It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. (Psalm 119:71)
Psalm 119:71 speaks of experiential learning. We can learn God’s will for our character intellectually through reading and studying the Scriptures- and we should do that. That is where change begins, as our minds are renewed. But real change- down in the depths of our souls- is produced as the tenets of Scripture are worked out in real life. This usually involves adversity. We may admire and even desire the character trait of patience, but we will never learn patience until we have been treated unjustly and learn experientially to “suffer long”(the meaning of patience) the one who treats us unjustly.
If you stop and think about it, you’ll realize that most godly character traits can only be developed through adversity. The kind of love that gives freely of itself as great cost can only be learned when we are confronted with situations that call forth a sacrificial love. The fruit of the Spirit that is called joy cannot be learned in the midst of circumstances that produce mere “natural” happiness.
God in His infinite wisdom knows exactly what adversity we need to grow more and more into the likeness of His Son. He not only knows what we need but when we need it and how best to bring it to pass in our lives. He is the perfect teacher or coach. His discipline is always exactly suited for our needs. He never overtrains us by allowing too much adversity in our lives.
“We know that for those who love God all things [including our adversities] work together for good.(Romans 8:28) From this verse and the next, we see that the “good” God works for in our lives is conformity to the likeness of His Son. It is not necessarily comfort or happiness, but conformity to Christ in ever-increasing measure in this life and in its fullness in eternity.
The idea of a life without adversity is not a biblical expression. As a matter of fact, adversity has been and will be part of every human life in some form.
“33 I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have [perfect] peace. In the world you have tribulation and distress and suffering, but be courageous [be confident, be undaunted, be filled with joy]; I have overcome the world.” [My conquest is accomplished, My victory abiding.]”
These are the words of Jesus. It is not that we live as though under a cloud of despair but that we accept that adversity is part and parcel of live. Therefore when adversity comes we can face it with peace and confidence for we know that Christ has overcome all things and that adversity is temporary compared to the glory that waits us.
When the Israelites were brought out of Egypt, they experienced all manner of adversity. Surface readers might wonder why it was so. If God could deliver them from the power of Pharaoh why were they not kept from adversity. We might wonder why the God that delivered us from the power of sin and Satan would also not keep us from adversity.
As we read the story of the Israelites we discover the purpose of adversity is to remove Egypt from them. By this I mean that even though they had been physically brought out of Egypt, the desires and perceptions learned in Egypt was still in them. It becomes evident at the Red Sea. Though God had brought them out, as they faced the first adversity- the first test- their words indicate that their hearts were still in Egypt. Lest we be too critical of them, we must also confess that even after we are saved many times our hearts are still longing for the very things God delivered us from.
“As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up and saw the Egyptians marching after them, and they were very frightened; so the Israelites cried out to the Lord. Then they said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What is this that you have done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Did we not say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians [as slaves] than to die in the wilderness.”
Adversity’s purpose is to teach us to fully trust God for our complete deliverance. Like the Egyptians Satan does not release us easily and even after we are saved he pursues us wishing to bring us back into bondage again. So God allows adversity to expose our sinful desires, to bring us to the place in which we must choose to trust or not trust, and to destroy the things which held us in bondage.
Throughout the wilderness journey the Israelites faced adversity. Almost at each place of adversity, their unbelief and mistrust surfaced. When there was no water, they cried out against God and Moses. Yet God in the midst of their unbelief provided water. When there was no food they clamored for Moses’ life and rebelled against God. Yet God provided them manna. After a while they became tired of manna so God in His grace provided them quail. As we read through this story we find that for the Israelites, their response to adversity was tragic. Rather than putting their trust in the God who brought them out of Egypt, in the crisis they turned back to the gods of Egypt.
The Apostle Paul in the tenth chapter of 1 Corinthians gives us the lesson we should learn.
“For I do not want you to be unaware, believers, that our fathers were all under the cloud [in which God’s presence went before them] and they all passed [miraculously and safely] through the [Red] Sea; And all [of them] were baptized into Moses [into his safekeeping as their leader] in the cloud and in the sea; and all [of them] ate the same spiritual food; and all [of them] drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not well-pleased with most of them, for they were scattered along the ground in the wilderness [because their lack of self-control led to disobedience which led to death]. Now these things [the warnings and admonitions] took place as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did. Do not be worshipers of handmade gods, as some of them were; just as it is written [in Scripture], “ The people sat down to eat and drink [after sacrificing to the golden calf at Horeb], and stood up to play [indulging in immoral activities].” We must not indulge in [nor tolerate] sexual immorality, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand [suddenly] fell [dead] in a single day! We must not tempt the Lord [that is, test His patience, question His purpose or exploit His goodness], as some of them did—and they were killed by serpents. And do not murmur [in unwarranted discontent], as some of them did—and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example and warning [to us]; they were written for our instruction [to admonish and equip us], upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”
1 Corinthians 10:1-11
The lesson is that in adversity we must draw near to God, dig deeper in our faith and rely more on our trust in God. Like a ship in a storm, we must anchor deep lest adversity drives us into the rocks of defeat and despair.
