Distress of Sin

The sorrows of death compassed me, and the floods of ungodly men made me afraid. The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me. In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears.
~ Psalm 18:4-6

Yea, in the way of thy judgments, O LORD, have we waited for thee; the desire of our soul is to thy name, and to the remembrance of thee.
~ Isaiah 26:8

Believers’ Distresses of Sin, and Their Application to God, by John Owen. The following is an excerpt from his work, “The Forgiveness of Sin”.

A Song of degrees. Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning. Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
~ Psalm 130:1-8

The duty and actings of a believer under distresses from a sense of sin—His application unto God, to God alone—Earnestness and intension of mind therein.

II. The words of these two first verses declare also the deportment of the soul in the condition that we have described; that is, what it doth, and what course it steers for relief. “I have cried unto thee, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.”

There is in the words a general application made in a tendency unto relief; wherein is first to be considered to whom the application is made; and that is Jehovah: “I have cried unto thee, Jehovah.” God gave out that name to his people to confirm their faith in the stability of his promises, Exod. 3. He who is Being himself will assuredly give being and subsistence to his promises. Being to deal with God about the promises of grace, he makes his application to him under this name: I call upon thee, Jehovah.

In the application itself may be observed,—First, The anthropopathy of the expression. He prays that God would cause his ears to be attentive; after the manner of men who seriously attend to what is spoken to them, when they turn aside from that which they regard not. Secondly, The earnestness of the soul in the work it hath in hand; which is evident both from the reduplication of his request, “Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications;” and the emphaticalness of the words he maketh use of: “Let thine ears,” saith he, “be ַק ֻׁשבוֹת ,—diligently attentive.” The word signifies the most diligent heedfulness and close attention: “Let thine ears be very attentive.” And unto what? ְלקוֹל ַת ֲחנוּ ָני ,—”To the voice of my supplications.” “Deprecationum mearum,” generally say interpreters; “Of my deprecations,” or earnest prayers for the averting of evil or punishment. But the word is from ָח ַנן , “Gratiosus fait,” to be gracious or merciful; so that it signifies properly supplication for grace. “Be attentive,” saith he, “O Lord, unto my supplications for grace and mercy, which, according to my extreme necessity, I now address myself to make unto thee.” And in these words doth the psalmist set forth in general the frame and working of a gracious soul being cast into depths and darkness by sin.

The foundation of what I shall farther thence pursue lies in these two propositions:—

First, The only attempt of a sinful, entangled soul for relief lies in an application to God alone: “To thee, Jehovah, have I cried; Lord, hear.”

Secondly, Depths of sin-entanglements will put a gracious soul on intense and earnest applications unto God: “Lord, hear; Lord, attend.” Dying men do not use to cry out slothfully for relief.

What may be thought necessary in general for the direction of a soul in the state and condition described, shall briefly be spoken unto from these two propositions:—

1. Trouble, danger, disquietment, arguing not only things evil, but a sense in the mind and soul of them, will of themselves put those in whom they are upon seeking relief. Every thing would naturally be at rest. A drowning man needs no exhortation to endeavour his own deliverance and safety; and spiritual troubles will, in like manner, put men on attempts for relief. To seek for no remedy is to be senselessly obdurate, or wretchedly desperate, as Cain and Judas. We may suppose, then, that the principal business of every soul in depths is to endeavour deliverance. They cannot rest in that condition wherein they have no rest. In this endeavour, what course a gracious soul steers is laid down in the first pro-position, negatively and positively. He applies himself not to any thing but God; he applies himself unto God. An eminent instance we have of it in both parts, or both to the one side and the other, Hos. 14:3, “Asshur,” say those poor, distressed, returning sinners, “shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses: neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods: for in thee the fatherless findeth mercy.” Their application unto God is attended with a renunciation of every other way of relief.

