Must We Walk This Lonesome Valley By Ourselves?

After the congregation finished singing the hymn “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley,” the pastor at the Methodist church I was visiting in Washington, DC, said, “That’s an awful song. It’s terrible. I should have looked more carefully at the music. I’m sorry!” The congregation burst into laughter.  The pastor’s distress was real, but how often do you hear a minister dissing a song from the hymnal?

 “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” is an American folk song often heard at Lent, the time of year when Christians remember events leading to and including the death of Jesus Christ. The first verse of the song focuses on Jesus walking alone, presumably to the cross. But the next two verses are all about us:

We must walk this lonesome valley,

We have to walk it by ourselves.

Oh, nobody else can walk it for us.

We have to walk it by ourselves.

You must go and stand your trial,

You have to stand it by yourself.

Nobody else, can stand it for you.

You have to stand it by yourself.

I remember my grandmother singing that song. She’d lived through the Depression, WWI and WWII, health problems, money woes, and other hardships. The song brought her comfort and when I researched it, I found the song often touched people who were suffering and needed the courage to persevere. So why was the pastor upset?

Well, because she’d just preached a lovely sermon assuring us that God was always with us. That we did not walk alone because the Holy Spirit was within us. She also assured her congregation of the church’s support for them when they faced trials and tribulations. In other words, she’d been telling us we do not walk alone. And then what happens? We sing a song telling us we have to walk alone.

So what should we think? Do we need to be rugged individualists walking unaided, or supported believers in a God that provides unconditional love?

As with all words, the meaning is in people – not the words themselves. Words are interpreted by the listener, reader, or singer who then assigns them meaning.

I did a Google search and found that lonesome valley songs often had their roots in rural Appalachia or in African American spirituals and had varied lyrics. For example, “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” does not appear in African American hymnals but the song, “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me” does. Other versions focus totally on Jesus and don’t demand we humans navigate this lonesome valley by ourselves.

I believe in the importance of support and guidance on our life journey. My doctoral forgiveness study led me to the theme of empowerment through connections, courage, compassion, and creativity. The people I interviewed described connections that helped them traverse their path to forgiveness. They had a Higher Power, religious communities, family, friends, therapists, or mentors that walked this lonesome valley with them.

But forming those connections required courage. They had to become vulnerable and ask for guidance. Sometimes they were walking their lonesome valley alone as they searched for understanding and support. What was important was that they kept walking, even if they felt alone for a while. They had faith and hope that kept them following the way of love and compassion.

I find faith to be most difficult when I’m worried about the future and feel helpless and confused. I don’t know what’s lurking in the valley and I’m not sure where my walk will lead me. Courage is needed to accept whatever the valley holds for me while trusting my path will help me grow and evolve.

Humility – meaning the ability to clearly perceive, and the willingness to accept, one’s strengths and weaknesses – is a welcome companion when I’m traveling rough roads. It provides me with freedom from believing I must know everything or do everything on my own. It advises me to accept myself and the world as it is and give up expectations and desires that are both futile and making me miserable.  

Spiritually, humility means recognizing there is a power greater than ourselves whom we can trust to love and guide us. It’s often hard to let go of my ego’s need for perfection or control, but when I can humble myself and surrender to love and a higher power, my burden becomes lighter and my joy greater.

I think my grandmother found comfort in singing about this lonesome valley because when times were tough it helped her face sorrow. Grief hurts, but it’s necessary to work through it – not deny it – and music can be a wonderful solace.

Additionally, the first verse told her that Jesus had to walk this lonesome valley alone. I think it helped her to know Jesus also suffered as he faced a tough journey to the cross where he died.

Grandma had a faith that inspired me. She walked this lonesome valley courageously and she was a role model for me. When I’m walking my own lonesome valleys, I often feel Grandma beside me as well as the kind, merciful God Grandma taught me about. Our valleys aren’t as deep when we open our hearts and let love in.

When I hear “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” in the future, I’ll think of Grandma, and also of the pastor who assured her congregation we do not have to walk alone. We just need the courage to reach out, believe, and keep walking.