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Archive for Adversity

Oct
18

The Lord is My Comforting Presence

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The 23rd Psalm begins with warm tones and rich images. David has taken a brush and palette and painted a beautiful scene including green meadows and calm pools of water. It is pastoral and tranquil; the kind of place one would desire as a respite. But the landscape changes in verse four, where the contour shifts from peaceful to ominous.

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

This is an interesting selection of words that merits a brief description. In Bible times, shepherds would move their flocks from pasture to pasture to keep them from over taxing a particular field. This transition was not just part and parcel to the daily feeding of the flock. It also involved seasonal shifts. Flocks were moved to adjacent fields in season. They were also moved to higher or lower altitudes to accommodate the change of seasons. During these season changes, a shepherd may have to lead his sheep through a valley. The valleys of Palestine that David references are not like the valleys of the Midwest. The paths leading down into those valleys would be steep and rocky. The base of the valley would be bordered by steep, rocky cliffs. Those rock formations could possibly contain wild animals, bandits, snakes, or poisonous weeds. Danger lurked behind every cleft and boulder. Because of the steep walls, little direct sunlight would touch the valley floor. Even in daylight, vision was less than optimal. Shadows would appear, shifting with the movement of the sun. Because the Hebrew language has no device for superlatives (e.g. good, better, best), the words have a poetic ring. In English we would say that the valley was filled with the darkest shadows. But David could only write of “the shadow of shadows.” Or, as we know it in English, “the shadow of death.”

What can we take away from this verse regarding the valleys that are dark and filled with frightening shadows?

First, I believe its important to note that adversity, regardless of the size or scope, is temporary. I love David’s hopeful optimism as he declares that he’s passing THROUGH the valley. He doesn’t believe his experience will be permanent. Sometimes when we face adversity, or even the mere threat of loss or pain, we feel as though there is no end and that we have little if any hope. Our adversity, whatever it may be, is temporary. How can David be so confident that there is a limit to his suffering? After all, each of us knows of someone who faced a challenge that lasted up to the point of death. I believe David viewed his adversity as a temporary condition versus a permanent state because he viewed it through the lens of eternity. Paul would agree with such sentiment. In 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul described his suffering as a “light and momentary affliction compare to the surpassing weight of God’s glory.” In other words, Paul knew that death was not the final experience of life. What ever he faced was temporary because he had all of eternity beyond the end of his physical existence. So do we. Our adversity is temporary. Remember, it takes two mountains to make a valley!

Second, Psalm 23:4 reminds us of God’s comforting presence with us during our moments of adversity. I think its important to observe the change of pronouns in this verse. Up to verse 4, David spoke about God. “He makes me lie down.” “He leads.” “He guides.” But in verse 4 David spoke directly to God. “You are with me.” God’s position has also changed from one who goes before as a guide to one who walks beside as an escort.

I recently read about a psychologist from a major university who did a study on pain tolerance. He discovered that a person could keep their bare foot in a bucket of ice twice as long with a person in the room as the person who had their foot in the bucket of ice in isolation.

So what valley are you facing?
A valley of death?
A valley of disease?
A valley of debt?
A valley of divorce?
A valley of doubt?
A valley of discouragement?
A valley of depression?
No matter what your valley is, you do not walk through it alone. God is with you. Our challenge as persons of faith is not to find the courage to face our adversity. Our challenge is to find the courage to trust God.

Trusting God always does more to eliminate fear that trumped up courage. I’ve said in previous posts that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). And when the fear of God is absent from our lives we become enslaved to lesser fears. David’s reverential respect for God was greater than his concern for his adversity.

Finally, when walking through your valley escorted by God, remember that he is in charge. He is in control. God is not only present, He’s armed. “His rod and his staff” bring comfort to our struggling hearts.

In Bible times, the rod was the shepherd’s weapon. It was a club carved from wood that was approximately 24” long that was carried on the shepherd’s belt. Like a mace, it had a head on one end with bits of metal or rock embedded in it. The shepherd could use it as a club or could throw it at any threat out of arm’s reach.

