Training Session 30: (Practical Necessities) The Gift of Adversity

Objective

Learn to see adversity as a gift that, when coupled with faith, is guaranteed to form the character of Christ in us

Key Texts

Rms. 5:3-5; 1 Peter 1:7; John 15:2

Introduction 

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, grew up occasionally going to a Lutheran church. In 1968, at the age of 13, Jobs came across a pair of starving children in Biafra on the cover of Life magazine.  Deeply troubled, he took the magazine to church in search for answers.  He asked his pastor two questions:

If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I do it?  The pastor responded, “Yes, God knows everything.”  Jobs then pulled out the Life cover and asked, “Well, does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?”  “Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.”  Jobs announced that he didn’t want to have anything to do with worshipping such a God, and he never went back to church.”[1]

Adversity created intense questions for Steve Jobs, as it does for all us.  He wanted real answers that could withstand the real adversity we all encounter in the real world.  Patronizing pastors and trite clichés didn’t work for Steve Jobs, nor will they ultimately withstand the level of adversity we all will inevitably face.

For this much we know, adversity is coming our way.  As the old adage goes, we’re all either coming out of adversity, facing adversity, or heading into adversity.  Hard things, hard questions, and hard times are coming our way, which means preparing ourselves to handle adversity is a must.  Today, we’re going to explore how God calls us to handle adversity.  Rather than dreading adversity or wishing it away, we’re going to explore the gifts that adversity can bring to all of our lives if we handle it with God’s principles. That’s a big if, so let’s explore God’s principles for handling adversity (this week and next), principles that have the potential to reshape adversity into a transformative gift in all of our lives.

Principle #1: Adversity’s Gift of Guaranteed Character of Formation

If we have the courage to flip on the switch of faith when facing adversity, and again that is a big IF, then we will be ushered into God’s factory of character formation.  Factory?  Yes, factory.  God is building something glorious called his kingdom, so think of him as a business owner with a factory who is reshaping us and the world according to His plans.  In fact, we are God’s masterpiece (Eph. 2:10), and the Master has guaranteed us that He will use every ounce of adversity we face as colorful brushstrokes on the masterpiece of our lives, not wasting a single drop of adversity.

Adversity’s Chain of Causation

Where?  Where has he guaranteed us that He will shape our character through adversity?  In several places, but Romans 5:3-5 is a good place to begin because it speaks about a form of adversity known as suffering.  God says, “We glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” In these verses, God lays out what lawyers call a chain of causation, which is a chain of events where one event causes the next. The chain looks like this….

Suffering–>perseverance–>character–>hope

The catalyst, the spark plug, in God’s chain of causation is suffering, meaning that the very thing we all crave (hope) begins with the very thing we all dread (suffering). As a result, he tells us to do something almost none of us ever do: glory in our sufferings.   I’ve been around a few rare birds in my lifetime who learned the skill of glorying in their sufferings and you may have as well.  In the midst of deep darkness, these unicorns gloried in God, knowing that God was up to something deep and powerful in their life, even (especially?) if they couldn’t see it.

What they knew, and what is available for us to know and experience, is that God forges our character in the fire of adversity.  He melds hope into the essence of who we are, and He does so in the midst of the fire.  So as the fires heat up, trust the factory owner knows what he’s doing.  He’s forging hope in us, if.  If we switch on the light of faith to trust Him.  It’s a big if!

Adversity is the Refiner’s Fire

God illustrates this chain of causation with two metaphors elsewhere in the Bible.  The first metaphor we’ve already alluded to is that of a goldsmith forging gold in a refiner’s fire.  In 1 Peter 1:7 He states, “These (trials/adversity) have come that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus is revealed.” Adversity, we see, provides the heat, what has been called the refiner’s fire, providing the heavenly goldsmith the environment he needs to purge all that is not of value from of our lives so that the things of value remain.

