The University of Adversity

This is a very interesting passage of scripture before us today, for in a portion of this scripture God is portrayed as the one who is doing the talking. Jeremiah, who places these words in the mouth of God, is acting as if he has called God into court to give an account of his actions. In verses 1-4, Jeremiah charges God with catering to the wicked; and in verse five, God answers the charge, "If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you..."

I want to be especially careful with this text, for if I am faithful to this text, then I will treat verse five, as Jeremiah treated it--as a word directly from God. In preaching this as a word directly from God, there are some things I must avoid.

First, I do not want to tell you anything that God is not saying. I do not want to come to you today and say things are looking up, and everything is going to get better in your life. Or that all your questions will be answered, and all your problems will be solved. I do not want to tell you that when I get through preaching this text all you have to do is go on your way rejoicing for all your difficulties will be settled, solved, and sealed. If I told you that everything was coming up roses, I would not be faithful to the text today.

In verses 1-4 Jeremiah lays out his charges before God. He accuses God of allowing the guilty to prosper and the treacherous to thrive while the faithful who trust God seem to have such a difficult time trying to make their way in life. This is not a new complaint lodged against God; it is basically the same complaint of the Psalmist in the 73rd number when he said, "But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious at the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked." It is the same complaint lodged against God by Job, Habakkuk, and Malachi. It is the age-old complaint that has baffled the faithful and stymied the learned throughout the ages: Why do the wicked prosper?

The faithful try to live by the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. However, those who care nothing for God seem to live by the "can rule." Get all you can. Can all you get, and sit on the can as long as you can.

God is an old hand at hearing such complaints. He is used to being accused by those who are having a difficult time coming to grips with the exigencies and challenges of life, with the vagaries and vicissitudes of life, with the setbacks and adversities that are sure to come in life.

In the black church we love to sing a song that says: "Lord don't move my mountain, just give me strength to climb," but in reality most of us want that mountain moved. Sustained adversity--by which I mean, affliction, difficultly, hardship, tribulation, calamity, mishap, misfortune, deprivation, destitution--makes us impatient. We chafe, we brood, we sulk, and we pout when we have to endure sustained adversity. All most of us can think about is getting out from under it.

As a young twenty-year old pastor in my first church in Texas, I remember a family caught in a season of sustained adversity. A distraught mother, trying to hold her family together, lay desperately ill in the hospital after a bad car accident. Her husband was unemployed, her son was in jail, her daughter was pregnant out of wedlock, and her creditors were calling the hospital demanding that she pay something on her overdue accounts. I went to her hospital bedside early one morning, and after a brief greeting she closed her eyes and stretched her hands toward me for a word of prayer.

However, I thought I should do something more than merely pray for her. I thought it my place to give her some sound spiritual advice about life. So I said to her, "Mozelle, I'm not going to ask God to move your mountain. I'm just going to ask God to give you the strength to climb." This very sick woman immediately put her hands down and opened her eyes. "Wait a minute, little preacher," she said. "Don't you tie God's hands this morning. If God wants to move my mountain, you let him. I'm not trying to climb over a mountain, I'm trying to get out from under one." Yes, some of us want that mountain moved. Sustained adversity makes us impatient and we want to know from God why life can be so tough on those who try to live right.

Jeremiah in his sustained adversity charges God with being unfair. Jeremiah had a right to be concerned, for in chapter 11 God revealed to Jeremiah that people from his own hometown were trying to kill him. So Jeremiah asks God, "Why do you let wicked people prosper?" The answer God gives is, in effect, "If you think it's bad now, hang on." God was about to enroll Jeremiah into the university of adversity--the school of hard knocks. Jeremiah was about to take courses in bowed head and bent knee. He was about to enter into a season of adversity that would ultimately redound to his benefit, but before things got better they were going to get worse.

God says to Jeremiah, "If you have raced with foot-runners, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?" If you can't handle trouble on foot, what will you do when the troubles in your life take on the speed of a horse? If you have to have closure before you can move on from difficulty, what will you do when there is no closure? What will you do when the troubles in your life take a repeated and consistent turn for the worse? What will you do?

When we encounter sustained adversity, all our effort and energy are geared toward believing that things will get better just around the corner. I call it "around-the-corner faith." All of our cliches and colloquial expressions, adages and aphorisms, maxims and mottos, are all designed to make us believe that things will be better just around the corner.

Our hearts are filled with platitudes when adversity comes. We say such things as: Good things come to those who wait! Not always. Sometimes bad things come to those who wait. We say: behind every dark cloud there's a silver lining. Not always. Sometimes behind that dark cloud is some more lightning and thunder, and it is coming your way. We say: the darkest hour is just before dawn. Not really. The darkest hour, according to scientists, is just after midnight, and you still have five or six more hours before day.

Sometimes these adages and aphorisms that we love so dearly can actually get in the way of what God is doing in our lives. They get in the way of the lesson that is to be learned. They get in the way of the strength that is to be secured from enduring adversity. Sometimes these pithy sayings actually hinder us from attaining a deeper, more intimate knowledge of the ways of God and how God works out his purposes in our lives in spite of the setbacks that are sure to come. Periodically God comes into our lives and moves us from one level of immaturity to another level of immaturity in order to bring us to a deeper awareness of what it means to trust in God. There will always be new difficulties in our lives to which we must adjust.

We must take care that adversity and setbacks do not make us bitter and cynical about life. Every person who reaches a level of maturity in faith does so only after coming through many dangers, toils, and snares. Adversity can make us bitter or better. I knew a pastor in Texas who, after 50 years of ministry, was felled by a stroke and could not speak or move about for the rest of his life. Embittered by his condition, he demanded that his dutiful wife never leave his side. When she sought to attend to her own life in any way, he bitterly protested, contorting his body and shaming her with a cold stare since he could no longer shame her with his voice.

In a mystery that I do not understand and that I cannot fathom, from time to time, God allows into every believer's life something that they cannot handle, something that they cannot easily overcome. It does not idle us, but it anchors us. It does not dismiss us, but it deepens us. It does not sideline us, but it strengthens us. God knows it's there but uses us in spite of it to his honor and to his glory.

George Truett, a former pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, carried through his preaching years the memory of a tragic hunting accident that resulted in the death of his friend. L. K. Williams, one of the most able black preachers of the twentieth century, grieved often over the failure of an only son. That great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, known all over the world for her great musical ability, never found true happiness in her married life. God allows into every believer's life something that they cannot handle, something that they cannot easily overcome.

Jeremiah got in trouble for following God. How I could wish that the trouble we encounter came as a result of following God. Jeremiah is our proof that if God leads you into adversity, God can lead you out. Expect that it might get worse before it gets better, but keep faith in your adversity. If you come into sore trial and affliction, keep faith. Even when you must endure burdens and battles, disaster and disappointments, keep faith. Even when loved ones hurt your heart and friends grow few and far between, keep faith.

God has not forsaken you. He has enrolled you into the university of adversity. While his ways are beyond finding out, his steadfast love is without question. Just know that God is not through with you yet. When God gets through with you, you shall come forth as pure gold. Amen!