The question then is why God allows adversity in our lives, especially if He loves us as the Bible say He does?
Sometimes it’s because we aren’t moving in the direction He has laid out for us. Remember that God is sovereign and that He orders the universe and us according to His plans and purposes. The New Testament church had received the command from God to spread the gospel throughout the world. After the Day of Pentecost, the church as Jerusalem began to grow to large gatherings. Because of their success they became content to continue staying in Jerusalem forgetting the commandment to carry the gospel to every land. So God allowed adversity. The Romans and the Jewish leaders instigated persecution for all Christians. Because of this persecution, Christians fled to other cities in other nations and where ever they went they established a house church and the purposes of God were carried out. Were it not for adversity, these believers would probably stayed in Jerusalem and the church would have dwindled away, but thankfully through adversity the gospel was spread throughout the world and we have become recipients of the blessing of adversity.
The Apostle Paul suffered adversity. Indeed it seems his life after conversion was adversity after adversity.
“To my shame, I must say, we have been too weak [in comparison to those pseudo-apostles who take advantage of you]. But in whatever anyone else dares to boast—I am speaking foolishly—I also dare to boast. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they [self-proclaimed] servants of Christ?—I am speaking as if I were out of my mind—I am more so [for I exceed them]; with far more labors, with far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, and often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent adrift on the sea; many times on journeys, [exposed to] danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own countrymen, danger from the Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger on the sea, danger among those posing as believers; in labor and hardship, often unable to sleep, in hunger and thirst, often [driven to] fasting [for lack of food], in cold and exposure [without adequate clothing]. Besides those external things, there is the daily [inescapable] pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel [his] weakness? Who is made to sin, and I am not on fire [with sorrow and concern]?
2 Corinthians 11:21-29”
We know that he was imprisoned in Rome where he was eventually executed for his faith and teachings of Christ. Yet God used him in adversity. Most of those wonderful books, letters that we read were written while he was in prison.
We could go on to speak of John on Patmos suffering adversity who, in the midst of his adversity has given us the wonderful book of Revelation that makes known to us that even when all hope seems lost we see God seated on the throne in full control.
I realize that these are troubled times and I do not wish to make light of any of the adversities we face. I also frankly confess that I have no solutions for any of these things and I doubt anyone has.
We could spend our time stressing over those thing which we have no control over. We are certainly disturbed with all that’s happening around us. We recognize that fear and anxiety seems to be the constant companions of many and their response is often that of anger, hatred and violence. Our question is how do we as believers respond to adversity. Let’s read again John 16: “I have told you these things that you might have perfect peace.” So Jesus is saying to us that in adversity we can have peace. In another place He says that it’s His peace and not the peace of the world that He gives. What is this peace that He’s referring to? How do we find this peace in the midst of adversity? This is the lesson the Israelites failed to learn. Peace does not come from circumstances. It does not only occur when the wind ceases and the waves are stilled. Peace comes when we become aware that God is with us. That was the message of the angel. “You shall call His name Emmanuel- God with us.”
There have been times in my life in the midst of adversity that I have found peace in the knowledge that help was on the way. I remember a time when I was caught in a snow storm on the way home. I finally got my car off the road and fortunately there was a pay phone nearby. As I made the call and heard my dad’s voice all my anxiety melted. I waited in peace because I knew he was on the way and I would get home safely. It was still snowing and the car was still stuck but I heard my dad’s voice and I knew everything was going to be alright.
This is the peace God has promised us in the midst of adversity. Often we ask the wrong questions. Much of our asking is centered around the “why” and most of the time we are disappointed for the answer to that question is rare. It what if we changed our question? What if instead of “why” is this happening that we were to ask God “how”? How, God can you use this adversity for my/ our good? How can this adversity bring You glory and further Your work on earth? I realize we probably will not be Paul and write books of the Bible but we could be the Jerusalem believers who start faith groups wherever we are with those around us in adversity who are seeking the peace that is being reflected from us.
There are two promises that I wish us to hold to:
Let your character [your moral essence, your inner nature] be free from the love of money [shun greed—be financially ethical], being content with what you have; for He has said, “ I will never [under any circumstances] desert you [nor give you up nor leave you without support, nor will I in any degree leave you helpless], nor will I forsake or let you down or relax My hold on you [assuredly not]!” So we take comfort and are encouraged and confidently say, “ The Lord is my Helper [in time of need], I will not be afraid. What will man do to me ?”
Now when Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they answered, “Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah, or [just] one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed), the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus answered him, “Blessed [happy, spiritually secure, favored by God] are you, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood (mortal man) did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades (death) will not overpower it [by preventing the resurrection of the Christ]. 19 I will give you the keys (authority) of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind [forbid, declare to be improper and unlawful] on earth will have [already] been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose [permit, declare lawful] on earth will have [already] been loosed in heaven.”
May we find peace and joy in our adversity, knowing that Christ is working greater things in our lives and in His kingdom.
Dr. John Thompson