What remains after the gold (i.e. our lives) is heated up in the refiner’s fire?  Faith!  Faith perseveres through the fire and results in praise, glory and honor as Jesus is being revealed in our lives.  The old self is being burned up, making space for our shiny new self, one far more capable of reflecting the majesty of Jesus.  His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are now far more visible because of the fire.

Like Job (who faced extraordinary adversity), we will be able to say, “When he has tested me, I will come out as gold” (Job 23:10).   It’s not if we come out, it’s when we come out.  Guaranteed.  Take it to the bank.  We will come out better, as gold, refined in the fire.  Refined, polished, shiny, and made new, without all the old dregs of our lives.  Adversity, when mixed with a persevering faith, transforms us “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).  Like glorious, hot, flaky biscuits rising in the heat of an oven, we rise up from one degree of glory to another.   Turn the heat on, and the biscuits will rise!

Herein lies an essential difference between a secular approach to adversity and God’s approach to handling adversity. When you take God and faith out of the equation, you lose God’s guarantee that He will work it for good in your life (Rms. 8:28).  Without faith, character formation is not guaranteed. Nietzsche famously said, “what does not kill me makes me stronger,” but he lied.

Well, maybe not in all cases.  Science confirms that Nietzsche was right in the majority of cases. For instance, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte show that as many as 89% of survivors of traumatic incidents report at least one aspect of posttraumatic growth (PTG), such as appreciation for life.[2]  11%, however, report absolutely nothing beneficial about their adversity.  That means 11% of people would say Nietzsche was dead wrong.  They may not be dead, but they sure don’t feel stronger or better in any way because of the adversity they faced.  You can probably think of someone in your life who didn’t die or get stronger when they faced adversity—they simply became more bitter, jaded, and disillusioned.

Not so with faith.  Faith is the game-changer.  Faith connects us to God’s sovereignty, to his supernatural power over adversity, providing us with a guarantee that He will work adversity for our good, even if we can’t feel it or see it.  This kind of certainty in the outcome of adversity (that we will come out like gold!) transforms our perspective as we walk through adversity.

Phillip Yancey tells a story about Allied soldiers in a German prison camp in World War II that illustrates the power of knowing the outcome when facing adversity.  As the days wore on in the concentration camp and despair settled in, many of the soldiers began to question whether they would make it out to see their families.  Then one day everything changed.  The POW’s received news, on a hidden, makeshift radio–the German high command had surrendered!  The war was over!  Cheers broke out up and down the barracks.  It was as if their team had just scored the game-clinching touchdown in the Super Bowl.

On the surface, life in the barracks went on as usual for the German guards because the outcome had yet to trickle down to the rank and file soldiers.  For three days, there was little difference in the behavior of the guards, but there was a massive difference in the behavior of the POWs. The POWs merrily sang songs, waved at guards, told jokes over meals, and even waved at the snarling German shepherds on patrol.  What changed their behavior?  What shifted their perspective? News of the outcome.  News of a sure and certain future changed everything.

Remember the rare birds we talked about earlier who gloried and rejoiced in the adversity.  One thing I have observed to be true in all of them is that these people, much like the Allied soldiers, joyfully carry with them good news.  Regardless of their current adversity, they know its outcome.  And they celebrate, constantly.  Humbly, but boldly, they say, “I know the outcome of my adversity because I know the outcome of the Resurrection.  My faith is in Christ and His Resurrection, and He won’t fail.  He never does.  If he beat sin and death, He can and He will beat what I am facing.  I will come through this adversity far better than I went into it because I’m in the palm of His hand and he will see me through. If I die, He will transform even the worst-case scenario of my death into the best-case scenario of my resurrection, welcoming me into the life my heart has always longed for.  For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21).”

