The following lesson is #11 from our fifty two week series and should give you a taste for what the series offers.
Understanding and Handling Adversity
Scripture: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4
Quote “For a long time it has seemed to me that life was about to begin — real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”
“How can a loving God allow people to suffer?” You often times hear this when a natural disaster, or the act of an evil individual results in destruction and death in the lives of seemingly innocent people. It is important to understand that this question demonstrates a secular viewpoint; one unaware of the place of human history in an eternal perspective. As the Genesis story tells us, starting with Adam and Eve, we all live in a fallen world, where human willfulness and disobedience disrupted the harmony we once shared with God and his perfection. Because of this condition, Genesis 3:17-19 tells us:
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
From this moment in time the world was thrown into a state of decay and decline. Adversity (definition: a condition marked by misfortune, calamity, or distress) became the status quo for both man and nature. As I heard a preacher once say: “you are either in a crisis, coming out of a crisis, or heading into a crisis”. How encouraging! However, once we understand that adversity and failure have been, since the Fall of Adam, a man’s lifelong and daily companions; we have a better chance of learning how God intends for us to use these confrontations to our advantage.
So what can possibly be good about hard times and the challenges they bring? Let’s look at three aspects of adversity in our lives.
1. Adversity builds our faith by helping us to seek God, and to understand why we need Him.
It has been said that men learn more from their failures than from their successes. How true. When you win, you assume you’ve ‘got it right’. Maybe, and maybe not. When you don’t succeed, your faults are a little more obvious. When we endure hard times, and failures, we have the chance to learn humility, and hopefully, to see our imperfections a little more clearly.
This is our chance to ask our Creator for insight, knowing that he will guide us in understanding what went wrong, and how best to correct for it. James 1:5 promises: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (NIV)
2. Whether it is for a day, or for an even longer season of our life, life’s hardships are temporary.
Although when its happening, and the depth of our heartache, shame or pain seems endless, we know from even our human experience that eventually we will come through “to the other side”. When we use our ‘spiritual eyes’ to see our circumstances from an eternal perspective, we have the opportunity to recognize God’s hand in preparing us for the next chapter in what is a journey with an eternal calendar. I Peter 6-8 reminds us: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a short while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ”.
3. Adversity molds us to become all that God intends for us to be, and prepares us for our life mission
Have you ever gone out for a sport, learned an instrument or a new language, or started a new job? Each of them had an ideal of performance, one that seemed far away from where we started. But with practice, and lessons learned, one eventually gains the satisfaction of competence, and hopefully excellence as well. But unlike any of these limited examples, you were created to have a unique, one of a kind mission and destiny. Although God has the original “blueprint of you” and sees the Master Plan in its entirety; we must walk it through one step at a time. It can be hard, and the difficulty may not make sense at the time. I remember a high school cross country work out with 24 quarter mile repeats. Run a 440, jog 110 yards, and repeat…times 23. Most of us were bent over and calling dinosaurs before it was over. I was thinking what others were asking: “Coach, 24 X 440 yards (six miles total) is twice the length of our usual race, what’s with this?” But later that season our team members could surge toward the finish in the final few hundred yards in a way that would amaze our opponents, and even more so, ourselves. What seemed to be short term adversity paid great dividends. Sometimes God allows, or even directs tough or unfair life events so that we can learn from them and rise above, becoming more than what we had thought possible.
Ask yourself: what is God’s plan in this event, and what do I need to learn about myself in the process?
While many have suffered unfair and seemingly overwhelming trials, the story of a successful Chicago lawyer and real estate investor of the 1870’s era demonstrates how God can give peace and personal growth in the midst of heart breaking adversity. In 1869 Howard Spafford seemed to have it all: professional achievement, financial prosperity, and a happy marriage, with five beautiful children. However, over 36 months things fell apart, big time. In 1870 the Spaffords’ only son died of scarlet fever at the age of four. The following year his significant real estate investments on the shores of Lake Michigan were entirely wiped out by the great Chicago Fire. And in 1873 while traveling to Europe, the Ville de Havre, on which his wife Anna and their four daughters were sailing, collided with the Lochearn, an English vessel. It sank in only 12 minutes, claiming the lives of 226 people, including Spafford’s daughters. Anna was only saved from the fate of her daughters by a plank which floated beneath her unconscious body and propped her up.