Several things there are that sinners are apt to apply themselves unto for relief in their perplexities, which prove unto them as waters that fail. How many things have the Romanists invented to deceive souls withal! Saints and angels, the blessed Virgin, the wood of the cross, confessions, penances, masses, pilgrimages, dirges, purgatories, papal pardons, works of compensation, and the like, are made entrances for innumerable souls into everlasting ruin. Did they know the terror of the Lord, the nature of sin, and of the mediation of Christ, they would be ashamed and confounded in themselves for these abominations; they would not say unto these their idols, “Ye are our gods; come and save us.” How short do all their contrivances come of his that would fain be offering “rivers of oil, yea, the fruit of his body, for the sin of his soul, his first-born for his transgression,” Micah 6:7, who yet gains nothing but an aggravation of his sin and misery thereby! yea, the heathens went beyond them in devotion and expense. It is no new inquiry, what course sin-perplexed souls should take for relief. From the foundation of the world, the minds of far the greatest part of mankind have been exercised in it. As was their light or darkness, such was the course they took. Among those who were ignorant of God, this inquiry brought forth all that diabolical superstition which spread itself over the face of the whole world. Gentilism being destroyed by the power and efficacy of the gospel, the same inquiry working in the minds of darkened men, in conjunction with other lusts, brought forth the Papacy. When men had lost a spiritual acquaintance with the covenant of grace and mystery of the gospel, the design of eternal love, and efficacy of the blood of Christ, they betook themselves, in part or in whole, for relief under their entanglements, unto the broken cisterns mentioned. They are of two sorts,—self, and other things. For those other things which belong unto their false worship, being abominated by all the saints of God, I shall not need to make any farther mention of them. That which relates unto self is not confined unto Popery, but confines itself to the limits of human nature, and is predominate over all that are under the law; that is, to seek for relief in sin-distresses by self-endeavours, self-righteousness. Hence many poor souls in straits apply themselves to themselves. They expect their cure from the same hand that wounded them. This was the life of Judaism, as the apostle informs us, Rom. 10:3. And all men under the law are still animated by the same principle. They return, but not unto the Lord. Finding themselves in depths, in distresses about sin, what course do they take? This they will do, that they will do no more; this shall be their ordinary course, and that they will do in an extraordinary manner; as they have offended, whence their trouble ariseth, so they will amend, and look that their peace should spring from thence, as if God and they stood on equal terms. In this way some spend all their days; sinning and amending, amending and sinning, without once coming to repentance and peace. This the souls of believers watch against. They look on themselves as fatherless: “In thee the fatherless findeth mercy;” that is, helpless,—without the least ground of hopes in themselves or expectation from themselves. They know their repentance, their amendment, their supplications, their humiliations, their fastings, their mortifications, will not relieve them. Repent they will, and amend they will, and pray, and fast, and humble their souls, for they know these things to be their duty; but they know that their goodness extends not to Him with whom they have to do, nor is He profited by their righteousness. They will be in the performance of all duties; but they expect not deliverance by any duty. “It is God,” say they, “with whom we have to do: our business is to hearken what he will say unto us.”

