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March 4, 2016

The Adversity Principle

From the time I was 10 years of age and read my first book about the stars and planets, I have had a fascination with the subject of astronomy. What captured my imagination was the relative size of those twinkling little lights above us. The earth, I discovered, was a mere peanut compared to the larger bodies in our neighborhood. I am still awestruck by the unbelievable dimensions of God's creation. How does one grasp the meaning of a visible universe that is at least 30 billion light years across and composed of perhaps 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars? It is breathtaking to consider what exists there in the silent sky. One of the objects relatively near to us, a star named Epsilon, is actually larger than the orbit of Pluto in our solar system! If it were hollow, it could contain more than 2.3 billion of our suns!

King David, who could have known nothing about modern astronomy, was keenly aware of the Lord's marvelous work in creation. He wrote, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge" (Psalm 19:1-2). Indeed they do! I suppose that is why the study of astronomy still holds such excitement for me. It declares God's magnificent glory like no other field of inquiry. After exploring what the Creator has done and how He continues to control the vast reaches of the cosmos, I find it easy to trust Him with the concerns of my life. Somehow, it seems like He just might be able to handle them.
I remember with fondness a story about Albert Einstein and his speculation about time and space. One day he was interacting with some of his brighter students about God and whether or not He exists. Einstein then asked them this provocative question: "What percent of the total knowledge of the universe do you suppose we now possess?" They gave him various estimates, averaging about 2 percent. The old physicist replied, "I think your guesses are high, but I'll accept that figure of 2 percent. Now tell me, what are the chances that God exists in the other 98?" A very good question, to be sure!
In my further reading about astronomy some years ago, I came across the work of a man named Dr. Stephen Hawking. He is an astrophysicist at Cambridge University and perhaps the most intelligent man on earth. The mantle of Einstein has fallen on his shoulders, and he has worn it with dignity. He has advanced the general theory of relativity farther than any person since the old man died. Dr. Hawking is also credited with mathematical calculations suggesting the existence of black holes in space and other widely acclaimed theories.
Unfortunately, Dr. Hawking is afflicted with a rare degenerative neuromuscular disorder called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS syndrome), or Lou Gehrig's disease. It will eventually take his life. He has been confined to a wheelchair for years, where he can do little more than sit and think. He cannot even write down the mathematical formulae that govern the progression of his thoughts. "Omni" magazine said of Hawking back in 1979, "His mind is a blackboard. He memorizes the long strings of equations that give life to his ideas, then dictates the results to his colleagues or secretary—a feat that has been compared to Beethoven's writing an entire symphony in his head or Milton's dictating Paradise Lost to his daughter."
In more recent years, Hawking has lost the ability even to speak, and now he communicates by means of a computer that is operated from the tiniest movement of his fingertips. Quoting "Omni" again: "He is too weak to write, feed himself, comb his hair, fix his glasses—all this must be done for him. Yet this most dependent of all men has escaped invalid status. His personality shines through the messy details of his existence."
That acceptance of catastrophic illness is what makes Stephen Hawking of interest in the present discussion, even though he does not believe in the God of the Bible. He might be a deist, although he wrote a book in 1988 entitled A Brief History of Time in which he labored to explain away the need for a Creator. Nevertheless, what Hawking learned from his disability is remarkable and can be enlightening to those of us who live by faith.
He said that before he became ill, he had very little interest in life. He called it a "pointless existence" resulting from sheer boredom. He drank too much and did very little work. Then he learned he had ALS syndrome and was not expected to live more than two years. The ultimate effect of that diagnosis, beyond its initial shock, was extremely positive. He claimed to have been happier after he was afflicted than before. How can that be understood? Hawking provided the answer.
