When I was young, the thought of moving to the edge of the world and shaking things up was attractive. Whether I had some innate need to prove to God (or other Christians) the extent of my devotion or I just wanted to do something meaningful with the days given me remains a mystery. In my immaturity, it was probably a bit of both.
Perhaps I saw this adventure like an Indiana Jones movie, where the hero is the mild-mannered scholar by day, who sometimes just crawls out his office window in search of adventure—to find the rare, much sought treasure. Though the adventure seems risky, the viewer knows that the hero always survives peril, emerging treasure in hand, lesson learned, feeling more chuffed and heroic with each successive victory.
I’m not so young anymore. My adventure has taken a lot of unexpected turns over the years. The lessons learned have been hard ones. The peril is real. Any feelings of heroism evaporated long ago—probably on day one. Some days the hope is merely survival.
The romantic notion of heroism evaporated when I understood, rightly, that strength for this adventure is not my own. What is so heroic about being carried along, protected, and given all that I need by Someone else? Heroic? No. Blessed? Yes.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
In whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the Valley of Baca
They make it a place of springs . . .”
Blessed are those whose strength is in God himself. Blessed are those in whose heart are the highways to Zion. To attend the primary feast of Judaism, Passover, Israelites had to journey from northern Palestine to Jerusalem through the Valley of Baca, its brackish waters seeping from the rocks, weeping as it were, into the way. Passover reminded Israel that God himself delivered them from slavery in Egypt and gave them the Promised Land. Passover is central to both Old Testament and New Testaments because it puts mankind in right relationship with God. God delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt. God delivers us from bondage to sin.
When we depend upon God’s strength, not ours, we are blessed. Our hearts are ever turned towards the activity of God in our lives and our world, away from fascination with our own efforts.
Just as the Israelites had to pass through the Valley of Baca to fulfill their pilgrimage, so we must suffer with Christ, to follow his Via Dolorosa. The valley we travel is dark and forbidding: the name literally means Valley of Weeping. The Psalm does not read “if they pass through,” it reads “as they pass through.”
Try to pass through this dark valley of weeping in your own strength and you find only tragedy and loss, desperation and despair. Why?
Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed in 1943 that man’s highest need is self-actualization—like the Army slogan: be all you can be. His ideas permeate Western culture, making it difficult for Westerners to assign legitimate meaning to suffering. This lack of ability to assign meaning to suffering becomes a critical deficiency as we search for hope in the journey through Baca.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Despair is suffering without meaning.” If we try to find fulfillment in personal glory or adventure or merely in some ambiguous sense of duty, our walk through the Valley of Weeping quickly becomes meaningless suffering.
Our pilgrimage must be the pursuit of God himself. When it is, the outcome is something quite surprising.
Rather than being an occasion for despair, Baca’s brackish waters become fresh springs, a place for all those who come after to find refreshment, nourishment, and rest.
Shaking the gates of hell is sometimes a matter of holding tightly to the One who is carrying us through the dark weeping, trusting him to light the path and make brackish waters fresh. The gates of hell are shaken when others benefit from our suffering. The gates of hell are shaken when He brings us beyond Baca.
 Maslow, A.H. (1943). “A Theory of Human Motivation”. Psychological Review. 50(4): 370-396.