Practicing the Faith: Distressed Christians


Read: Matthew 14:1-21

But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” (Mat. 14:6-8, NRSV).

Tension crackles around the screen as we await the verdict of the expert. The program is the popular Antiques Road Show. The hopeful young couple fidgets nervously as the expert gets ready to announce the worth of Great-Aunt Gertie’s cherished dresser. “Five hundred dollars,” the expert says dryly, “though it would be worth ten times as much if you hadn’t refinished it.”

I’ve never understood this. Why is a dingy old piece of furniture worth more than one that has been restored to its original splendor? Even more puzzling is the practice of intentionally “distressing” new furniture to make it look old. When I’m lucky enough to have something new, the last thing that occurs to me is to go at it with a hammer.

The same peculiar logic seems to be at play in this strange sequence of stories in Matthew 14. While clearly “distressed” by the murder of John the Baptist, Jesus barely has time to grieve John’s grisly death. The crowds pursue him like relentless reporters, inflicting the suffering Savior with their own agenda.

Nobody could have blamed Jesus if he had told them all to go jump in the nearby lake. Yet, the Scripture says he “had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Then, not content to cure them, he fed them as well. Five thousand men plus women and children dined that day on what had looked like a meager meal: five loaves and two fish. Once again, Jesus transformed the situation, turning suffering into celebration.

The sequence of these stories is likely not an accident. Matthew seems to be trying to tell us something, not just about Jesus, but about the Christian life.

Think back to the beginning of the story. Jesus had just lost John—a close friend, a cousin, and the herald of the coming Christ. Yet, out of Jesus’ sorrow springs great compassion. Could his own sorrow have sensitized him to the suffering of those around him? As he looked out at the crowd through his own tears, did he see the tears of others? Did he understand that they had carried their friends and loved ones out into this secluded place, hoping to avoid the grief that he now knew?

Logic leads us to another more perplexing question: Did God design Jesus’ personal suffering to quicken his sense of compassion for others? For that matter, does God intentionally “distress” us to make us more valuable in the process?

If the book of Job could not solve the problem of human suffering in forty-two chapters, I’m certainly not going to try to do it in a few paragraphs. The question of “why bad things happen to good people” is far too complex for that. Yet, I will venture an observation based on the Bible and my own experience. Sometimes, by the grace of God, grief does beget compassion, and sometimes Christians who have been “distressed” by tragedy or hardship are made immeasurably valuable. The compassion they learn in the process is multiplied—like loaves and fishes—to heal and feed everyone around them.

Life doesn’t always work that way, of course. Sometimes “distressed” Christians simply turn bitter and are a bane to everyone around them, including themselves. Jesus must certainly have compassion on these wounded souls as well. But he must smile through his tears when one of these suffering servants grows through grief and becomes even more valuable because of it.

A couple I know lost their twenty-two-year-old son to cancer a couple of decades ago. To label their experience a blessing would be absurd. Yet, blessing has blossomed from it. In the years since their son’s death, they have been a haven of comfort and care for other “distressed Christians.” Many of us who have sought them out have been blessed by their compassion. They listen better than most people do. They aren’t afraid to cry, and they aren’t uncomfortable when others do. Perhaps best of all, they don’t try to make the tears go away with simple answers.

Do you know anyone like this couple? Has your grief ever made you grow?

Only God knows how and why this works. But we can be very glad that—in the mystery and mercy of God—it often does.

Ponder: Do you know anyone like the couple described above? Has your grief ever made you grow?

Pray: Meet us where we are, God of compassion, and transform our pain into blessing.


This reflection is a lightly edited version of a devotional originally published in Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved.




This reflection is a lightly edited version of a devotional originally published in Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved.



“Practicing the Faith” Series

This series explores some of the things that Christians can expect once the first blush of belief has worn off. Contrary to the mistaken assumption that once we are “saved” we can sit back and relax, these reflections explore the hard work that awaits the believer on the other side of baptism. However, characters from Genesis to Revelation illustrate that practicing the faith is not just a responsibility but also a reward.

All of these reflections are “encore” performances from a book I wrote early in my career: Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved. I have edited them lightly, and chosen them with the current context in mind. I hope they have stood the test of time.