There are also other ways whereby sinful souls destroy themselves by false reliefs. Diversions from their perplexing thoughtfulness please them. They will fix on something or other that cannot cure their disease, but shall only make them forget that they are sick; as Cain, under the terror of his guilt, departed from the presence of the Lord, and sought inward rest in outward labour and employment. He went and built a city, Gen. 4:17. Such courses Saul fixed on; first music, then a witch. Nothing more ordinary than for men thus to deal with their convictions. They see their sickness, feel their wound, and go to the Assyrian, Hos. 5:13. And this insensibly leads men into atheism. Frequent applications of creature-diversions unto convictions of sin are a notable means of bringing on final impenitency. Some drunkards had, it may be, never been so, had they not been first convinced of other sins. They strive to stifle the guilt of one sin with another. They fly from themselves unto themselves, from their consciences unto their lusts, and seek for relief from sin by sinning. This is so far from believers, that they will not allow lawful things to be a diversion of their distress. Use lawful things they may and will, but not to divert their thoughts from their distresses. These they know must be issued between God and them. Wear off they will not, but must be taken away. These rocks, and the like, whereof there are innumerable, I say, a gracious soul takes care to avoid. He knows it is God alone who is the Lord of his conscience, where his depths lie; God alone against whom he hath sinned; God alone who can pardon his sin. From dealing with him he will be neither enticed nor diverted. “To thee, O Lord,” saith he, “do I come; thy word concerning me must stand; upon thee will I wait. If thou hast no delight in me, I must perish. Other remedies I know are vain. I intend not to spend my strength for that which is not bread. Unto thee do I cry.” Here a sin-entangled soul is to fix itself. Trouble excites it to look for relief. Many things without it present themselves as a diversion; many things within it offer themselves for a remedy. “Forget thy sorrow,” say the former; “Ease thyself of it by us,” say the latter. The soul refuseth both, as physicians of no value, and to God alone makes its application. He hath wounded, and he alone can heal. And until any one that is sensible of the guilt of sin will come off from all reserves to deal immediately with God, it is in vain for him to expect relief.

2. Herein it is intense, earnest, and urgent; which was the second thing observed. It is no time now to be slothful. The soul’s all, its greatest concernments are at the stake. Dull, cold, formal, customary applications to God will not serve the turn. Ordinary actings of faith, love, fervency; usual seasons, opportunities, duties, answer not this condition. To do no more than ordinary now is to do nothing at all. He that puts forth no more strength and activity for his deliverance when he is in depths, ready to perish, than he doth, or hath need to do, when he is at liberty in plain and smooth paths, is scarcely like to escape. Some in such conditions are careless and negligent; they think, in ordinary course, to wear off their distempers; and that, although at present they are sensible of their danger, they shall yet have peace at last: in which frame there is much contempt of God. Some despond and languish away under their pressures. Spiritual sloth influenceth both these sorts of persons. Let us see the frame under consideration exemplified in another. We have an instance in the spouse, Cant. 3:1–3. She had lost the presence of Christ, and so was in the very state and condition before described, verse 1. It was night with her,—a time of darkness and disconsolation; and she seeks for her beloved: “By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth.” Christ was absent from her, and she was left unto depths and darkness upon that account; wherefore she seeks for him. But, as the most are apt to do in the like state and condition, she mends not her pace, goes not out of or beyond her course of ordinary duties, nor the frame she was usually in at other times. But what is the issue? Saith she, “I found him not.” This is not a way to recover a sense of lost love, nor to get out of her entanglements. And this puts her on another course; she begins to think that if things continue in this estate she shall be undone. “I go on, indeed, with the performance of duties still; but I have not the presence of my beloved,—I meet not with Christ in them. My darkness and trouble abides still. If I take not some other course, I shall be lost.” Well, saith she, “I will rise now,” verse 2;—”I will shake off all that ease, and sloth, and customariness, that cleave to me.” Some more lively, vigorous course must be fixed on. Resolutions for new, extraordinary, vigorous, constant applications unto God, are the first general step and degree of a sin- entangled soul acting towards a recovery. “I will rise now.” And what doth she do when she is thus resolved? “I will,” saith she, “go about the streets, and in the broad ways, and seek him whom my soul loveth;”—”I will leave no ways or means unattempted whereby I may possibly come to a fresh enjoyment of him. If a man seek for a friend, he can look for him only in the streets, and in the broad ways,—that is, either in towns, or in the fields. So will I do,” saith the spouse. “In what way, ordinance, or institution soever, in or by what duty soever, public or private, of communion with others or solitary retiredness, Christ ever was or may be found, or peace obtained, ‘I will seek him,’ and not give over until I come to an enjoyment of him.” And this frame, this resolution, a soul in depths must come unto, if ever it expect deliverance. For the most part, men’s “wounds stink, and are corrupt, because of their foolishness,” as the psalmist complains, Ps. 38:5. They are wounded by sin, and through spiritual sloth they neglect their cure; this weakens them, and disquiets them day by day: yet they endure all, rather than they will come out of their carnal ease, to deal effectually with God in an extraordinary manner. It was otherwise with David: Ps. 22:1, 2, “Why,” saith he, “art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the day-time, and in the night season, and am not silent.” What ails the man? Can he not be quiet night nor day? never silent, never hold his peace? And if he be somewhat disquieted, can he not contain himself, but that he must roar and cry out? Yea, must he “roar” thus “all the day long,” as he speaks, Ps. 32:3, and “groan all the night,” as Ps. 6:6? What is the matter, with all this roaring, sighing, tears, roaring all the day, all night long? Ah! let him alone, his soul is bitter in him; he is fallen into depths; the Lord is withdrawn from him; trouble is hard at hand.; yea, he is full of anxiety on the account of sin; there is no quietness and soundness in him; and he must thus earnestly and restlessly apply himself for relief. Alas! what strangers, for the most part, are men now-a-days to this frame! How little of the workings of this spirit is found amongst us! And is not the reason of it, that we value the world more, and heaven and heavenly things less, than he did? that we can live at a better rate, without a sense of the love of God in Christ, than he could do? And is it not hence that we every day see so many withering professors, that have in a manner lost all communion with God, beyond a little lip-labour or talking; the filthy savour of whose wounds are offensive to all but themselves? And so will they go on, ready to die and perish, rather than with this holy man thus stir up themselves to meet the Lord. Heman was also like unto him, Ps. 88:11, 12. What sense he had of his depths he declares, verse 3: “My soul,” saith he, “is full of troubles; and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.” And what course doth he steer in this heavy, sorrowful, and disconsolate condition? Why, saith he, “O LORD God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee: let my prayer come before thee: incline thine ear unto my cry,” verses 1, 2. Day and night he cries to the God of his salvation, and that with earnestness and importunity. This was his business, this was he exercised about all his days.