Adversity is Pruning for Greater Growth

So we see that knowing and rejoicing in the outcome of our adversity can make a world of difference as we face adversity. Now, let’s reinforce this same principle using a different metaphor, one from agriculture.  In this metaphor, God is a master gardener, not a goldsmith, who prunes and cuts back branches through adversity “so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2).  Pruning, or cutting back, hurts.  Adversity is hard, but the master gardener has a very specific purpose to the pain, to make us even more fruitful, which is why Paul could say, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rms. 8:18).  There is a purpose to the pain, even if we can’t discern it.  Our present sufferings, our adversity, are doing something profound in us, and God, along with all of creation, are standing on tip toe to see the results.

Joni Eareckson Tada described how God pruned her for more fruit through the adversity she has faced in her life.  At the age of 18, Joni misjudged the depth of the murky waters of the Chesapeake Bay and dove in head-first. She came out a quadriplegic.  In her autobiography Joni, she described the anger, depression and suicidal thoughts that emerged for years until faith, over time, changed things…

Somewhere after my first decade in my wheelchair, I hit a big milestone. I began to feel thankful for the changes in my life. For me, it was so new and hopeful. I could honestly begin to see…I was becoming more like Christ. I realized that hardships were forcing me to make decisions about God – my faith was becoming more muscular. I could see that suffering was doing a job on my character. I was able to stick to promises, not be sloppy in relationships, I wasn’t whining so much, and I could honestly tell I was more patient…Also, suffering was making me more sensitive to others. Before I couldn’t have cared less about people like me – disabled people –but now it was a different story. Being paralyzed gave me a special empathy for other wheelchair-users; for other people who were hurt in accidents or illnesses. It is wonderful to be able to examine your heart and your character and see that, yes, yes, I am changing; I’m being transformed from glory to glory like it says in Second Corinthians 3.[3]

Shortly after her accident, Joni took what little faith she had and put it in Jesus and over time it became a far more mature, muscular faith.  A decade later, as she looked in the rearview mirror, she was a different person, more trustworthy, less whiny, more patient and empathetic, more loving toward the most marginalized.

Friends, hear the good news today.  The adversity you are going through, if coupled with faith, will make you better, not bitter.  When you switch on the light of faith in the darkness of adversity, you will see that your “light and momentary troubles are achieving for you a glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor.  4:17).  Today, switch on the light of faith and trust that through your adversity God is transforming you into a far more glorious version of you than you ever would have asked for or even imagined!  Trust that the thorns in the flesh are there for a purpose, to make us deeply reliant on God, hopefully humble, and supremely confident in the all-sufficient grace of God (2 Cor. 12:7-9) as we walk through adversity.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Read Romans 5:3-5. How have you seen this chain of causation (from suffering to hope) happen in your life through adversity?
  2. Read 1 Peter 1:7. According to this text, how is the fire of adversity a gift?
  3. Describe one thing that wasn’t of value that was stripped from your life through the fire of adversity and/or one way you became a better reflection of Jesus through the fire adversity.
  4. Read John 15:2, Romans 8:18. Discuss the illustrations of Allied Soldiers and Joni Eareckson Tada’s life.  How does knowing the outcome of how Jesus handled the adversity of the cross affect you in your present adversity

Going Deeper (Suggestions by Author & Pastor Tim Keller)

It’s hard to pick five so here are six.

Gerald Sittser’s A Grace Disguised.

Tim Keller’s Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering

Peter Kreeft’s Making Sense Out of Suffering

Philip Yancey’s Where is God When it Hurts

C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed

Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I’ve loved)

If you feel like you’ve read everything on this topic and still aren’t satisfied, then wade through Eleonore Stump’s Wandering in Darkness.

Endnotes

[1] Steve Jobs: A Biography Michael B. Becraft, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2016, pg. 9.

[2]  Tedeshi, R.G., & Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundation and Empirical Evidence. Philadelphia, PA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[3] [1] https://www.joniandfriends.org/good-reasons-2/

Stephen Phelan

Stephen Phelan is a beloved son of God, husband to Bradford, dad of 4, crazy about his family in Alabama and former church family in San Diego, pastor of a mortgage company (what???), and joyfully astonished by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit.

View all posts by Stephen Phelan