There is a play on words here in the Hebrew language. The same word used for rod is the same word that is also used in the Old Testament for scepter. I believe the message here is that God is not only in control, he’s also just in his rule. Our lives are not spiraling our of control as we a prone to think. God is in control.

All of this discussion about adversity begs one obvious question. If God is in control, why does he lead us to the valley to begin with? Couldn’t God just keep us up on the mountain top?

The first real vacation my wife and I took was to Colorado. A friend who had a cabin near Steamboat Springs graciously allowed us to spend a week there. During our stay we spent an afternoon riding 4-wheelers up a mountain. As we drove along the path our guide pointed out various aspects of the landscape and periodically stopped so we could take snapshots of scenic views. We came to one particular stopping point and the guide explained that we had reached timberline. Timberline is the place that marks the highest altitude that vegetation can grow. As we sat there we could look down the mountain and see the trees and greenery. As we looked up the mountain all we saw was rock. The scene was beyond description. And the lesson was this: the growth is in the valley. Mountain tops are beautiful The air is crisp and clean, and you can see with great clarity. We love mountain tops, literally and figuratively. But at the end of the day, the growth is in the valley. Valleys are important because that’s where we develop character. And, that’s where we learn to truly trust God.

Categories : Adversity, Psalm 23
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May
18

Peace from Surprising Places

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Peace is a scarce commodity in modern culture. More and more we tend to live in crisis mode, struggling to keep our heads above water as wave after wave of adversity pounds against our lives and homes. Living in survival mode will push hopes for peace to the margins of our prayers. Frankly, most of us don’t even aspire to high ideals such as “peace that passes all understanding.” For many, the only peace we can imagine is the peace that comes from the absence of adversity.

But the peace that Christ speaks of is a peace that comes to our lives even in the midst of adversity. Which brings me to the fourth post resurrection statement of Christ, found in Luke 24:35-40.

“Then the two from Emmaus told their story of how Jesus had appeared to them as they were walking along the road, and how they had recognized him as he was breaking the bread. And just as they were telling about it, Jesus himself was suddenly standing there among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. But the whole group was startled and frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost! “Why are you frightened?” he asked. “Why are your hearts filled with doubt? Look at my hands. Look at my feet. You can see that it’s really me. Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost, because ghosts don’t have bodies, as you see that I do.” As he spoke, he showed them his hands and his feet” (NLT).

In the Luke account, Jesus offered his scars as a means of comfort and peace. So how does that work? Think about scars for a moment. What do we know about scars?

First, scars are a sign of a previous wound; evidences of an injury that has occurred in the past. Some of our scars are visible. I have a scar, for example, on the palm of my hand that I received from a bike accident as a kid. I have a couple of other scars like that, but over all have been pretty fortunate. While some of our scars are visible, many are not. Some of the worst scars we carry are scars that cover our hearts. Some times the invisible scars represent more pain than the outer scars etched upon our bodies.

Second, scars are evidence that our wounds can be and have been healed. After all, if its not a scar, its still a wound that remains unhealed. When you see a scar there should at least be a flicker of hope for healing has occurred.

Third, some scars exist because we did exactly what we were supposed to do. I can remember as a child staring wild eyed at a young man just home from Viet Nam. He attended the church where I grew up and had been facially disfigured because he did what his nation called him to do. Jesus, of course is another example of one who bore deep and ugly scars through no fault of his own. He simply did what he was supposed to do. Maybe you have scars as the direct result of doing the right thing.

Fourth, scars are an important part of our maturity. Romans 5:3-5 speaks of God’s purposes in our adversity. Paul states that the trials of life work endurance in our lives which develops godly character, resulting in love. In short, adversity works endurance, and endurance develops character, which helps us to mature into persons who are more loving than before the adversity we experienced.

