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Facing Adversity...

Richard Pfeil
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Making Adversity Work for You

Text: James 1:2-4

Richard Pfeil

This morning I'd like to begin by sharing three stories with you about people who went through incredible adversity. See if you can identify them.

1. This child was born in Port Huron, MI, and was estimated to have an IQ of 81. He had withdrawn from school after three months and was considered backward by school officials. The child enrolled two years late due to scarlet fever and respiratory infections, and he was going deaf. His emotional health was poor. He was stubborn and aloof, showing very little emotion. He liked mechanics, and he liked to play with fire, burning down his father's barn. He showed some manual dexterity but used very poor grammar. However, he did want to be a scientist and a railroad mechanic.

Who was he? Thomas Edison, reputedly the greatest inventor of modern times.

2. By the age of 10, both of his parents had died. He was raised reluctantly by an older brother who resented another mouth to feed. His wife died after 13 years of marriage. Of 20 children from two marriages, ten of them passed away while still infants. One died in his 20's, and one was mentally deranged. Eventually, this outstanding musician went blind and was paralyzed with a stroke. Did this man forsake faith in God?

Who was he? Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest composer of religious music.

3. He dropped out of grade school and was home schooled. He ran a country store but went broke and it took 19 years to pay off all his bills, but he did pay them off. He had a law firm, but his partner ran off and left him with debts. He was married, but his marriage flopped. His wife came down with mental illness and paranoia. He had a son who was physically weak and died at a young age. He ran for political office four times, twice for the house and twice for the senate, and lost all four times. Ultimately, he held office but was despised by half the country. Satirists and newsmen derided him on an almost daily basis. Most audiences felt his speeches were hum-drum. His classic speech was met with indifference.

Who was he? Abraham Lincoln.

The interesting thing about all these men is the fact that they were all believers, they faced incredible adversity, and they all succeeded in life. Abraham Lincoln is known to be the greatest president up to this time. How is it that these believers faced down adversity and succeeded in life, and actually became the best in their given professions.

As believers, how can we face adversity and succeed? Rather than becoming defeated, the secret is in this wonderful book of James penned during a period of tremendous adversity. Peter Marshall describes the period like this:

"They were thrown into prison and made the cell a pulpit and the dungeon a choir. Stoned, they rose from the dust bleeding and bruised but with a more con-vincing testimony. Wounded with whips, they praised God all the more. Nothing could stop them. The Romans made human torches of believers to light the arenas on their holidays, yet in death these Christian martyrs made converts through their strange preaching. Hunted and persecuted, thrown to the lions, tortured and killed, still the numbers who made the sign of the cross grew and grew."

How did these early Christian believers facing adversity succeed and not become defeated? Hear the powerful words of James, pastor of the Jerusalem church:


There are three things we can learn from this text about facing adversity. One is realizing that periods of adversity, trial and suffering are a normal part of life. There are two words to emphasize in that sentence: "normal" meaning it is common, it is to be expected, it's what happens in this life; and "life" meaning adversity does not come from God. Verse 13 is included as a disclaimer, "When tempted, no one should say that God is tempting him." It's not God-it's simply life.

Jesus said that in this world you will have trouble. Did Jesus experience trials and adversity in his life? Did the apostles experience adversity in their lives? Yes, all of them were martyred. Isn't that the experience of humanity throughout history? Of all the people that you know, is there anyone who has not experienced adversity in their life? It is a common experience, and it is part of living in a fallen, imperfect world with imperfect people and our imperfect selves. It is normal, and it is life.

Pastor James says that "Whenever you face trials....." The fact is that you are going to face trials. James was an intensely strong believer. His faith was not shaken at all by the reality of trials. They did not cause him to deny God at all. James knows it's not God's fault. Yet so often God is the first person we blame when adversity comes. None of the disciples, in experiencing adversity far greater than we have ever experienced ourselves, none of them lost hope and faith in God.

It is silly to blame God. Think of Jesus on the cross. If God was really to blame for adversity, then God had cause to be mad at himself. What we hear from Jesus on the cross is a cry of anguish, a feeling of being alone, but he still had faith because he said, "Into your hands I commit my spirit."