He said, "When one's expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything that one does have." This is the point I made in the first chapter of this book. Stated another way, contentment in life is determined, in part, by what a person anticipates from it. To a man like Hawking who thought he would soon die quickly, everything takes on meaning—a sunrise or a walk in a park or the laughter of children. Suddenly, each small pleasure becomes precious. By contrast, those who believe life owes them a free ride are often discontent with its finest gifts.
Hawking also said this about his physical limitations: "If you're disabled, you should pour your energies into those areas where you are not handicapped. You should concentrate on what you can do well, and not mourn over what you cannot do. And it is very important not to give in to self-pity. If you're disabled and you feel sorry for yourself, then no one is going to have much to do with you. A physically handicapped person certainly cannot afford to be psychologically handicapped as well."
Another way of expressing Hawking's point is that a person faced with extreme hardship must press himself to get tougher. Whining and self-pity, as logical as they seem, are deadly indulgences. An individual in crisis will either grow stronger or become demoralized. Within certain limits, of course, adversity can have a positive effect on people by helping to build character. For Christians, Scripture says it develops and enhances that precious characteristic called faith (James 1:2-4).
Biologists have long recognized this concept, which we'll call the adversity principle, at work in the world of plants and animals. As strange as it seems, habitual well-being is not advantageous to a species. An existence without challenge takes its toll on virtually every living thing. Just look at the flabby animals in a zoo, for example. Food is delivered to them every day, and they need do nothing but lie around and yawn. Or consider a tree planted in a rain forest. Because water is readily available, it does not have to extend its root system more than a few feet below the surface. Consequently, it is often poorly anchored and can be toppled by a minor windstorm. But a mesquite tree planted in a hostile and arid land must send its roots down 30 feet or more in search of water. Not even a gale can blow it over. Its unfriendly habitat actually contributes to stability and vigor.
It is also relevant to the human family. Some of the most noble examples of courage have occurred in countries undergoing severe pressure. The shattered nations of Europe in the 1940s come to mind in this context. All wars are horrible, and I'm certainly not minimizing the suffering they cause. World War II claimed 50 million lives and virtually destroyed a continent before it was over. Still, those who survived the ordeal were forced to adapt in order to endure their season in hell. Look at the effect of that adaptation.
The Germans were subjected to terrible devastation near the end of the war, just as they had inflicted it on others. Some of their larger cities were bombed around the clock—by the Americans throughout the day and by the British at night. Death and destruction were everywhere. Food was extremely scarce, as were all the essentials to life. By the end of the war, 80 percent of the men born in 1922 were dead, spreading grief and heartache throughout the land. These tragedies resulted from Nazi aggression, of course, but the suffering by individual German families was no less real. What is remarkable from today's perspective is the degree to which they hung tough. They did not crack! Even in the winter of 1945, when factories had been bombed, trains were destroyed and bridges shattered, the productivity of the nation was still nearly 80 percent of prewar capacity. Morale remained high. They continued to exhibit a national resolve—a collective commitment to the war effort—even when Allied armies were tightening the noose around Berlin.
No less impressive was Britain's record during the war. Churchill rallied the people to personal heroism. He began by addressing their expectations, offering them nothing "but blood, toil, sweat and tears." That helped steel them against hardship. In the darkest days of the blitz when their beloved homeland was in imminent danger of invasion, the Brits dug in. No one was certain whether or not Hitler and his minions could be stopped. Yet England's most popular song in that ominous hour expressed hope—not fear. It was called "The White Cliffs of Dover," referring to a coastal area that bristled with guns, planes, and radar equipment. These are the lyrics that I remember from childhood:
There'll be Bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, just you wait and see
There'll be love and laughter
And peace ever after,
Tomorrow, when the world is free
The shepherd will tend his sheep
The valley will bloom again
And Jimmy will go to sleep
In his own little room again
There'll be Bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.

This song came to symbolize the courage of a people looking past death and sacrifice to a better day ahead. Churchill called that era "their finest hour."

