only I had started therapy sooner; if only I had researched autism earlier; if only I had noticed the symptoms when she was younger. The giant of Guilt had reared its ugly head.

Luke 8:40–56 put this giant to flight. In this passage Jairus came to ask Jesus to heal his daughter. Jesus agreed and they left immediately, but on the way they were interrupted while Jesus healed another woman, and Jairus’s daughter died while he was waiting.

Can’t you just imagine what the giant of Guilt was bellowing in Jairus’s head when he heard the news? “If only you had come to Jesus yesterday. If only you had walked a little faster. If only . . . .” But Jesus did not panic; He was in control of the timing. The interruption and delay were part of His plan to raise Jairus’s daughter from the dead, bringing even more glory to God than Jairus had imagined.

Are you facing Guilt? Take a gentle reminder from the account of Jairus. Don’t beat yourself up with “If only I had . . . .” Stop looking at what you cannot change and start looking at what God can do. Trust that delays and interruptions are part of His plan. He will bring the resources that He wants you to know about at the time He wants you to know them. You can trust His timing.

Self-Pity

As we learned more about how to help Hannah, we also had to make some difficult decisions. We stopped many outside activities in order to focus on her needs. Not many people understood what was happening; not many asked or offered to help. Not many knew how to help. And the giant Self-pity appeared on the horizon.

By that time I was reading in 1 Timothy 1, and verse 12 hit home: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry.” When Self-pity whispered, “No one notices your sacrifices or even recognizes what you’ve done every day for months and months,” this verse shouted back, “God put you into this ministry, and He enables you and sees your faithfulness. You are on assignment from God; you are taking care of His child.”

What a sense of purpose it gave to realize that the King of kings had entrusted this child to us and had given us this ministry! What did it matter that other people didn’t know what we were dealing with? God knew. And even more specifically, God knows what it’s like to live with limitations. After all, the eternal Jesus took on human flesh. He limited Himself for our benefit.

Yes, you may be limited in your valley. You may feel like no one knows or even cares about what you’re going through. But God knows. In fact, He has given you that assignment and He will enable you. Continue to be faithful for Him.

The Turning Point

Near the end of that first year in the valley, something incredible happened. The girls and I were in a store, and I was holding Hannah’s hand to keep her near me. She let go for a minute to readjust the stuffed animal that she was holding in her other hand. Then she looked up at me, smiled, and reached for my hand! Hannah had never held my hand before, let alone looked into my eyes and smiled as she did it! My heart welled with love because Hannah had turned from ignoring me to inviting me to share her experience.

Am I out of the valley? Not yet. Do those surroundings still loom large before my eyes? Yes, often. But if I take my eyes off my surroundings and stop focusing on my circumstances, I can see the One Who is standing right beside me. Can you imagine how much the Heavenly Father longs for us to stop ignoring Him and start inviting Him to share our valleys with us? He is right there beside us. He will give us the faith to remain loyal. He is concerned about each little detail. His timing is perfect. And He knows exactly what we’re going through. Turn to Him, look at Him, and hold tightly to His hand.

Originally published in Homeschooling Today® magazine January/February 2008, used by permission. All rights reserved, www.homeschooltoday.com