Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    painting of Jesus and Peter on the Water

    Faith in Distress

    Faith is no great art; rather, the first beginning of faith is often an effect of misery.

    By Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf

    December 10, 2023

    No man can create faith in himself. Something must happen to him which Luther calls “the divine work in us,” which changes us, gives us new birth, and makes us completely different people in heart, spirit, mind, and all our powers. This is fides, faith properly speaking. If this is to begin in us, then it must be preceded by distress, without which men have no ears for faith and trust.

    The distress which we feel is the distress of our soul when we become poor, when we see we have no Savior, when we become palpably aware of our misery. We see our corruption on all sides and are really anxious because of it. Then afterward it happens as with patients who have reached the point of crisis; they watch for help, for someone who can help them out of their distress, and accept the first offer of aid without making an exact examination or investigation of the person who helps them. That is the way it went once with the woman whom the Savior healed. For twelve years she had gone to see all kinds of physicians and had endured much from them. And finally she came upon him too and said, If only I would touch that man’s clothes, it would help me; even if I could not get to the man himself, if I could only get hold of a bit of his garment, then I would be helped (Matt. 9:21).

    This is faith-in-distress. And here I can never wonder enough at the blindness and ignorance of those people who are supposed to handle the divine Word and convert men … who think that if they have them memorize the catechism or get a book of sermons into their heads or, at the most, present all sorts of well-reasoned demonstrations concerning the divine being and attributes, thus funneling the truths and knowledge into their heads, that this is the sovereign means to their conversion. But this is such a preposterous method that if one wanted to convert people that way, reciting demonstrations to them, then it is just as if one wanted to go against wind and current with full sails, or as if one, on the contrary, would run one’s boat into an inlet so that one could not find one’s way out again.

    painting of Jesus and Peter on the Water

    Gustave Brion, Jesus and Peter on the Water, 1863, oil on canvas.

    For that same knowledge of divine things which is taken to be faith, although it appears only, other things being equal, as an adjunct of faith, puffs up and nothing comes of it. And if one has all of that together, says Paul, and does not also have love, and even if one can preach about it to others, still it is nothing more than if a bell in the church rings. As little as the bell gets out of it, as little as it is benefited by the fact that it hangs there and rings, just so little does the fact that a teacher makes the most cogent demonstrations benefit him as far as his own salvation is concerned.

    But what results from this faith-in-distress, from this blind faith which one has out of love for one’s own salvation? What comes of a bold trust in the physician that he can and shall help, without knowing what his name is and who he is, without having known and seen him before, without having clearly sensed what sort and nature of man he is? Thankful love results from it, as long ago with Manoah and his wife, who so loved the man who came to them; they did not know him, though, for they said, “What is your name? We do not know you, but we love you. We should like to know who you are, that we may praise you when what you have said to us comes true” (Judg. 13:17).  So it is exactly with the faith-in-distress: it has to do completely with an unknown man, yet with a man of whom one’s heart says, “He likes to help, he likes to comfort, and he can and will help.” My heart tells me that it is he of whom I have heard in my youth, of whom I have heard on this or that occasion. They called him the Savior, the Son of God, the Lord Jesus, or however else one has heard him named and however anyone in anxiety and distress thinks of him. In short: “He must help me; oh, if he would only come to my aid! If he would only take my soul into his care, so that it would not perish! Kyrie Eleison! Lord have mercy!”

    What grace it is that the Creator, who knows his poor creature better than it knows itself, requires no other faith than faith-in-distress, the first faith.