This is that which is aimed at:—If a gracious soul be brought into the depths before mentioned and described, by reason of sin, when the Lord is pleased to lead him forth towards a recovery, he causeth him to be vigorous and restless in all the duties whereby he may make application to him for deliverance. Now, wherein this intenseness and earnestness of the soul, in its applications unto God, doth principally consist I shall briefly declare, when I have touched a little upon some considerations and grounds that stir it up thereunto:—

(1.) The greatest of men’s concernments may well put them on this earnestness. Men do not use to deal with dull and slothful spirits about their greatest concerns. David tells us that he was more concerned in the “light of God’s countenance” than the men of the world could be in their “corn and wine,” Ps. 4:6, 7. Suppose a man of the world should have his house, wherein all his stock and riches are laid up, set on fire, and so the whole be in danger under his eye to be consumed, would he be calm and quiet in the consideration of it? Would he not bestir himself with all his might, and call in all the help he could obtain? and that because his portion, his all, his great concernment, lies at stake. And shall the soul be slothful, careless, dull, secure, when fire is put to its eternal concernments,—when the light of God’s countenance, which is of more esteem unto him than the greatest increase of corn and wine can be to the men of the world, is removed from him? It was an argument of prodigious security in Jonah, that he was fast asleep when the ship wherein he was was ready to be cast away for his sake. And will it be thought less in any soul, who, being in a storm of wrath and displeasure from God, sent out into the deep after him, shall neglect it, and sleep, as Solomon says, “on the top of a mast in the midst of the sea?” How did that poor creature, whose heart was mad on his idols, Judges 18:24, cry out when he was deprived of them! “Ye have taken away my gods,” saith he, “and what have I more?” And shall a gracious soul lose his God through his own folly,—the sense of his love, the consolation of his presence,—and not with all his might follow hard after him? Peace with God, joy in believing, such souls have formerly obtained. Can they live without them now in their ordinary walking? Can they choose but cry out with Job, “Oh that it were with us as in former days, when the candle of the Lord was upon our tabernacle?” chap. 29:2–4; and with David, “O God, restore unto me the joy of thy salvation,” Ps. 51:12, “for O my God, I remember former enjoyments, and my soul is cast down within me?” Ps. 42:6. They cannot live without it. But suppose they might make a sorry shift to pass on in their pilgrimage whilst all is smooth about them, what will they do in the time of outward trials and distresses, when deep calleth unto deep, and one trouble excites and sharpens another? Nothing then will support them, they know, but that which is wanting to them; as Hab. 3:17, 18, Ps. 23:4: so that the greatness of their concernment provokes them to the earnestness mentioned.