Finally, scars are a part of our authentication as human beings. They are what make us real. Behind every scar is a story, and those stories help our lives intersect with the lives around us. Scars have a way of reminding us that we are both human and mortal. Those aren’t necessarily bad things. We’re all human and mortal. Sometimes a scar will remind us of that and keep our feet firmly planted in humility and reality.

Now think about Jesus in that quiet room with the disciples. Jesus looked into the eyes of the disciples and saw the turmoil. He showed them his scars and invited them to touch them. In doing so, he invited them to come close, to take a step toward a deeper level of intimacy. Jesus could indentify with their lives, and he can identify with your life. Regardless of what you’ve experienced, Jesus can identify with your scars. To find peace in the midst of your struggle means that you’re going to have to take a step toward, not away from Jesus.

700 years before he was born, the prophet Isaiah said that Jesus would be called the “Prince of Peace.” He’s the ruler of peace and he makes it available to you. He gets the fact that you’ve been hurt or are still hurting, and he invites you to come closer.

Categories : Adversity, Easter, Jesus, Peace
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Last week I Googled a recipe for a chocolate cake, made from scratch. The recipe was surprisingly simple:
3/4 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
After these ingredients are blended together, the recipe calls for an additional 1 cup of boiling water to be added to the batter. After combining the ingredients and the water, the batter is to be poured into a greased and lightly floured cake pan, then baked at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes.

The thing that struck me was that most of the ingredients in the chocolate cake are not fit for consumption by themselves. Who reaches into the pantry for a big scoop of shortening or a bowl of flour for a snack? No one. Most of the ingredients alone are bitter, but when combined, they make something wonderful.

Now think about your adversity. Those life challenges can be bitter when consumed alone. But God has a marvellous way of bringing them together with “time” and “heat” to create something beautiful. Don’t get lost in the bitterness of the ingredients that accompany adversity. Instead, focus on the product that is produced by the loving hand of a God who is good.

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Mar
30

Asking Better Questions

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Yesterday I posted the first observation from Joseph’s life regarding how to have a “can do” spirit in a “no you can’t” world which was to count your blessings. The second observation is to ask better questions concerning life’s interuptions. When adversity strikes, our first natural line of questioning is along the lines of…
…”How could this have happened to me?”
…”Why did this happen to me?”
…”What did I do to deserve this?”
…”Now what am I going to do?”
…”Where is God in all of this?”

Our attitudes often reflect the questions we ask. A couple of weeks ago I came across a blog post by Michael Hyatt, who suggested seven better questions to ask when facing difficult, uncertain times. Here is my adapted list that I offered last weekend in worship.
1. What if this isn’t the end but rather a new beginning? (Remember, break throughs are always break withs!)
2. What if the answer to my prayer is just over the next hill?
3. What if this is necessary in order for me to be prepared for the next important chapter of my life?
4. What if this is exactly what I need to experience in order to develop my character for a greater opportunity?
5. What if God is speaking to me through a means I would not have chosen for a blessing I cannot see?
6. What does this experience make possible?
7. What will I be telling my children and my grandchildren that I learned that was invaluable in this season of my life?

Those are great questions that will help shape your attitude when you face uncertainty and adversity!

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Mar
29

Counting Your Blessings

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In his book, The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith tells the story of a business leader who used an illustration to teach his team a valuable lesson. The leader went to the white board and drew a big, black circle. He asked his team what they saw. To the person, they replied, “A black spot.” “Anything else?” he inquired. ” The black spot was all they saw, nothing else.

“What about all of the white space around the spot?”

The point of the illustration is this: we can become so consumed by the problems that enter our lives that we can miss all of the good that surrounds the problem. Like the business team, we can also fall prey to focusing on our adversity to the degree that it renders us blind to all of the good in life.

