When we face adversity we experience the very thing that most reveals our heart to us. Adversity forces us to respond. And when we respond, we see who we are. Adversity challenges us, we must either swim or drown. When we give up, we drown, and we learn we are much weaker than we once thought. “If your strength fails in the day of adversity, your strength is small” (Proverbs 24:10). And if we swim? Well, we certainly learn that we had much more strength than our feeble thoughts allowed. “On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
It is through that adversity that we learn our thoughts, our feelings, our hopes, our fears. We would pray that God would give us good feelings in the midst of that adversity, but then we miss the point of that adversity. Maybe God doesn’t want to give you good feelings. It may very well be that the thing God is most concerned about is not your “good feelings” but something else entirely. It may very well be that God doesn’t want you to have “good feelings” because your life doesn’t reflect the kind of person that he wants you to be. Why on earth would God give you good feelings when your heart is so contrary to the way you ought to be? Giving you happiness would ruin the work of God – it would confirm you in your poor estate – it would be as if God were saying to you, “It’s okay, all I’m really concerned about is that you feel good about yourself – not whether or not you live well.” You would avoid the very thing that would do you the most good, excusing yourself that “God is happy with me the way I am, because he has made me happy.”
No wonder God says, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isa. 45:7) and again, “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other…” (Ecclesiastes 7:14).
God brings adversity – real life difficulties – in order to change us. He forces us to walk on our own two feet. He brings us to the place that we say to ourselves, “I have two arms, and two legs. I am not sure if I can swim, but I’ll be damned before I drown.” God doesn’t bring adversity into our lives so we can stop paddling and give up and say, “Poor me, God help me feel better” and then drown. No, God gives us his hope that when we paddle with all our strength that he will make certain we survive. And we will survive most assuredly because we paddled. But we paddled, not because we thought we would survive on our own strength, but because we knew that even if we drowned from utter exhaustion – God would bring us home.
Adversity makes us realize what strength God has actually given to us. God doesn’t do a run-a-round and just say, “You are all better now.” He brings us to the point of despair and then shows us we have arms and legs, a mind with which to think and a heart with which to hope and trust. He allows us to see that we should surely drown if we trust in ourselves, but that if we trust in him, he will make sure we make it home.
This is how Paul can tell the Philippian church to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling” and in the very same breath say “for, it is God who works in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13).
We must look at the adversity in our lives not as things that are impediments to joy, but the very things through which true and lasting joy will be brought to us. Certainly adversity itself is not joy, or else it wouldn’t be painful and therefore called “adversity”. But the troubles of adversity will make us strong in a way would should never have thought, if only we see that we must go through it – not around it, not avoid it, not excuse it – but through it. And when we come through adversity, fighting with every ounce we can muster, we will find that God had sustained us the whole way, and that is where joy will be found.
Therefore “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” (Hebrews 12:12-13)