A father took his daughter to the doctor's to get an injection knowing the experience would be painful as shots always are. The daughter knew her father loved her, but he was the one who brought her to her tormentors. Yet, with love in the father's heart, holding his daughter, she clung to him, receiving the painful shot. She cried, "Daddy, Daddy, no." Yet clinging to him nonetheless. This is a good posture for us to remember in adversity. We should always cling to the Father because he loves us and knows what's best for us.

One thing that trips us up when we experience hard times is that deep down, we don't expect them to happen. The first statement we made is, "I can't believe this is happening to me." So often we are caught off guard by financial down-turns and yet common sense tells us that in the history of our economy, there is a seven-year cycle of ups and downs. Throughout humanity, industries have come and gone, times change, and people need to prepare for this.

People are crushed by the loss of loved ones. It is okay to experience grief which is an expression of love, but it is not okay to be destroyed. History tells us that everyone dies. Billions of people have lived on this earth and died, and it is something that we need to prepare for.

Some people are confused by illness and the process of aging and the frailty that accompanies it. Yet, we all age. None of us ever grow younger.

What we need is a realistic expectation of life. We need to understand the accept the Biblical view that the world is fallen and we will experience adversity. May God give us the grace to accept it and to prepare ourselves to see adversity simply as hurdles in this life that we must jump over.

Another thing that trips people up about adversity is that we draw this parallel between life and God. Whatever happens in life is because of God. We ask, "Why, God, did you let this happen to me? God, where are you? Don't you care? Aren't you in control?" We misunderstand God's sovereignty as him being a puppet king. He is not this at all. He has divine oversight and sees all, but he does not control all. He knows everything. Life is real and dynamic. It is not determined. God's purposes are determined, but not every moment.

If you are going to get angry and point fingers, point at the right object, and that's life. Get angry at life, shake it up. This isn't God's best, this isn't his intention. Pray as the church prayed historically, "Come, Lord Jesus." Ask God, "Lord, what can I learn from these experiences? Give me your strength to endure. Help me to pray your will." It is important to pray God's will-pray for healing, pray for restoration, pray for redemption, but also pray for strength.

James says, "Consider it pure joy...." Now, that's an odd phrase. Literally, this means "Fix it in your mind that when you face adversity, you will respond with joy." Loosely translated, this means be happy, laugh, sing, dance. The image is of a person determined to stay positive, to be determined that adversity will not defeat them, and to believe the best. Decide in your heart that you will not be defeated, disillusioned, crushed or perplexed. Decide in your heart that you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. You do not need to fear the future because you know who holds the future in his hands. You need to know that God's purpose is to make you the head and not the tail. You know that he holds the keys to hell, death and the grave. You know that he is with you and that he loves you. As a result, consider it pure joy.

Joe Patino is the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, one of the best college coaches of all time. He learned the lesson about staying positive in the midst of adversity:

"In 1987 my son Daniel had been born six months early with congenital heart problems. He was hospitalized for months during which time my wife Joanne spent 14-hour days with him at the hospital seven days a week. Finally, Daniel's condition improved and we took him home. One day in March, I talked Joanne into taking a break and coming to New York with me for the Big East tournament. On the bus ride, a state trooper pulled us over and told me to make an urgent call to the hospital. The doctor told me that Daniel was dead.

Over the next few months, there was not much to our marriage or our family life. We had religious faith, but how would we ever be able to deal with something so traumatic? How could God do this to us? Well, I learned that God didn't do it to us-life did. There are simply parts of life that we can't understand. We knew we had to accept this and return to our lives. Joanne and I changed our attitude from pointless negativity to appreciation for the good we had. We turned our attention to our three sons and tried to do positive things in Daniel's name. We must force ourselves to appreciate the good still around us. Otherwise, the bad will ruin our lives."

Why joy? Because in the wisdom of God, beyond the fact that we have a God to call upon who is watching over us, it is the only emotion that will help us get through the adversity. Think of all the emotions that you could experience-anger, anxiety, depression, being stressed out, doubt, bearing all of life's burdens on your shoulders. None of them help you. They only deplete your energy and pull you farther down than you were before. Only joy will help you walk through adversity and make you successful in spite of it.