When is the last time you did a blessings inventory? How many blessings can you list off the top of your head? Eight or ten? Could you do eight or ten pages of blessings? What about eight or ten legal pads? If we took the time and expended the energy to conduct an exhaustive blessing inventory, I suspect that our list would consume an amount closer to eight or ten legal pads than eight or ten pages. It really puts into perspective that nasty old spot in the center of the white board.

If you’re going to maintain a “can do” spirit in a “no you can’t world,” begin with the blessings of God. Don’t begin with your adversity. Your adversity is one thing floating on top of a sea of the good things of God.

Mar
28

The Final Word

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My first full time ministry position required me to wear a white shirt and tie each day I was in the office or whenever the church gathered in worship. That wasn’t too big of a deal, other than the fact I had a bad habit: I’d put my pen in my shirt pocket without the lid which would leave a nice, round ink spot at the base of the pocket. I don’t know how many shirts I ruined that way!

Unless you’re unusually neat, you’ve probably ruined a garment with ink, paint, or food. Even with the remarkable breakthroughs we’ve had with detergents and stain fighting agents, many of those garments still bear the shadow of the stain. For all intents and purposes, the garment is ruined. Even if we are the only ones who know of the faint spot, we become reluctant to wear it any more, so we throw it out.

I think many people view their lives that way. Whenever their untarnished lives become soiled, their first response is to feel, “My life is ruined!” But is that really true?

This weekend in worship I concluded my series on the life of Joseph with what I believe to be the most important verse in the story. Joseph’s final word is found in Genesis 50:20, which says, “You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result–the survival of many people” (Genesis 50:20, HCSB). I think that statement is more than his summation of his life. I think it was his philosophy of life that sustained him through his years of adversity.

Joseph had some pretty serious stains on his life, but he didn’t quit and he didn’t settle as a victim of fate. He focused on the good and remained hopeful. This week I want to wrap up my posts on Joseph by looking further into his final word. I believe Joseph’s example teaches us how to have a “can do” spirit in a “no you can’t world.” Stay tuned!

Categories : Adversity, Genesis, Joseph
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The building with the deepest foundation in the world can be found in Malaysia. The Petronis Towers, standing some 1,483 feet above ground rests upon a foundation that reaches 394 feet beneath the earth’s surface. For a point of reference, the tallest building in Iowa is 801 Grand, which headlines the Des Moines skyline at 630 feet.

The simple lesson is this: the greater the structure, the deeper the foundation. If you want God to build height and breadth in your life, he will first have to build depth. And more often than not, the way he builds depth into your life is to allow you to experience adversity.

Joseph walked a lonely path of suffering for 13 years before he recognized that his God given ambition would come true. Those 13 years were not wasted years. God used the adversity to prepare Joseph for the ultimate challenge of success. Joseph learned to tenaciously cling to God during those days of character development. He developed a dependence that was so strong that he never lessened his grip when he was exalted and promoted.

Many people know how to cling to God when God is all they have. But it can be even more difficult to cling to God like your life depends on it when all is well. Do you cling to God when all is well? Or do you only look to God when things “go south?”

Jan
26

Is it OK to ask “Why?”

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After spending 10 years as a slave, Joseph then faced three years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It wasn’t just or fair. Maybe you’ve discovered life can be like that. When we face adversity in life, whether just or unjust, we naturally ask the question “Why?” From time to time I come across a bewildered believer who will ask whether it is appropriate to ask the question “Why?” when life goes sideways. You may not be questioning things today, but you may someday. Maybe you know a person who is struggling with one or more issues who is asking the question “Why?” So to those who have such questions on our lips I offer these thoughts.

Asking “Why?” is a normal and natural thing to do. We are wired to seek understanding, and in many regards, that’s how our faith has been developed to this point. But our desire for understanding frequently collides headlight to headlight with God’s insistence to be somewhat veiled in mystery. We want clear answers from a God that is perfectly comfortable with allowing his dearly loved children to struggle with unresolved mystery. So don’t beat yourself up for asking “Why?” It doesn’t make you less of a Christian and God, believe it or not, is not offended when you do.