Horatio received the tragic news in a telegram from Anna that read: “Saved alone. What shall I do?” He immediately boarded the next ship out of New York to join his bereaved wife. During the voyage, the captain of the ship had called him to the bridge. “A careful reckoning has been made”, he said, “and I believe we are now passing the place where the de Havre was wrecked. The water here is three miles deep.” Horatio looked over the now placid waves, and thought about the collision, the fiery explosion, the screams of the passengers; and how his daughters had suffered and died, right on that very spot. He then returned to his cabin and through his pain he penned the lyrics of his great hymn: “It is Well with my Soul”, which includes the lines:
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
The words which Spafford wrote that day come from 2 Kings 4:26. They echo the response of the Shunammite woman to the sudden death of her only child. Though we are told “her soul is vexed within her”, she still maintained that ‘It is well." And Spafford’s hymn as well revealed a man whose trust in the Lord, despite his pain and adversity, was as unwavering as the Biblical example he quoted. It also reminds me of Job in the Old Testament, who despite losing everything but his very life, still said “Though he kills me, I will yet trust in Him…” Job 13:15
The Spaffords later had three more children and in 1881 moved to Jerusalem. There they helped to found a group called the American Colony; whose mission was to serve the poor. During and immediately after World War I, the American Colony carried out philanthropic work to alleviate the suffering of the local inhabitants by opening soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages and other charitable ventures. This colony later became the subject of the Nobel prize winning novel “Jerusalem”, by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf. Even today, the Spafford Children’s Center, founded by Horatio Spafford’s daughter Bertha, provides healthcare for some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. God not only brought Horatio Spafford through his time of deep despair, but also enabled him to begin a charitable work that continues on to this very day.
To close with the verse that opens this lesson, Horatio Spaffords's story reminds us why James 1:4 instructs us to "let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." (NIV). While adversity in our lives originates from man's fall from grace-as well as our own unwise choices, it is also an invaluable tool that God uses to mature us, and to shape us for His service.
Questions for discussion:
-What is a recent difficult event in your life that ended up being for your good?
-What about events that don’t seem to have any obvious good to them? Think of a personal example. How can we best handle those situations?
(Father’s insight) Sometimes it's not what happens after that’s good, but what we learn from it. Maybe its what not to do next time. Almost always we can gain insight to faults or attitudes that need changing. Adversity can teach use a greater degree of concern, compassion, faith or forgiveness that we won’t get from everyday events. And through it all, learning to trust God that he will use even the hard times we encounter for His glory and our growth.
-What is an example of adversity from you have seen in a friend, your church or your extended family that ended up bringing out a positive result?
Thoughts for next week:
1. How have life events, difficult or not, been preparing you for what you think your life mission may be:
-5 years from now?
-20 years from now?
2. They say that ‘prevention is the best medicine’. What area of improved self-discipline for you might help you to head off a predictable future source of adversity in your life?
(examples: anger-controlling one's temper, procrastination, envy, pride, obedience, being teachable)
Philippians 4:12-13 “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
2 Corinthians 12:9 “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
1 Peter 5:10 “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
Romans 8:28 “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
2 Chronicles 15:7 “But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.”
James 1:2-4 “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
1 Peter 4:12-13 “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
“There is no education like adversity”. – Benjamin Disraeli
“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” -William Arthur Ward
“If the road is easy, you’re likely going the wrong way.” -Terry Goodkind
“Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” -African Proverb
“Adversity introduces a man to himself.” -Albert Einstein
“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional” -Zen aphorism
“Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.” -Jerry Rice, NFL receiver and possible the best pro football player, ever.
“We are built to conquer environment, solve problems, achieve goals, and we find no real satisfaction or happiness in life without obstacles to conquer and goals to achieve.” -Maxwell Maltz
“Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.” William E. Channing (1780-1842), Unitarian minister and reformer
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, It is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” -L.P. Sanadhya