I still remember the time when I encountered a mother who could not find her preschool-age daughter at a hotel. She was urgently trying to find her little one, but was distressed by the possibilities of an unfamiliar setting with unfamiliar people and lurking dangers. Thankfully, the mother returned to where she started only to find that her daughter was there. The young girl had ventured down the hallway when the mother wasn’t looking and walked back to the room just after the mother left on her frantic search.
Do you ever feel distressed? The writer of Psalm 4 felt that way:
Answer me when I call to You, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer. (Psalm 4:1)
Where do you turn in your distress? Some of us may turn to friends or family who will support us appropriately. Others of us may turn to distractions like television or reading a book. Still others may find themselves drawn to activities or substances that numb the feelings of distress. In Psalm 4 the psalmist instructs us in the way we should turn in our distress.
Distress and God
First of all, the psalmist shows us to whom we should turn. ‘Of course,’ you might say, ‘you are going to say that I should turn to God.’ Yes, that is true, but it is not enough of the truth in this case. The psalmist says that he turns to ‘my righteous God’. The two modifiers of God, ‘my’ and ‘righteous’, are key words here. First off, in our distress, we do well to remember that God is personal and wants to be known: ‘my God’. God actually wants to be ours in the same way that a husband might say ‘my wife’ or a mother might say ‘my children.’ There is a sense of intimate and personal connection here. The second modifier, ‘righteous’, talks about the character of God. In our distress we can often forget what God is like. We may think that He has abandoned us or that He is not benevolent toward us. The psalmist reminds us that we are turning toward the sort of God who is completely right and trustworthy in His character. Unlike any other person, activity, or substance, God will do what He promises to the highest degree. We turn to our righteous God.
Distress and Others
Second of all, the writer of this psalm instructs us in the way we should deal with others in distress.
How long will you people turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods? Know that the LORD has set apart His faithful servant for Himself; the LORD hears when I call to Him. (4:2-3)
When we are in distress, there are times when people around us shame our faith in God. Some may mock our trusting prayers in the midst of difficult times. They may ask us why we trust in God when things do not appear to go well. The psalmist responds by questioning those very questions that are thrown at him by his opponents. We do not have to bow under the doubts of others. We do not have to give in to the worldviews or gods of others, even though we may be surrounded by a horde of apparent difficulties.
Distress and Ourselves
Thirdly, the psalmist teaches us about how we deal with ourselves in distress. When distress rises up like a fog around us, we often slide into the mire of discouragement, self-doubt, and anger. It does not take long for that mire to engulf us in sinful choices and activities. But the psalmist exhorts us toward something else:
Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer the sacrifices of the righteous and trust in the LORD. (4:4-5)
In the quiet moments (“on your beds”), we should not slip into sin. Instead, we should allow God to search through our interior thoughts and exterior actions. We must make a willful decision to turn from sin and “offer the sacrifices of the righteous” that flow from a trust in God. This is not easy. Trust is a choice. Right action is a choice. In the midst of our distress, we must let God search us at every level. This same theme is echoed in Psalm 139:23-24:
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Distress and Experiencing God
Sitting in distress is painful and tiring. Most often, we wonder what will bring an end to it. So the psalmist writes: “Many, LORD, are asking, ‘Who will bring us prosperity?'” (4:6). Who is it that will bring an end to distress. As I said before, the expected answer in this venue is God but that is not answer enough.
Let the light of Your face shine on us. Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound. In peace I will lie down and sleep, for You alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety. (4:6-8)
Read those words again. God is not merely one who brings relief from distress. More than that, God is the bringer of light, joy, peace, rest, and safety. Grappling with distress, the psalmist moves through the criticisms of his opponents and weary thoughts about himself to a true experience of God. He is calling out to God from the beginning to the end of this psalm. He is asking God to shine light into the dark places. He is turning with his whole being toward God as the source of joy. He is seeking abundance from God and not from other sources. He is finding rest and safety within the presence of God knowing that such things cannot be found elsewhere. Even in the depths of our distress, as we turn toward the Lord we will find true peace.