(2.) They have a deep sense of these their great concernments. All men are equally concerned in the love of God and pardon of sin. Every one hath a soul of the same immortal constitution, equally capable of bliss and woe. But yet we see most men are so stupidly sottish, that they take little notice of these things. Neither the guilt of sin, nor the wrath of God, nor death, nor hell, are thought on or esteemed by them; they are their concernments, but they are not sensible of them. But gracious souls have a quick, living sense of spiritual things; for,—

[1.] They have a saving spiritual light, whereby they are able to discern the true nature of sin and the terror of the Lord: for though they are now supposed to have lost the comforting light of the Spirit, yet they never lose the sanctifying light of the Spirit, the light whereby they are enabled to discern spiritual things in a spiritual manner; this never utterly departs from them. By this they see sin to be “exceeding sinful,” Rom. 7:13. By this they know “the terror of the Lord,” 2 Cor. 5:11; and that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” Heb. 10:31. By this they discover the excellency of the love of God in Christ, which passeth knowledge, the present sense whereof they have lost. By this they are enabled to look within the vail, and to take a view of the blessed consolations which the saints enjoy whose communion with God was never interrupted. This represents to them all the sweetness, pleasure, joy, peace, which in former days they had, whilst God was present with them in love. By this are they taught to value all the fruits of the blood of Jesus Christ, of the enjoyment of many whereof they are at present cut short and deprived. All which, with other things of the like nature and importance, make them very sensible of their concernments.

[2.] They remember what it cost them formerly to deal with God about sin; and hence they know it is no ordinary matter they have in hand. They must again to their old work, take the old cup into their hands again. A recovery from depths is as a new conversion.

Ofttimes in it the whole work, as to the soul’s apprehension, is gone over afresh. This the soul knows to have been a work of dread, terror, and trouble, and trembles in itself at its new trials. And,—

[3.] The Holy Ghost gives unto poor souls a fresh sense of their deep concernments, on purpose that it may be a means to stir them up unto these earnest applications unto God. The whole work is his, and he carries it on by means suited to the compassing of the end he aimeth at; and by these means is a gracious soul brought into the frame mentioned. Now, there are sundry things that concur in and unto this frame:—

1st. There is a continual thoughtfulness about the sad condition wherein the soul is in its depths. Being deeply affected with their condition, they are continually ruminating upon it, and pondering it in their minds. So David declares the case to have been with him: Ps. 38:2–6, 8, “Thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore. There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin. For mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness. I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long. I am feeble and sore broken: I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart.” Restlessness, deep thoughtfulness, disquietness of heart, continual heaviness of soul, sorrow and anxiety of mind, lie at the bottom of the applications we speak of. From these principles their prayers flow out; as David adds, verse 9, “Lord, all my desire is before thee, and my groaning is not hid from thee.” This way all his trouble wrought. He prayed out of the abundance of his meditation and grief. Thoughts of their state and condition lie down with such persons, and rise with them, and accompany them all the day long. As Reuben cried, “The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?” so doth such a soul;—”The love of God is not, Christ is not; and I, whither shall I cause my sorrow to go? God is provoked, death is nigh at hand, relief is far away, darkness is about me. I have lost my peace, my joy, my song in the night. What do I think of duties? Can two walk together unless they be agreed? Can I walk with God in them, whilst I have thus made him mine enemy? What do I think of ordinances? Will it do me any good to be at Jerusalem, and not see the face of the King? to live under ordinances, and not to meet in them with the King of saints? May I not justly fear that the Lord will take his Holy Spirit from me until I be left without remedy?” With such thoughts as these are sin-entangled souls exercised, and they lie rolling in their minds in all their applications unto God.