While asking “why?” may not be a problem as an initial response to our suffering, getting stuck there can be. To be completely honest, the question “Why?” is really shorthand for a longer stream of consciousness. When we ask “Why?”, we’re really asking…
… “Why ME?”
… “Why this CIRCUMSTANCE?”
… “Why this DIFFICULT PERSON?”
… “Why NOW?”
If we get stuck on the question “Why?”, we inevitably end up defending our own righteousness in the face of the righteousness of God. We become entrenched in defending our own merits and goodness and insist that we are not deserving of whatever it is we are facing. If you find yourself defending your goodness over the goodness of God, you’re stuck (see the story of Job).

You can choose a better question, and that would be the question “What?” “What am I supposed to learn?” “What area of my character is being developed?” “What do I need to learn from this adversity?” “What can I take from my adversity that will make me a better person?” “What experiences can I take and use to serve others who are suffering?” That line of questioning may not provide every answer you seek today, but it will help you work through your suffering and grow you into the likeness of Christ.

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Jan
12

Mayhem is Coming!

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Joseph must have been reeling after he was stripped of his robe, thrown into a pit (to starve to death), then sold for the price of a crippled slave to Midianite traders headed to Egypt. You can read the details of these events in Genesis 37:12-35. Mayhem didn’t hit Joseph gradually. Within moments he went from being the heir of the family to a slave, escaping with little more than his life. I’ve frequently wondered how Joseph processed these events in light of his coat and his dreams. How do we process mayhem when (not if!) it comes?

Here are the three talking points that I shared last weekend in worship.

1. Suffering is an introduction to exaltation.When adversity meets our ambition it can be difficult to find clarity in the midst of chaos and confusion. But from a 30,000 feet perspective, we can see the adversity we face is used by God to prepare us for something greater. Every signficant biblical character faced adversity which, in turn, developed character and prepared them for even greater assignments. Even Jesus dealt with mayhem during his three year ministry. There was no palace for Joseph without a pit and a prison. There was no crown of glory for Jesus without a cross. If God will permit mayhem to come to us on our way to our holy ambition, then who are we to think we should be exempt?

2. It’s not what happens to me, but what happens in me that counts.God will use adversity to develop character and Christlikeness in our lives. Let me explain. Think about the mayhem in your life. Now think for a moment about your reaction to that adversity. I believe that the reaction that spills out of us when mayhem strikes becomes the very internal issue that God seeks to work on and redeem. Pay attention to your reactions to those inconvenient interruptions, because they are the very places that God desires growth in your life. God will use difficult problems and difficult people to make you more like Christ.

3. Never doubt in the dark what God has shown you in the light.All Joseph could see was what Joseph could see. What he couldn’t see was that he was right on schedule in accomplishing his God given dreams. Sometimes when mayhem hits our lives we enter a period of darkness where it is hard to find clarity. In that darkness we can’t see any good or any benefit from our adversity. Worst of all, we are tempted to feel as though God has abandoned us. We feel that because we cannot see God at work, that God is not at work, but nothing is farther from the truth. God was at work even though Joseph couldn’t see it. Remember, at Jesus most desperate moment he cried, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me.” It was at that very moment in time that God was doing his greatest work. Just because you can’t sense God working doesn’t mean He’s not. Don’t doubt it for a moment.

Categories : Adversity, Genesis, Joseph
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Jan
11

Are You Ready for Mayhem?

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The biblical story of Joseph begins in the 17th year of his life. Even though his family background had provided him with some unique personal challenges, he must have been enthusiastic about his own future. Full of youthful optimism and innocence, Joseph embraced his God given dreams and anticipated what lie ahead. Even though God had revealed and exciting future, Joseph may not have expected his journey to be filled with so many obstacles. What do you do when adversity collides with your holy ambition?

Categories : Adversity, Genesis, Joseph
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