We love it when God delivers us from distress. Rightly do we celebrate that he is “a refuge in the day of [our] distress” (Psalm 59:16). “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free” (Psalm 118:5). We all experience such relief from distress in different times and various ways.
But there are certain kinds of distress we should not be delivered from; rather, we should plead with God to give us more.
Break My Heart for the Lost
In arguably the greatest letter ever written, after the most glorious explanation of the gospel recorded in human language, and immediately after unparalleled reveling in unconquerable Christian hope, the apostle Paul jarringly breaks into a lament:
I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1–3)
Standing on the summit of hope that nothing in the world, visible or invisible, could separate him from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:37–39), Paul mourns for those in the hopeless valley and almost wishes he could be separated from Christ, if only it resulted in his Jewish kinsmen reaching the summit.
Paul was distressed over Jewish unbelief in Jesus. He felt distress on a personal level: he was a Jew and knew and loved hundreds, perhaps thousands of Jews personally. He felt distress on a corporate level: ethnic Israel was God’s chosen people to whom “belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship . . . the promises . . . the patriarchs, and from their race . . . the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever” (Romans 9:4–5). Jews were rejecting their own Christ, and this caused Paul “unceasing anguish.”
This text undoes me whenever I stop to think about it. Paul’s anguish in view of my frequent lack of it troubles me. It ought to trouble me. Paul’s distress was not due to his weak grasp on God’s sovereignty in election, as we see from the rest of Romans 9. Paul’s distress demonstrates just how deeply he understood its truth, complexity, mystery, and his intellectual limits. Those of us who do not feel such anguish demonstrate that we do not. For Jesus felt the same anguish when he cried out,
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)
If we can speak of God’s election and people’s spiritual blindness and hardness and Christ-rejection as abstract categories without being regularly moved deeply, we do not yet know as we ought to know. So we must plead with God for the gift of distress over perishing unbelievers, for it is such distress that moves us into action.
Break My Heart for the Persecuted
Of course, in the early church many Christians were Jews, and Jesus-rejecting Jews, ones Jesus and Paul anguished over, who at times persecuted them. Jewish Christians experiencing such persecution were likely the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews.
And in Hebrews 13:3, the author wrote, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” Another way to say this is “share suffering Christians’ distress as though in distress with them.”
Is that possible? With man, no, it’s not. It’s humanly impossible to even want to share someone else’s suffering as our own, much less do it. It was humanly impossible for the original Hebrew readers, who knew the imprisoned and mistreated, much less us modern Western Christians, most of whom don’t know anyone suffering beatings and property-plundering (Hebrews 10:32–34). They are distant and hard to remember. And yet in this verse, God commands us to share in mistreated Christians’ distress nonetheless, for “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
Since it is impossible with us, we must plead with God for the gift of distress over the persecuted church, for it is such distress that moves us into action.
Break My Heart for the Poor
There is another distress people suffer that Christians are called to enter into, summed up in these three words: “Remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). This is especially true for the poor of “the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).
Jesus remembered the poor. He came to proclaim good news to them (Luke 4:18). And the priority he gave to giving to them is seen in the priority his followers gave to giving to them. Think of Zacchaeus giving half his goods to the poor (Luke 19:8). Think of Jesus’s disciples assuming that Judas abruptly left the Passover meal to again give to the poor (John 13:29).
But such remembering is perhaps most beautifully portrayed in Acts 2:44–45, where “all who believed were together and had all things in common [and] were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This is a sign and wonder: to be so moved, so distressed, by another’s distress, that one gives his wealth away to provide for the other’s need. But again we remember what Jesus said, in fact, when someone would not give his wealth to the poor, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).
So again, since it is impossible with us, we must plead with God for the gift of distress over the destitute poor, for it is such distress that moves us into action.
Whatever It Takes, Lord
These kinds of distress are to be desired, not delivered from, for they are not evils, but evidences of grace in the soul. They are the marks of Christ-like love. Therefore, we must plead with God:
Whatever it takes, Lord, increase my distress for perishing unbelievers, the persecuted church, and destitute poor and my resolve to do what I can to bring them deliverance and relief through the whole gospel of Christ.