2dly. We see the application itself consists in and is made by the prayer of faith, or crying unto God. Now, this is done with intenseness of mind; which hath a twofold fruit or propriety,—(1st.) Importunity; and, (2dly.) Constancy.

It is said of our blessed Saviour, that when he was in his depths about our sins, “he offered up prayers and supplications, with strong cries and tears,” Heb. 5:7. “Strong cries and tears” express the utmost intension of spirit. And David expresseth it by “roaring,” as we have seen before; as also by “sighing, groaning, and panting.” A soul in such a condition lies down before the Lord with sighs, groans, mourning, cries, tears, and roaring, according to the various working of his heart, and its being affected with the things that it hath to do; and this produceth,—

(1st.) Importunity. The power of the importunity of faith our Saviour hath marvellously set out, Luke 11:5–10, as also, chap. 18:1. Importunate prayer is certainly prevailing; and importunity is, as it were, made up of these two things,—frequency of interposition and variety of arguings. You shall have a man that is importunate come unto you seven times a-day about the same business; and after all, if any new thought come into his mind, though he had resolved to the contrary, he will come again. And there is nothing that can be imagined to relate unto the business he hath in hand but he will make use of it, and turn it to the furtherance of his plea. So is it in this case. Men will use both frequency of interposition and variety of arguings: Ps. 86:3, “I cry unto thee daily,” or rather, all the day. He had but that one business, and he attended it to the purpose. By this means we give God “no rest,” Isa. 62:7; which is the very character of importunity. Such souls go to God; and they are not satisfied with what they have done, and they go again; and somewhat abideth still with them, and they go to him again; and the heart is not yet emptied, they will go again to him, that he may have no rest. What variety of arguments are pleaded with God in this case I could manifest in the same David; but it is known to all. There is not anything almost that he makes not a plea of,—the faithfulness, righteousness, name, mercy, goodness, and kindness of God in Jesus Christ; the concernment of others in him, both the friends and foes of God; his own weakness and helplessness, yea, the greatness of sin itself: “Be merciful to my sin,” saith he, “for it is great.” Sometimes he begins with some arguments of this kind; and then, being a little diverted by other considerations, some new plea is suggested unto him by the Spirit, and he returns immediately to his first employment and design;—all arguing great intension of mind and spirit.

(2dly.) Constancy also flows from intenseness. Such a soul will not give over until it obtain what it aims at and looks for; as we shall see in our process in opening this psalm.

And this is in general the deportment of a gracious soul in the condition here represented unto us. As poor creatures love their peace, as they love their souls, as they tender the glory of God, they are not to be wanting in this duty. What is the reason that controversies hang so long between God and your souls, that it may be you scarce see a good day all your lives? Is it not, for the most part, from your sloth and despondency of spirit? You will not gird up the loins of your minds, in dealing with God, to put them to a speedy issue in the blood of Christ. You go on and off, begin and cease, try and give over; and, for the most part, though your case be extraordinary, content yourselves with ordinary and customary applications unto God. This makes you wither, become useless, and pine many and many a breach made by sin, yet, through quick, vigorous, restless actings of faith, all was repaired, so that he lived peaceably, and died triumphantly. Up, then, and be doing; let not your “wounds corrupt because of your folly.” Make thorough work of that which lies before you; be it long, or difficult, it is all one, it must be done, and is attended with safety. What you are like to meet withal in the first place shall nextly be declared.