This same indomitable spirit was evident in many of the other war-torn countries during that time. It reached a culmination in the city of Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg), where the Russian people endured horrible deprivation during an 872-day siege by German and Finnish armies. More than 650,000 Leningraders died in 1942 alone, mostly from starvation, disease, and shelling by distant guns. But the survivors refused to surrender to tyranny. Their response to unimaginable horror stands as one of the world's most striking examples of raw human courage. St. Petersburg is called the "Hero City" today.
If it is accurate to say that hard times often lead to emotional and physical toughness, then the opposite must also be valid. And, indeed, it is. Easy living and abundance often produce a certain underlying weakness. With due respect to my fellow countrymen here in the United States, I believe we have been made soft and vulnerable by materialism and ease. Prolonged prosperity, at least as compared with the rest of the world, has given us a seductive love of comfort. I wonder at times if we could tolerate the level of deprivation that is common for most of the human family. We seem to be having enough trouble just coping with the routine pressures of living.
Russian philosopher and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recognized this national weakness shortly after he was exiled to the United States from what was then the Soviet Union. In a now-famous address delivered at Harvard University on June 8, 1978, he referred to the softness that permeated the democracies. He said it was apparent to him that Western nations were not as secure and stable as they appeared. Telltale signs of social disintegration were evident in the culture. He referred specifically to the absence of great statesmen and to lawless behavior, such as the rioting and looting that occurred when a power outage momentarily darkened our cities. Solzhenitsyn gave numerous examples before concluding, "The smooth surface film must be very thin, (because) the social system [is] quite unstable and unhealthy."
The short fuse observed by Solzhenitsyn is even more characteristic of Americans today. It takes so little to set our nerves on edge. Drivers on Los Angeles freeways sometimes shoot each other for the most insignificant insult. Violence of all kinds permeates society. The 1992 riots in Los Angeles and other cities shocked the world with their wanton brutality and vandalism. Alcoholism, immorality, drug abuse, family disintegration, child molestation, pornography, delinquency, homosexuality, and gambling are more pervasive than ever. The culture appears to be cooking along just below the simmer point. Very little is required to boil it over. And this is occurring in relatively good times. It would appear, indeed, that prosperity is a greater test of character than is adversity.
Does this principle operate within a Christian context as well? There's no doubt about it. Look at the church in Eastern Europe compared with that in Western Europe. Before the collapse of communism and the opening of the borders, the Christian community was much stronger under totalitarian domination than in the warmth of freedom. That fact amazes me. The church was alive and well in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and East Germany, where there were no seminaries, no Christian conferences, very few Bibles or supportive literature, and no religious radio, television, or films. Communist oppression of believers was intense. Pastors and priests shepherded six or eight parishes because of the shortage of trained leaders. Being a Christian carried a big price tag. Yet faith not only prevailed in this harsh environment. It flourished.
By contrast, religious commitment languished in the freedom of Western Europe. Apathy was especially evident in countries where the church was supported by public funds, such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Greece. One might conclude from this recent history that the best way to kill or weaken the church is to remove all challenge to its existence.
Let's bring the adversity principle closer to home. How does it apply to you and me? Could it be that our heavenly Father permits His children to struggle in order to keep us strong? I firmly believe that to be true. That is precisely what James told the Jewish-Christians in the first century: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance" (James 1:2-3). Paul echoed that theme in his letter to the Romans: "We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3-4).
Jesus said it even more plainly, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). He also said, "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it" (v. 25). Those words leave little room for doubt. Jesus wants us to be committed and disciplined and tough. He also warned about the dangers of the soft life. This, I believe, is what he meant when He said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25). He did not mean that God sets up a different—and more difficult—standard by which wealthy people are judged. Rather, He was acknowledging that affluence can make us dependent on ease and comfort. As such, it is highly seductive. A person who grows accustomed to life's good things may not be drawn naturally to the sacrificial way of the Cross. Like the rich young ruler who walked away from Jesus, a wealthy person may find it more difficult to follow this Master who calls us to make the supreme sacrifice.
Not only is affluence dangerous, but so is the adulation of our fellow men. If you want to know what a person is made of, grant him a high degree of social status and admiration. His hidden character will soon be apparent for all to see. Solomon wrote, "The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but man is tested by the praise he receives" (Proverbs 27:21).
From these Scriptures and many others, it should be obvious that the Christian life was never intended to be a stroll through a rose garden. That idyllic existence ended when Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden. Since then, life has been a challenge for us all. I'll bet you already knew that.
I was going through a period of challenge several years ago when frustrations were coming by the boatloads. I felt like Job when the bearers of bad news were standing in line to tell their stories. It had been that kind of month. Then one night when Shirley had gone out of town to attend a conference, I decided to visit my favorite restaurant—a local drive-through hamburger stand. (This was before my cardiologist and my wife got together and destroyed one of the finer joys of living.)
