Great Themes of the Bible (#19-Adversity)

"We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. . . . Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all."

One of the most arresting photographs I've ever seen came about when Julie and Alex Armas agreed to permit a photographer for USA Today into an operating room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center here in Nashville. The date was August 19, 1999, and Mr. and Mrs. Armas had agreed to allow surgery on their 21-week-old son. And you should understand that the 21 weeks were from the time of their son's conception, not his birth.

The surgery was to be performed in utero. Infant Armas had been found to have spina bifida, which had left part of his spinal cord exposed after the backbone had failed to develop properly. The surgery was designed to close the gap and protect the baby's fragile spinal cord.

The operation was performed through a tiny slit made in the wall of Mrs. Armas' womb. The thing that proved so amazing about the photography sequence that emerged from that operating room is that Samuel Alexander Armas still not viable outside his mother's womb surprised everyone with a reflex movement that not only extended his arm from the cramped quarters hosting his imperfect body but grasped the finger of Dr. Joseph Bruner. I suppose we could say that Samuel was "hanging on for dear life" to the surgeon's hand.

That photo forces me to think of our situation with the Creator God of Heaven and Earth. From our fragile environment and with all the defects of our faith, you and I reach out for God and try to hang on for dear life by means of a grasp called faith.
Paul's Statement

Although you and I think of Paul in terms of his apostleship and centuries of honor for his role in the early church, the words of our text today were spoken in a defensive tone. Paul's mission at Corinth had been under fire from some harsh critics. The criticism was severe enough that he had been tempted to "lose heart" (2 Cor. 4:1). He was determined, however, to fulfill his ministry and not to dishonor the trust God had given him. By means of a faith-grasp on God's hand, he had resolved that nothing would make him relinquish that hold.

One thing is undeniable about Jesus: He was brutally honest about his call to discipleship. He drew people with the warning that their eventual triumph and joy in following him would come through hardship, danger, and perhaps even death. "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," he told them. "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me" (Matt. 5:10-11).

Maybe Jesus understood one of the things about human nature that we occasionally discover for ourselves: Few people are motivated to do their best in a cushy, unchallenging job. I have had several friends quit jobs with good salaries because of the lack of challenge. Few things in life are more insulting to some of us than to be offered an easy job, a job just anybody could perform. Work without challenge offers no sense of joy in accomplishment.

But forget ordinary work and careers for a minute. Does anyone seriously think she could join God Almighty in doing something and not be stretched to her limits? How can we participate with God in anything and not be challenged? How could we participate in his holiness within a cosmos in rebellion against him and not be put at risk?
Paul's Experience

Paul's personal experience in following Christ had certainly lived up to its advance billing. He had indeed been "persecuted because of righteousness," endured repeated vile "insult," and had people "falsely say all kinds of evil" about him because of his commitment to Jesus of Nazareth.

Later in this same epistle, Paul with an obvious sense of embarrassment for having to cite such things in order to answer the slander of his opponents gave a list of things he had been forced to endure over the course of his ministry:

Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Cor. 11:25-29).
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience," said Martin Luther King Jr., "but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." If that sentiment is correct, Paul comes off well. He was a mature Christian. He understood that his faith would not exempt him from adversity. Or, to quote Augustine: "God had one son on Earth without sin, but he has never had one without suffering."

But you and I live at a different time and with a different mind set. The sentiment most of us carry is that adversity in our experience somehow contradicts the doctrine of the love of God. But it is shallow thinking and flawed faith that would measure the degree of God's love by the comfort of our earthly situation.

Why God Allows Adversity

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that I don't whine when things are less than easy for me. I'm not claiming that I've reached the point that I can always be mature about the little difficulty or occasional harassment I face. But I know God well enough that I know he will never allow anything to happen to me that is greater than I can bear (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13) or that he cannot turn into a blessing and victory (cf. Rom. 8:28). So my goal is not to whine, not to question his love, not to set a poor example before anyone who is watching.

Someone as mature as Dietrich Bonhoeffer could write this in a letter to his twin sister, Sabine:
It is good to learn early enough that suffering and God are not a contradiction but rather a unity, for the idea that God himself is suffering is one that has always been one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity. I think God is nearer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this way gives peace and rest and a strong and courageous heart.
Someone still struggling as I am to figure out why good people suffer while wicked ones prosper or why our environment in the natural world includes not only beautiful sunsets but cancer and grinding accidents has to go at it in smaller bites. Even so, I think I have seen enough to know that we would all be pretty calloused to one another without such things. If faith gave a free pass from suffering, I know how healthy people would look at sick ones. They'd be just as self-righteous and insensitive as Job's three healthy friends were when he was writhing in pain from his sickness.

I think I understand enough about how the universe operates under divine control to know that God allows adversity into our experience to get our attention and to deliver us from our pride and self-centeredness. Suffering can teach us how much we need God and enable us to feel his strength in our weakness. It can teach us compassion toward others and enable us to comfort others when their time of testing shows up.

We are, after all, living in a sin-cursed environment rather than heaven. How dare we expect this to be that, here to be there! How dare we think we can create the environment of reward on the field of testing!

Here is a translation I appreciate of a text that is critical to this matter of adversity:

In this all-out match against sin, others have suffered far worse than you, to say nothing of what Jesus went through all that bloodshed! So don't feel sorry for yourselves. Or have you forgotten how good parents treat children, and that God regards you as his children?

"My dear child, don't shrug off God's discipline,
but don't be crushed by it either.
It's the child he loves that he disciplines;
the child he embraces, he also corrects."
God is educating you; that's why you must never drop out. He's treating you as dear children. This trouble you're in isn't punishment; it's training, the normal experience of children. Only irresponsible parents leave children to fend for themselves. Would you prefer an irresponsible God? We respect our own parents for training and not spoiling us, so why not embrace God's training so we can truly live? While we were children, our parents did what seemed best to them. But God is doing what is best for us, training us to live God's holy best. At the time, discipline isn't much fun. It always feels like it's going against the grain. Later, of course, it pays off handsomely, for it's the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God (Heb. 12:4-11, The Message).

Did you read the reports of what happened in the experimental environment of Biosphere 2? It's that giant greenhouse outside Tucson, Arizona, where various ecosystems were duplicated for intense scientific study. Such things as a rain forest, a desert, and even an ocean were synthesized. Almost every atmospheric condition but one could be created. There was no significant wind.

The lack of wind inside Biosphere 2 meant that the layers of strong fiber trees grow in a natural environment never developed. Without that stress, the trees were so weak they could not support their weight for long. Without the winds that blew them almost to the breaking-point, they didn't develop the strength necessary to support their own branches and leaves. Just like us, they needed challenge to grow strong. "That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong," said Paul (2 Cor. 12:10).

Oh, by the way. Remember tiny Samuel Alexander Armas whom I mentioned in the introduction to this lesson? He'll soon be a year old. He was born at 6:25 p.m. on December 2, 1999, and is doing well. It's too early to know for sure that he will walk, but he is moving his legs very well and is being monitored regularly.

He'll have the normal challenges every kid faces growing up, and some of those challenges will relate to the spina bifida for which he underwent dramatic in-utero surgery. But the Armases who had suffered through two miscarriages before little Samuel's conception, surgery, and birth are thrilled with their son. "The details of his limitations become insignificant," said his father, "and that's the understatement of the year."

Your father loves you that way too. And whatever scars or defects your life exhibits now will be insignificant someday. "That's why I don't think there's any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times" (Rom. 8:18, The Message). Looking back from heaven with him, you'll be glad you grasped and held onto your Father's strong hand.

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