    Now faith-in-distress has the infallible promise that one shall be helped; the man having faith-in-distress shall obtain grace. No one shall come in vain, no one ask in vain. This was the faith-in-distress of the thief on the cross: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom (Luke 23:42). I love you as an unknown Lord, of whom I know nothing, whom I have never known. But I hear now that you have a kingdom and that you are hanging here because you have said that you are a king. It may indeed be true; I believe you. Now when you come to the place where your kingdom is, do think of me, do remember me then!” The Lord instantly agreed: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Had the thief been so inclined in prison, then one doubt or another would probably still have developed in the meantime; but because the thief had no time, it went very well. With people who are healthy and prosperous, who can be distracted or deliberate in the interim, who can eat, drink, sleep, and go to work in the meantime, they will probably have second thoughts which will disturb their faith. Such disruptions do not consist in doubts whether there is a Savior, or whether this man could help, or whether the invisible Jesus of whom one has heard could rescue souls from their destruction. Rather, the question will really be whether he wants to help such a sinner, who is such a thoroughly miserable and wretched creature. Sin begins to dawn on one only after faith, after trust, after the yearning and longing for help, for rescue, when one has time for reflection, when the distress is not too pressing. When distress and aid do not succeed each other so quickly that one cannot think of anything in between, then doubt comes, saying, “I am too great a sinner.” But doubt is no sooner there, it is no sooner arisen, than it is really refuted by the actual forgiveness of sins: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2)….

    Peter experienced something of this. In the Savior’s affairs he was not just a natural, unconverted, unfamiliar man (which indeed is in itself sin enough), but rather he was a deliberate denier, what today is called a renegade. He would rather not know his Lord; he was ashamed of his Lord; he abjured his Lord three times. And a few days later his Lord came up and rose from the dead and was loved by those people who had followed him to death itself, by the women who had helped to place him into the grave and who came back at early dawn and looked for him out of love. “Ah,” says the Savior to them, “You dear children, I absolutely beg of you not to delay here with me, but go and tell my Peter that I am here again” (Mark 16:7).

    This must have been an astonishing message to Peter. Was this all his punishment, to be notified that his Lord is risen again? And if so, should he have been the very first who was comforted, whose heart was revived? Thus, when the Savior said to him afterwards, “Do you love me more than these do?” he said, “You know all things; you know how much I love you” (John 21:15ff.). And at that time he really did love him more than all the others. Before he had loved him in his imagination; he had honored him and out of esteem for him had rashly claimed to be ready to suffer death for him rather than forsake him. He did make a bold beginning, but he got stuck, because his love was dry and intellectual. But when the Savior forgave him everything, when he acquitted him of his sins, when he declared a renegade to be his apostle, then Peter could hold back no longer. If anyone said anything about his Lord to him, tears filled his eyes, and his body and soul were humbled. Already in the high priest’s palace the bare presentiment of the character of his Lord had made his eyes fountains of tears.…

    What grace, what patience and condescension it is, that the Creator, who knows his poor creature better than it knows itself, requires of it no other faith for being saved than the faith-in-distress, the first faith. When my anxiety, my sin, my corruption makes me believe, then I think, “He who appears before my heart, who has such a bloody appearance, who is said to have died for me, certainly it will be he. Yes! Yes! It is he! That makes me blessedly happy; that helps me into the eternal kingdom.” Whoever does not learn to believe this way, that is, whoever does not have so much misery, so much distress that he must believe, how can that person be helped? He is already judged for this very reason, because he does not feel misery enough to cause him gladly to believe.

    Faith is no great art; rather, the first beginning of faith, the very first faith is an effect of misery…. For even though a man is proud and egotistic in a merely human way and finally nevertheless does find in himself the fibers of his utter corruption and distress, his excuses cease, he begins to inveigh against himself, to condemn himself. And as soon as he does this, as soon as he discovers himself lost, then he is so full of anxiety that he does not have to create any for himself; he does not have to imagine any misery. And if this anxiety remains in him and increases and pushes its way into all his business, into his wellbeing, and he is forced to cry out for help, then he is in faith, in the faith-in-distress, in the midst of saving faith, and does not know himself how he got into it: “I believe it gladly because I delight in it.”

    Source: Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Nine Public Lectures on Important Subjects in Religion, trans. George Forell (Wipf and Stock, 1998). Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers,

    Contributed By NikolausVonZinzendorf Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf

    Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760) was a German theologian and a reformer of the German Pietist movement.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now