My Encounter with Light in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

When Jesus told his disciples, “I am the light of the world,” he was saying something deeply profound about himself. In fact, my academic background in physics convinces me that nothing in the material universe reveals as much about the divine nature.

Most of us think of light as a source of illumination that renders the material world visible. We also think of light, metaphorically, as illumination to truth and rational argument.

But light is more than illumination; it is a source of life. In the late 1700s, it was discovered that the carbon food cycle depended on photosynthesis. Thus, biological life as we know it would not exist without light. However, it was in the twentieth century that some real mind-numbing discoveries were made.

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In 1905, Albert Einstein rattled the cages of the scientific academy with the theory of Special Relativity. While most people associate his theory with the relative nature of time, its real significance is the invariable nature of light. For all observers in all frames of reference, the speed of light will be measured at a constant 186,000 miles per sec. This makes light an ideal standard of measurement with several profound characteristics.

As the perception of light’s speed does not vary, the perception of time must. Consider the extreme case of an explorer blitzing through space at the speed of light. For him, time will stop. This has two consequences.

One, since our daring explorer does not experience the passage of time, he becomes ageless. This then leads to the second consequence: omnipresence, for as he hurtles through the cosmos from point “A” to point “B,” he experiences both locations (and every place in-between!) as they were when he set out on his journey, even if those locations are separated by billions of light-years!

That same year, Einstein made another dazzling discovery: he found that light had dual and complementary natures, exhibiting properties of both waves and particles. Thus, in its dual nature, light mimics the mystery of Christ’s humanity and divinity.

A source of illumination, revelation, and life. An ideal standard. Constant, ageless, omnipresent, and omnipotent with a dual nature. Astonishing! Nineteen hundred years before Einstein, the apostle John used an expression that anticipated the insights of modern physics. It is an expression that would take on added significance in my life.

Delivered from Death
Some years ago I was diagnosed with a rare and terminal cancer. Seven months prior, I had been experiencing low-grade fevers, night sweats, and bone-wearying fatigue. During that time, several batteries of blood tests failed to reveal the true nature of my condition. Then one morning while taking a shower, my legs began to wobble. I swooned forward, then backward.

Before vertigo had its way, I turned off the shower, groped for a towel and stumbled back to bed. Within the hour my wife rushed me to the emergency room.

It took ten days of diagnostic tests to conclude that I had epithelial angiosarcoma. The prognosis was grim. As there were no proven protocols for my condition, it was suggested that I enroll in a clinical trial at an out-of-state research institute. I declined.

I knew that if I was to survive this thing, it would depend on the will of God and not some experimental procedure that would take me away from my spiritual support network of family and friends. I submitted myself to therapies that could be administered locally, but I entrusted my ultimate care into God’s hands.

Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. Nine months after my diagnosis, I underwent an eight-hour surgery that claimed parts of my diaphragm, lung and liver. With all visible signs of the disease removed, I overheard my oncologist remark to a colleague, “There’s Lazarus!”

The words of the Psalmist echoed in my mind, “For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life” (Psalm 56:13). How true that was.

During my illness, I experienced that Light more intensely and continuously than at any time before or since. It came to me daily through people and circumstances, one of which I’ll share here.

A Walk in the Valley
Four months after my diagnosis, I participated in a cancer retreat sponsored by the Catholic-based hospital where I was being treated.

One of the activities during the retreat was a prayer walk. The leader suggested that we converse with God, or just listen for his whisper, as we take in sensory cues from his creation.

On that hot June afternoon, I choose a path that was well-shaded. The thick canopy of foliage provided an effective shield from the oppressive heat of the sun, while helping my eyes adjust from the dark conference room we had just left.

Before I was well into the walk, I noticed that the comfortable coolness I had first experienced was not quite as comfortable. With each step, I felt more and more isolated from light, warmth, and my retreat cohorts.

Darkness. Coolness. Everything in the world beyond was becoming further removed. My feet stopped.

I glanced to my left, then to my right, then behind me. My heart pounded. It occurred to me: “This is my walk in ‘the valley of the shadow of death.” I lurched forward and picked up my pace until I remembered the promises in the beloved Psalm. I stopped again.

With the gloom of my condition threatening to divert my attention from the gentle nudge of the Shepherd’s staff, I resumed my journey with eyes focused straight ahead.

The path twisted and turned until, off in the distance, I made out a shaft of light where the trail opened up into a field bathed in the sun’s rays. My eyes became transfixed on that opening.

Shallow-breathed, I advanced until I approached the threshold separating the path from the field. I stopped for a third time. This time it wasn’t from fear, but a desire to remember: the darkness and coolness behind me, the tinge of dread that gripped me, and the gravitational “pull” of the light.

As I stepped into the open field, the sudden sensation of brightness and warmth felt like an unrestrained embrace from the Everlasting Arms. In that lingering moment, there was ineffable comfort. But there was also a lesson.

In the real-life valley I was passing through, I was not to let the concerns of my condition take my focus off him. He would lead me into green pastures. I needed but to watch and follow. Whether I would experience those pastures in the here-and-now, or in the hereafter, I did not know. What I did know is that whatever path he would lead me down, would be for my greatest good and his highest glory.

In the years hence my life has taken turns I could never have imagined. Not only did I leave a 30-year career in the nuclear power field, I began a ministry as full-time writer and teacher of the Christian worldview. And the blessings have been beyond merit and measure.

Every time I think on all that has transpired, my thoughts turn to the light, “the true light that gives light to every man coming in the world” (John 1:9).


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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