I jumped into our son's Honda, not remembering that I had canceled the insurance on his car when he went back to college. I had gone about three blocks when it dawned on me that I was driving without liability coverage. One stupid mistake and we could lose our house, I thought. I was only two blocks from the drive-in, so I slowed the car to a crawl. At each corner I virtually stopped, looking both ways before inching on down the road. I'm sure people thought I was either senile or weird—or both.
I arrived safe and sound at the beloved IN 'N' OUT Hamburger and heaved a sigh of relief. "May I have your order, please?" said a muffled adolescent voice from the little black box. I told the guy what I wanted and then drove forward to the take-out window. Soon, a sack of great-smelling stuff was handed to me and I reached for it. There I was, hanging out the window nice and loose—when an elderly lady lost control of the Mercedes behind me. Her foot slipped off the brake and crammed the accelerator. It was like a Sherman tank hitting a baby buggy! Suddenly, Ryan's Honda and I went flying down the driveway for parts unknown. I never did find the hamburger.
When the car finally came to a halt, I was too stunned to move. Then this sweet, 81-year-old lady came hurrying up to my window to see if I was all right and begging me not to call the police. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I did this to someone else two weeks ago. Please don't report me! I'll fix your car."
I should have made a record of the accident, I know, but I just didn't have the heart. The lady in the tank and I were having approximately the same kind of month.
There are times such as this when it does feel like the cosmos is out to get you. I came across this B.C. cartoon a few years ago that sums up the way life can turn up the heat when we least expect it.
So life is a challenge. It was obviously designed to be that way. Look at how Jesus related to His disciples throughout His ministry on earth. He could hardly be accused of pampering these rugged men. Picture them in a small boat late one evening. You know the story. Jesus went to sleep on a cushion, and while He slept a "furious squall" came up. Remember that several of the disciples were professional fishermen and they knew very well what a storm can do to a small craft and its occupants. They were frightened—as you or I would have been. But there was the Master, unconcerned and uninvolved, sound asleep near the stern. Waves were crashing over the bow and threatening to sink the boat. The panic-stricken men could stand it no longer. They awakened Jesus and said, "Lord, save us! We're going to drown!" Before quieting the storm, He said to his disciples, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" (Matthew 8:23-26).
If I didn't know better, my sympathies would be with the disciples in this instance. Who could blame them for quaking in the path of the storm? There was no Coast Guard or helicopter service to pluck them out of the churning sea. If they ever fell overboard in this "furious squall" it would be curtains. Still, Jesus was disappointed by their panic. Why? Because fear and faith do not ride in the same boat. And because He wanted them to trust Him even when facing death. They would need that confidence in a few months!
Let's revisit Jesus and the disciples in yet another episode on the sea. According to Mark (6:45-50), He had instructed them to get in their boat and go on ahead of him to the city of Bethsaida. Then He went to a nearby mountainside to pray. Apparently, Jesus could see the entire lake from where He sat, and He observed that His disciples were "straining at the oars, because the wind was against them." The biblical account tells us, "About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake" (v. 48). From the early evening to the fourth watch is a seven-hour passage of time. For seven hours, Jesus watched the disciples do battle with a severe head wind before He came to assist them. Yet they were in His vision and under His care throughout the night. Obviously, He permitted them to experience their need before coming to their rescue.
Sometimes He also lets you and me "struggle with the oars" until we recognize our dependence on Him. In so doing, He gives our faith an opportunity to grow and mature. But one thing is certain: We are ever in His vision. When His purposes are fulfilled and the time is right, He will calm the stormy sea and lead us to safety on the distant shore.
Let me take one more shot at the Christian writers and speakers who promote the expectation of ease in this Christian walk. They would have us believe that the followers of Jesus do not experience the trials and frustrations that pagans go through. Some of them appear so anxious to tell us what we want to hear that they distort the truths expressed in the Word. They would have us believe that the Lord rushes into action the instant we face a hardship, eliminating every discomfort or need. Well, sometimes He does just that. At other times He doesn't. Either way, He is there and has our lives in perfect control.
Let's look at another example of Jesus' relationship with his not-so-tough disciples. It occurred on the night before He was to be crucified. Peter, James, and John were with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. As the night wore on, Jesus became overwhelmed with sorrow for what He was facing. He asked the three men to stay behind and keep watch while He went by Himself to pray. Three times during that hour He came back and found them asleep because "their eyes were heavy" (Matthew 26:43). As before, He expressed displeasure in their weakness.
We must remember that these men had also been under considerable stress in recent days. They understood they might be executed for their proximity to Jesus. That kind of danger causes fatigue—especially after being awake until the early morning hours. It was reasonable that the disciples would find it difficult to sit staring out into the night without lapsing into slumber. Yet Jesus expected them to stay awake, saying, "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak" (Matthew 26:41). There it is again. Jesus was urging His disciples to toughen up—to strive for greater control over their impulses. Why? Because weak flesh is more vulnerable to temptation.
Throughout Scripture we see this consistent pattern. The Lord wants His people to be strong. Read again the story of the children of Israel wandering around in the wilderness—lost, thirsty, dirty, and homeless. They became tired of eating the same monotonous food—manna—and longed for the familiar surroundings of Egypt. I might well have complained about every one of those frustrations if placed in a similar situation. But note what is written in Numbers 11:1.
Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp.

