Strolling through a furniture store one day, I came across the store demo of a stress test on a chair to see how long it will last and how many times a person weighing 150 lbs. can sit in it before it cracks. It was continually punched in the back and the seat by a machine until it broke.
Can you relate? Do you feel like you are being punched incessantly? Have you ever been in a situation of deep, long-term distress? Maybe you are in one right now: A chronic illness, a wayward child, an alcoholic husband… Do you ever find yourself wondering, “How long can I endure this? How long can I hold on?” Life can seem like a “stress test” sometimes. Maybe you are living through ongoing distress, and you feel like you are about to crack and fall into despair. How can our faith endure such painful times? What counsel does the Bible offer?
A helpful biblical template for trying times is Psalm 130. It is a song in which the author candidly turns to God in distress. The author is not named, but this psalm might have been written by David. Nor do we know the circumstances of the psalm, but it became a beloved psalm in Israel, known as a “Song of Ascents,” one of the songs that the Israelites would sing as they were climbing up to Jerusalem for their annual festivals. One Bible scholar said these “Songs of Ascents” were like our Christmas carols or patriotic hymns: everyone knows the words, and they stir up shared values and emotions. These “Songs of Ascents” were for this purpose. They reminded the people of their faith. As we meditate on this psalm it can serve us in the same way. The psalmist responds to distress by turning to God. He identifies four aspects of God’s character that can help us, too, in distressing times.
- God is Attentive.
In verse 1, the psalmist writes, “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord.” He cries to the Lord from the depths of distress. He dares to be candid with God. We don’t know the source of his distress, but we do know that it is part of life in this fallen world. “Man is born for trouble as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). Like the psalmist, we too can turn to God and cry to Him. Our depths are never too deep for God’s ear.
Verse 2 says, “Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” A supplication is a plea; it expresses a sense of need. Yes, we need God! The Apostle Paul instructed the Philippian believers to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). We can take our supplications – our pleas – to Him. He welcomes our prayers.
- God is Forgiving.
Verse 3 says, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” We can see that the psalmist has a posture of contrition as he speaks of iniquities. Indeed, our iniquities are our biggest problem. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We must agree with God’s assessment: we are sinners. We must confess our sins, as the Lord Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses” (Matthew 6:12).
Distress could be the consequences of our own disobedience and the Lord’s discipline, but His discipline is also a sign of His love: “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (Hebrews 12:6). He has a purpose in the discipline: our growth in Christ-like maturity.
In verse 4, the psalmist writes, “But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.” God made a way for our sins to be forgiven and for us to be reconciled to Him. Ephesians 1:7 declares of Christ, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us.” As the psalmist testifies, the fruit of knowing such undeserved mercy is the fear of God: a growing desire to please such a gracious Judge. As the recipients of His astounding grace, it becomes our ambition is to be pleasing to Him, even in trying circumstances (2 Corinthians 5:9).
- God is Trustworthy.
Verse 5 says, “I wait for the LORD, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope.” The psalmist is willing to wait for the Lord. Why? Because he knows His character: the Lord is trustworthy. The psalmist puts his hope in the Word of God because he knows God is truthful. Hope implies a confident anticipation. Even in the depths of distress, the psalmist knows God will be faithful.
Verse 6 expresses more of this trust: “My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning; indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning.” The psalmist has confidence in the Lord’s care, as sure as the sunrise! Even in times of distress we can watch for the Lord with anticipation of what He will do and how He will deliver. We can wait with cheerful trust!
- God is Good.
Once the psalmist refocuses his mind on God and His word, he is then compelled to appeal to his people, in verse 7, to trust in the sure promises of the same God, Yahweh, who brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt: “O Israel, hope in the LORD; for with the LORD there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption.” The psalmist wants Israel to know God’s goodness and find hope in Him.
One of the clearest proofs of God’s goodness is His “abundant redemption,” acknowledged in verse 7. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross paid the necessary ransom to redeem sinners. Have you been redeemed from your slavery to sin by trusting in Christ? God’s redemption through Jesus Christ is not just adequate; it is abundant, lavish! If we have received this “abundant redemption,” we can sing gratefully, even amid distress, “It is well with my soul.”
Keep in mind that this is a “Song of Ascents” meant to be sung in community. We, too, are exhorted to sing in community: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). The Lord has given us the gift of music to express both lamentation and praise to God, and He has given us the Church as our community of faith with whom we are to sing! So even in times of distress, go to church and worship the Lord in song!
To end his song, the psalmist affirms some amazing news in verse 8: “And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” God’s redemption is from all iniquities. There is nothing in your life that He can’t forgive and redeem. Can you hear the psalmist’s glad anticipation of God’s plan of redemption? He starts out crying from the depths of distress, but he climbs to the summits of confidence in God, and he ends in a song of praise.
Psalm 130 is a helpful template when we feel punched and pushed to the brink like that stress-test chair: we can follow the psalmist’s steps and turn to God to be mindful of His attentiveness, His forgiveness, His trustworthiness, and His goodness. We, too, can climb up in our distress as we sing a “Song of Ascents” to the Lord.