When We Are Distressed
We learn by painful experience the truth of our Lord’s warning: “we must pass through many tribulations to enter God’s kingdom” (Acts 14:22). This is not a justifying passage, for our Lord alone plunged into the gulf of hell to obtain our righteousness. For all his children, enduring tribulation with patience and joy is a purifying passage that conforms us to Christ and ripens us for heaven. All the saints have passed through many troubles on their way there. Returning home in obedience to the Lord’s command, Jacob was distressed over his pending reunion with Esau. David’s life, being a picture of our Savior’s, was a constant distress from Saul’s pursuits, foreign enemies, familial intrigues, and his own sins. Jeremiah speaks graphically of his severe distress in Lamentations 1:20 – his bowels boiled and his heart was racked with turmoil. Nehemiah speaks of the distress of the men in Jerusalem as they rebuilt her walls with one hand and carried the sword in the other. Paul wrote of the extreme affliction believers feel (Rom. 8:35). Martha was “troubled about many things,” and Jesus was in her house (Luke 10:41)!
Many have spoken late of the increasing pressures we are experiencing, and you do not need a list from me. Suffice it to say that we are surrounded by fears, distressed by violence, plagued by widespread lies, uncertain about the future, unsure whom to trust, feeling God’s hand of judgment upon our nation and his chastening hand upon his church. Most that men say and do adds to our distress. Peter spoke of this when he wrote to the believers that they were in “heaviness through manifold temptations (1 Pet. 1:6). Sorrow and pressure can injure our health, cloud our judgment, attack faith and hope, paralyze with fear, disturb our relationships, and tempt to despair.
When the Lord afflicts, there is no escape from his hand. Whether our distress arises from man’s wickedness, our own sins (Zeph. 1:17), or the Lord’s purifying fire, we must fall meekly into his hand (2 Sam. 24:14). Never can we forget that our Savior carries a “winnowing fan” in his hand. He purges the chaff from our lives, humbles us, and leads us trust his sufficient grace. He will baptize his bride with fire and the Holy Spirit. It is but half a prayer that asks him to exert his omnipotence to take away our troubles or rule over us so that we do not experience them. The other and better half of prayer asks him to be with us in the fire, glorify his name, and purify our faith.
Yielding to him, we must not be surprised by the various pressures we feel. Remember Peter’s “think it not strange, beloved, concerning the fiery trial, which is to try you, as if some strange thing happened to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). We are not to be shocked by trials and troubles. They have not always been heavy upon us in this land, and we have slept while the evil one sowed many tares. And now we awake to find that our nation has changed its gods. These gods are demons, with lying, murdering Satan at their head. He knows that he has “but a short time,” and therefore he will rage with malice against us (Rev. 12:12,17). But remember also that he is on our Savior’s leash, and that whatever damage he does, the fires that burn up the false hopes of God’s enemies purify the faith of God’s children. We must therefore endure and hold fast to Jesus Christ.
When Jacob was distressed, he built an altar (Gen. 35:3).This is perhaps the most important thing for us to remember and practice when we are distressed. This was also David’s path: “In my distress I called upon the Lord” (Ps. 18:6; 118:5; 120:1). To build an altar and call upon the Lord is to draw near to the throne of grace with boldness (Heb. 4:16). We must take him at his word that he is our Father who hears and helps us. Our merciful and faithful high priest rules the world and intercedes for us in “pity joined with power.” He knows the “sorrows of death and of hell” (Ps. 18:4-5), and he sympathizes with us, wisely and powerfully. His help is always timely. His help does not usually lessen the pressure but increases the hope, trust, and humility.
When we pray and commit our ways to him, as Jacob, David, and Nehemiah did, we can depend upon his hearing and his help. “My cry came to his ears” (Ps. 18:6). This is the only thing a tried faith needs – to know that God has heard. If he has heard, faith can leave the trial and its outcome in his hand. We may crave relief and resolution, but faith rests in his promise. It believes that our Father rewards those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6). Knowing that our Father hears, loves, and rules, faith sings in the fire, endures, and overcomes.