If that seems harsh, we must remember that God had chosen these people as His own, and He was doing a mighty work in their lives. He had rescued them from 400 years of Egyptian bondage. He even rolled back the Red Sea to facilitate their escape. He had cared for their every need, yet all they could do was grumble and complain. Scripture tells us God is long-suffering and slow to wrath—but He finally heard enough from this tribe of bellyachers.
Does that mean, as it would seem, that we should not feel free to express our deepest longings and frustrations to the Lord? Is He so demanding and detached that we must hide our fears from Him or try to be something we're not? Should we grin and bear it when every cell of our bodies aches in sorrow? Must we mimic ducks that sit quietly on a lake but are paddling like crazy below the surface? No! At least 100 Scriptures will refute that uncaring image of God. Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). We are told that He "knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:14). He also understands that some of us are strong and confident by temperament. Others are naturally more anxious. That should come as no surprise to the One who made us the way we are.
I draw comfort, too, from God's compassion to David when he poured out his fears and frustrations. We have no record of the Lord's displeasure when David expressed his many sorrows and fears. What, then, was the difference between these acceptable "complaints" and those of the children of Israel many years before? The answer is seen in the nature of David's lamentations. They were expressed within a context of faith and dependence on God. Even when he was depressed, it is clear that he knew who his Lord was and where his allegiance rested. But the children of Israel were faithless and defiant in their grumbling. Once again, we see that everything in Scripture seems to reverberate to that vital little word, faith.
Let's summarize: We now know that faith must be tough, but why? Is there a logical reason why the Lord asks us to strengthen our resolve and meet our difficulties head-on? I believe it is because of the close interrelationship between mind, body, and spirit mentioned earlier. We cannot be spiritually stable and emotionally unstable at the same time. We are in a spiritual war with a deadly foe tracking us every hour of the day. We need to be in the best shape possible to cope with the darts and arrows he hurls our way. Flabby, overindulged, pampered Christians just don't have the stamina to fight this battle. Thus, the Lord puts us on a spiritual treadmill every now and then to keep us in good fighting condition.

It's the "adversity principle," and all of us are affected by it one way or the other.

From Dr. Dobson's book When God Doesn’t Make Sense.

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