• A is for Adversity

  • Instead of overcoming adversity, how does a Christian learn how to live with it? What kind of impact can adversity and suffering have on a Christian leader?

    The Scene

    Have you faced any adversity lately?

    Most people love stories that depict individuals confronting and overcoming adversity. Our literature and movie industry offer many Rocky Balboa-like characters scraping and rising up from nowhere to become a champion or Star Wars-like stories of rebels fighting against and defeating the big bad, oppressive empire or regime. Pulling off an incredible comeback, overcoming the odds, living a rags-to-riches story, picking oneself off the ground after getting knocked down—these ideals seem foundational to living a successful life and becoming an effective leader. The lexicon of the hero’s journey captivates us—to see an individual overcome a crisis or valley experience and return transformed and better than ever.

    Perhaps one reason overcoming adversity elicits a “feel good” sentiment is because in our fallen, sinful world, misfortune and hardship are often not conquered, vanquished, or overcome. You know from your own life experiences that not every story has a happy ending or turns out like a Hallmark Christmas movie.

    Have you ever pondered why so many successful people often talk and reflect on their many failures and yet do not regard themselves as failures?1 As Christians, this reality should not surprise us, for we know that human beings are sinful, frail, and make mistakes. Everyone falls short of God’s standards and perfection. As a leader or teacher, you anticipate human sin, error, and performance slippage in your teams and students. You have a Plan B and a Plan C ready to go because Plan A rarely succeeds. As Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a plan until they get hit. That’s why you don’t let mistakes and sin cripple you or paralyze your teams from moving forward. You persevere, adapt, and improvise. You expect adversity and suffering on the missional journey, in striving for the prize, or in shooting for the moon.

    The secular world offers many cultural bromides and platitudes on how to respond to adversity:

    • Don’t get bitter, get better.
    • Turn your setback into a setup.
    • Failure is not final.
    • Valley experiences make the mountaintop ones that much more enjoyable.
    • When a door slams in your face, a window opens.
    • No pain, no gain.
    • Fail forward.
    • Make it happen.
    • If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.

    Perhaps you have uttered these statements more than once in your own life. But are these platitudes really how life with adversity works?

    While adversity will always exist in our fallen world, it can be a catalyst for a stronger spiritual life and healthier relationship with your heavenly Father.As a mature Christian you understand that while adversity will always exist in our fallen world, it can be a catalyst for a stronger spiritual life and healthier relationship with your heavenly Father. After all, a pain-free life makes it easier to say there is no God or, at the very least, that you have no need for God.

    One problem we have in our culture is that parents rarely allow students to navigate suffering or endure hardships. Too many parents work hard to make sure their children don’t have to work hard or deal with hard things. If their children suffer temporarily in some manner, they move quickly to intervene, deaden the pain, or change the context. Young people receive blue ribbons for participation only, offer numerous excuses for reading deficiencies and project incompletions. They get guaranteed playing time on sports teams as long as they pay the club fee, live in safe spaces on the university campus, and enjoy three warm meals and a cozy room in mom and dad’s basement after college graduation. Seldom are they criticized or allowed to struggle and fail. Rare is the young person’s experience that of Ben Franklin’s admonition that “the things which hurt, instruct.” In Pixar’s Finding Nemo, Dory told Marlin (Nemo’s father) in a parenting lesson for all-time, “You can’t let nothing ever happen to him [Nemo], then nothing would ever happen to him.”

    Yet, even as we know that coping with adversity can build resilience, perseverance, and a deeper dependence on God, we still work hard to avoid it. We are human after all. A pastor once earnestly told me that he desired to suffer because suffering would bring him closer to Jesus. “Pastor,” I told him, “You’re a better man than me. I just want to get closer to Jesus.”

    Research and Development

    Real leadership often starts when hardship and suffering first appear on the scene. When you sacrifice your desires for the needs of others, you might personally suffer in some capacity. So let us ask the question: are you ready to suffer as a leader and educator?2

    Oftentimes a leader’s defining moments revolve around struggle—failing to deal with it or “overcoming” it.3 Indeed, a crisis usually destroys poorly run companies, schools, or organizations. Successful ones usually survive a crisis. Exemplary ones grow and improve because of the crisis.4

    Lutheran educators should be encouraged by history in this regard. Whenever the Church has encountered adversity—increased opposition, suppression, and persecution—it grows and flourishes by God’s grace. Over the centuries, many of the intelligentsia have suggested that the end of Christianity, or God, was imminent. They were wrong repeatedly. As Scripture says, God has a way of using what appears to be weak and fading to shame the powerful and trendy. (1 Corinthians 1:27, 29)

    hope in the wheatfield

    Being and Doing

    Scripture clearly teaches that there is no earthly vaccine or antidote that protects us from hardship. As a Christian leader and Lutheran educator, you will face misfortune and endure suffering. Knowing this truth, here are some ways you can embrace and cope with adversity and hardship:

    • Accept the mindset that you will indeed suffer and face adversity. This does not mean that you should look for ways to suffer, embrace victimhood, or put a target on your own back. In this fallen world, plenty of difficulty and woe will come your way without you prodding it along. Just be ready for it.
    • While the levels of hardship will differ, proactively think how you might handle and engage with it. “Rename and claim it” might sound a bit too trite, but there is power in reframing your adversity in a larger Christian context.5 Step back and look at your difficult situation from a mountaintop viewpoint and recognize the transitory nature of the current hassle or hardship. Ask yourself how you will feel about the current adversity a year later. Research shows those who considered a conflict from a future perspective showed more forgiveness and greater insight. They also reported feeling more positive about their relationship.6 Jesus says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
    • Even as you experience hardship and adversity, do the best you can to keep the normal rhythms of your day in place. Eat healthy. Exercise. Sleep. Visit with family and friends. Do something recreational. Indulge in a hobby. Read your Bible and personal devotions. Obviously, some hardship and sufferings are so severe and debilitating that doing anything “normal” may be the greatest challenge during one’s crisis.
    • Embrace the reality that hardship and suffering can build your empathetic capacity. Suffering softens your heart and puts you in solidarity with others who suffer. If you only give the impression of invincibility and self-righteousness, you are providing a false advertisement for the Christian walk. By living through your struggles, by making yourself visible and vulnerable, people will relate and connect with you. Who hasn’t experienced adversity or suffered in this world? You learn the most—about yourself and God—when you feel at risk and exposed. Suffering softens your heart and puts you in solidarity with others who suffer. If you only give the impression of invincibility and self-righteousness, you are providing a false advertisement for the Christian walk. You appear less accessible, less real, less compelling, and less needy of a Savior.
    • Use adversity and suffering as an opportunity to grow closer to Jesus. Indeed, you can experience God in a new way during a crisis.7 Many people respond to suffering by seeking pleasure. Yet pleasure is fleeting and doesn’t heal the hurt and deep wounds of suffering. Nobody says, I lost my child, therefore I should go out and party. Suffering shatters the illusion of self-sufficiency.8 Thus, when adversity or hardship strikes, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you” (1 Psalm 55:22). Only Jesus can help you escape or cope with your hardship and suffering. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
    • Rediscover gratitude and demonstrate more of it during adverse times. You really find out who loves and cares for you at your nadir. Not only do you learn to appreciate these special people in your life, you want to become more like them. As they have tended lovingly to your needs during tough times, they inspire you to help others during their valley experiences too.
    • Embrace the notion that adversity and hardship can help you become a more resilient and persistent person by God’s grace. Much like physical training, if you imbibe in wholesome spiritual habits and receive the proper spiritual sustenance of God’s Word, your journey through hardship valley can glorify God.
    • Adversity and suffering provide a compelling platform for you to witness and share the faith. Toussaint Louverture, the former Haitian slave turned general, so exasperated French enemies that they gave him the surname Louverture, meaning the opening.9 Hardship and adversity provide openings for you to be an ambassador of the faith. Faith is most visible in the midst of suffering and death. Through your suffering, you can show the world that you follow Christ and abandon all other things.10 Christian funerals, for example, testify that the sting of death, no matter how painful or grievous, is not final. Jesus has conquered sin, death, and the power of the devil. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)
    • Hardship and suffering provide poignant opportunities for you to reflect and receive inspiration yet again, by your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Sometimes parents join their kids in solidarity by shaving their heads when their children go bald from chemotherapy. Similarly, through the Incarnation, Jesus understands and shares in your suffering.11 He knows how you feel and your hurts. So talk to Him through prayer. Listen to His Word. Cling to His promises. Find strength, peace, and contentment knowing that suffering makes you an authentic, credible disciple of Jesus.


    The Final Word

    Some hardships and adversities are almost too hard to fathom this side of heaven. Human words are profoundly insufficient, for example, for someone who is enduring the agony of losing a child or spouse.

    The ultimate example and inspiration on how to handle adversity and hardship is Jesus. Nevertheless, as a faithful servant leader, you know that the ultimate example and inspiration on how to handle adversity and hardship is Jesus. Despite being divine, perfect, and without fault, no one endured more pain and suffering than He did. In addition to the physical and psychological torture He experienced during Passion Week and the crucifixion, Jesus literally bore and felt the deadly sting of the sins of the entire world. He tasted death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9)

    If Jesus suffered, you will suffer too. The Bible says you should expect to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus,” (2 Timothy 2:3) and that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Perhaps you hope that you will escape ridicule, scorn, or persecution, especially if you lay low—but don’t bet on it. The devil, “your adversary,” targets Christians and “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

    God does not want you to be a lukewarm Christian, (Romans 3:15-16) someone who shrinks or recants at the first sign of adversity or hardship. He calls on you to be salt and light, (Matthew 5:13-14) to witness and give testimony, and to remain bold and faithful to your various vocations and callings. He wants you to get an “A” in the hard knock class of adversity.

    • Instead of overcoming adversity, how does a Christian learn how to live with it? Write out your three biggest takeaways.
    • What kind of impact can adversity and suffering have on a Christian leader? Write out your three biggest takeaways.

    To be sure, you cannot overcome or escape hardship of your own accord. The Good News is that “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). You might feel like your outer self is wasting away as you endure adversity, but with Christ your “inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). No matter how low you sink, Scripture promises that you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. (Philippians 4:12-13) Indeed, God promises that there is no affliction He will not ultimately deliver you from in His way and time (Psalm 34:19)—He loves you that much.

    You may be suffering or enduring adversity today, but do not let your heart be troubled for long. Even through your adversity and suffering, you can glorify God. (1 Peter 4:16) And you should glorify Him for He sent His Son Jesus to suffer, die, and rise again for you and your eternal salvation. Someday your life will be free of adversity and you will suffer no more—thanks be to Jesus.

    James Pingel, Ph.D. is education dean and professor at Concordia University Wisconsin and Concordia University Ann Arbor.


    1. Maxwell, Success 101, 71.
    2. Kouzes and Posner, A Leader’s Legacy, 13, 18.
    3. Brooks, Second Mountain, 49.
    4. Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way, 3.
    5. Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way, 115.
    6. Boardman, Everyday Vitality, 100, 103.
    7. Clinton, The Making of a Leader, 165.
    8. Brooks, Second Mountain, 37.
    9. Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way, 116.
    10. Dreher, The Benedict Option, 65.
    11. Rota, Taking Pascal’s Wager, 167.


    Photo © iStock/Johnny Valley, JBryson. Wikimedia/common domain.

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