Our Father works several graces for us and in us when we draw near to the heavenly altar trusting in the merits and mediation of our Savior. First, he “enlarges” us (Ps. 4:1). This obscure idea likely means that he expands our hearts to trust him. “My heart trusts in him, and I am helped” (Ps. 28:7). Part of this “enlargement” is increasing our faith that overcomes the world and the hope of salvation that is our shield in every trial. Enlargement also comes when we see that God is far larger than our troubles, that his love for us never diminishes, and that he sits as King above the floods. The bigger God is to us, the larger hope swells in our hearts. God has this trouble under his complete control. He holds us and is working good. We are saved exactly by this kind of hope (Rom. 8:24), the confident expectation that what God has promised, he will perform. Hope finds its life in God himself, for it is anchored within the veil of his presence, in his faithfulness, love, and power.
Second, he encourages us to cast our cares upon him. Our hearts are too small and our shoulders too weak to carry the weight of trouble. He sweetly communicates to us that he cares for us when we cast our cares upon him (1 Pet. 5:7). This is one reason our Savior forbids us to be anxious. Is he not with us? Has he not promised never to leave or forsake us? With this promise, he promises us himself: his wisdom, encouragement, comfort, and direction, all sealed to our hearts and actually worked in our hearts by the indwelling Spirit. We shall know his work and presence; our Savior has promised. “But you know him, for he dwells with you, and shall be in you” (John 14:17).
We must be more persuaded that our Lord has already made a wonderful provision for our relief in distress. He has given us his Spirit. One of his names and works is Comforter. To comfort is to encourage, give strength to the weak, and to bear a powerful, inner witness that we are God’s children. It is the Spirit who binds us to Christ so that we feel the truth of his promise that nothing can separate us from his love. Tribulation, distress, and persecution tempt us to doubt. Faith lays hold of Jesus Christ, holds fast to him, even if we are naked, hungry, and in constant peril (Rom. 8:35). To know the certainty of his promise, we pass through tribulation trusting him. His fullest grace and deepest consolations are reserved for us in distress, but only when we endure distress by trusting him. But we must take him at his word, know that “the Father himself loves us,” and cast ourselves upon his promise. If we learn this even a little then we are on the path of peace and joy.
And no one can teach us this better than Jesus Christ. No one has ever felt pressure, trouble, and anguish as he did. “And he began to be sorrowful and very heavy” (Matt. 26:37). His soul was “exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (v. 38). Anguish and intense misery descended upon him as he faced the cross. He loved us to the end (John 13:1), but that end was horrible. He had to descend into the abyss of our judgment, take our sins upon himself, and become sin for us. He drank the bitterest cup of wrath and judgment, not because he deserved it but because he willingly became surety for our redemption. He had to pay the ransom price – fully, painfully, and personally. And what did he do in that hour? The same thing that Jacob, David, and Nehemiah did. He cast himself upon the ground and prayed. In his distress, he called upon his Father. He looked hell in the eye, the sword of divine justice, judicial separation from the Father in whom he delighted. So great was his horror that he sweated blood. After praying, asking for another way if possible, and committing himself to the will of his Father, he got up and met his accusers. He endured the cross. He plunged himself into hell to save us.
Because he overcame, we can endure pressure and trouble. This is not simply because he set an example for us. It is because he obtained our redemption by his obedience, absorbed for us Satan’s worst malice, and rose to secure us forever to himself. He has taught us what to do when the worst imaginable tribulation draws near. Draw closer to him. Throw yourself upon the mercy of God. Tell him your fears. Commit your ways to him and your soul to the Father. Expect our Father to hear and answer you. He heard his Son and raised him from the dead. Expect him to do the same for you as you hold fast to the Captain of your salvation (1 Thess. 3:7-8).