The text talks about learning patience from adversity. Another way to translate this would be endurance or staying power. Patience is what the trucker needed when he decided to drive around the barrier to save a few minutes. Because he lacked patience, he lost his life. Paul says that adversity brings character, and James concludes by saying adversity, if you allow it, will complete you and make you mature, strong, and iron-like. How? Because adversity is the gym of our interior selves. It is the only way we develop as a person.

We know how to develop physically. My wife and I have been talking about getting in shape again, and we have been looking at the Total Gym or the Bowflex. One thing is true about any type of exercise equipment-the only way you can get strong and fit is through resistance. Just as resistance is health to our body, adversity is the gym that develops the person's character itself. It is not popular to say this because in our culture we have learned that adversity is something to avoid. Even as Christians we often try to pray away adversity in our lives.

I remember driving into Pittsburgh early one morning to go to surgery. I got up a little later than I intended and I'm buzzing down the highway. Why is it that when you are most in need of some speed, there is always someone slow in front of you? There was no way to get around the person in front of me. The longer I drove, the more I wanted to shout at the person in front of me to go faster but it didn't happen. A few miles down the road, you begin to say, "God, you know I have to get to the hospital. You know I have to be there for surgery. Do something! Don't you care?" A few more miles down the road, you fall into despair and you think, "I'm not going to get there in time. I might as well pack my bags. I'm in trouble now." Then after a few more miles, you finally become humble and says things like, "God, please. I'm begging you to remove them. Make them turn at the next exit." But God never did because he wanted me in that situation. At that moment, he wanted to teach me to be patient. Somewhere later in my life, I will need to have patience.

When we pray ourselves out of adversity, we are praying ourselves out of God's gym. God wants to develop some things in our life because he knows that down the road we are going to need these things to survive. Don't so quickly pray yourself out of adversity. It may be God's workshop to build into you something that you will need later on.

Larry King hosted Joni Erickson Tada, who I think more than any of us has experienced adversity in her life. Larry asked her where was God in the events of September 11. Here's her response:

"Where was God? That's a question I can identify with. Like I told my friend Steve at the time of my diving accident when I broke my neck, I felt that God had turned his back on me. I was only 17 years old and I imagined that God had become distracted by the prayers of people with cancer, diabetes or divorce. Where in the world was she? After 35 years living as a quadriplegic, I learned that God permits what he hates in order to accomplish those things that he loves. If evil men perpetuate evil crimes, God admits this under restraint and channels it in such a way as to promote his good and his gospel. Lamentations 3: 21-23 expresses this well:

"This I call to mind and therefore I have hope:

Through the Lord's mercies, we are not consumed

Because his compassions fail not. They are new every

Morning. Great is his faithfulness."

Sometimes the reasons for what he allows are hidden from our sight, but what we do know is that he loves to redeem and reclaim and rescue and save those who turn to him in need. You see, I need him now more than I did the day of my accident, and maybe that's not such a bad thing."

Don't short-cut God when you experience adversity. Ask him, "Lord, what do you want to teach me?" Use it as an opportunity to grow. Do as Charles

Darrow and his wife did who themselves suffered tremendous adversity. They accepted adversity as part of life and refused to allow it to steal their joy. They worked through it, and God helped them. They learned through this situation, and they kept laughing.

Back in 1932 was out of a job and broke, and his wife was expecting a baby. Although he was a heating engineer, there were no jobs available and Darrow and his wife were just barely subsisting on the few odd jobs he could get as a handyman. Things were bleak. Fate didn't reckon with the courage of this man and his wife, however. They laughed at it, literally. In the evenings, to take their minds off their troubles, they made a little game in which they could pretend they were millionaires, recalling pleasant vacations in nearby Atlantic City. They reconstructed the area adjoining the boardwalk. Darrow carved hotels and houses out of small pieces of wood, and they called the game Monopoly. Three years later, in 1935 the game was marketed by Parker Brothers, and Darrow and his wife became millionaires because they allowed adversity to make them instead of break them.

When you face adversity, are you going to allow it to break you or make you? It's your choice.

Let's pray.





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