Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Bread of Adversity

There is nothing more fundamental to the sustainment of life in our thinking than bread (or a similar staple such as rice) and water. Providing these elements are present we can live and grow; without them we die. While in the western world we consider only having access to such elements to represent a life of hardship, in many places in the world they constitute the provision of sustenance for which people are continually thankful; a lesson that we in the western world so often loose sight of.

In Isaiah Chapter 30 and verses 15-21 there is a reference to bread and water which we probably would prefer not to think of too often.

In verses 20 & 21 we find the following:

"Although the Lord gives you the bread a of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying 'this is the way, walk in it'"

The concept that adversity & affliction can be the elements through which our life is sustained and probably even grow is something that we would rather not contemplate. Moreover, the passage also suggests that they also an integral part of our learning process and guidance (verse 22). While in hindsight many Christians will acknowledge that times of significant growth most often occur during times of adversity/affliction, it is not a state they relish nor a state in which they desire to stay. In fact, generally speaking, affliction and adversity are states to which we devote significant time and energy trying to avoid and/or exit as soon as possible. Consequently, we are left with a dilemma; the situations during which we grow the most and learn a lot are the very situations which scare us the most and in which we want to spend the least possible time! Why is this? Does God have some perverse characteristic that enjoys putting us through spiritual boot camp? Is it a way by which we are meant to show what we are made of; a proving ground if you like? This is a question that many before me appear to have struggled with, as evidenced in books such as the Psalms (eg: Psalm 38) and in the New Testament letters of apostles such as Peter to the church which by this time has been scattered all over the place as a result of persecution (1 Peter C5 v 6 - 11).

Today you only have to visit your local Christian bookstore to find a plaethora of books dealing with suffering. The explanations/ exortations provided in them are extensive ranging from "we are to expect it, so bring it on so we can grow", "God causes suffering so that we can grow", "our need to be broken/crushed before God can use us", "spiritual warfare", "there must be something wrong you haven't dealt with ( along the lines of Job's comforters)" and "trying to survive as best you can until the trials have passed". While there may be some elements of truth in some of these explanations, they offer little consolation while we are passing through adversity. Furthermore, many of these explanations leave me struggling with how this is consistent with a God who right from Genesis through to the death and resurrection of Christ has consistently demonstrated how he loves each one of us, desires to have a relationship with us and sacrificed His Son to make this possible.

Some insight into these issues can be found in the beginning of Isaiah 30. If you go back to the beginning of the Chapter you discover that God's chosen people are at a stage where they are trying to solve their problems by consulting with and/or making alliances with everything and everyone but God. In fact by the time you reach verse 10 they have reached the stage where they no longer wish to hear what God has to say as they no longer want to look at what is actually facing them, but rather "pleasant things (NIV)". In verse 12 it becomes more apparent that they have been bound and determined to solve problems in their own way, using their own resources. This ultimately leads to the statement in verse 15 where God says:

"In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of if (NIV)"

As a result of God's children choosing not to follow God's direction we see that they become fearful( verses 16 & 17).

It strikes me that this so often resembles my own walk. God points me towards a path that I can see requires me to face adversity and affliction and my first instinct is to run the other way, to use my own guile to develop solutions which I perceive will minimize my own pain anything to try and avoid the direction in which I am being pointed. Why do I do this? If I am truthful I think it is most often because I realize that the situation is too hard for me to handle, something about which I feel too vulnerable to handle or something which previously caused me a lot of pain and which I vowed I would never deal with again. What I have forgotten to factor into my assessment at this point is Paul's observation that we can do all things in Christ who strengthens me (Philippians C4 v 13). You would think that such a promise would excite me, but too often it makes me start to realize that my life in Christ involves becoming dependant on him and giving up any pretence of personal control; a pretence that although in my heart-of-hearts I know is false and ultimately leads to failure I for some reason still choose to stubbornly cling to. Instead, of following God's direction to return to Him and His way and rely on and trust Him to address adversity (paraphrase of verse 15), I panic, start flayling around and end up in a constant state of fear as I alternate between gingerly approaching and rapidly retreating from the adversity/affliction that I perceive lies ahead. All the time I am asking, or probably more accurately yelling, at God about why I need to face such adversity/affliction in the first place?

A partial answer to this may lie in an example from my profession. I am trained as a aircraft structures engineer. Part of my job involves helping to evaluate structures through both analysis and test to ensure they will not fail in flight. How is this accomplished?; by loading up the structures beyond the anticipated worse loads they will see in service to validate that they are indeed capable of taking those loads. The general public expects that such testing will have been carried out and verified before they get on a plane. Can you imagine what would happen if you and I were traveling together on a plane and upon finding out what I do for a living you ask me is this plane safe? If I replied "I expect so, but we haven't really tested it out but it will probably be OK", you would probably have some serious reservations upon getting on the plane. Furthermore, if after further reflection, I then turned to you and said "hmm .... as we haven't actually tested the plane I will skip this flight so that I can observe what happens. When you land safely you will know that the plane was OK", you probably wouldn't want to get on the flight at all! Conversely, if I explained all the testing that had been done to substantiate that the aircraft could survive all conditions it was anticipated to encounter in service, you would feel a lot more cmfortable getting on the plane, regardless of whether you had a detailed understanding of the engineering or not.

If you compare verses 15 and 18 & 19, I think that in a similar way to my description of aircraft testing God might be trying to show us that although in this life we will be confronted with adversity and affliction we only have to call out to Him, He will provide all the help and resources to deal with whatever we are facing whether we understand the "Engineering" behind it or not. The net result is that at the end of the day we know that we can totally rely on God as oppossed to our own "Egyptian Alliances" (guile and resourcefulness). This is something that the apostle Paul discovered as evidenced by passages such as Romans C8 v 26-38. So perhaps what we are seeing in Isaiah C30 is God encouraging us not to flee in fear from adversity and affliction when it presents itself to us but rather to approach it in God's strength so we can truely see it for what it is, see that God can deal with it and subsequently be freed from any fear or other hold it might otherwise have over us. This also helps us to atart making more sense of the passage in 1 Peter C5 v 6-11 alluded to earlier in this article. As we allow God to teach us with the bread of adversity and the water of affliction and not rely on our own guile and resourcefulness, so we humble ourselves before God, cast our fears to Him who is able to resolve them. This allows us to resist the Devil and not giving him a foothold of fear. Ultimately this will lead to is being restored, strong and steadfast (Compare Isaiah C30 v 15 with 1 Peter C5 v 6 & 10).

Maybe what we most need to learn is that the bread of adversity and the water of affliction are only something we need to fear if we attempt to face or deal with them by ourselves as opposed to realizing that our salvation lies in giving up our self-reliance, turning to Him and seeing our strength come from trusting Him as He works in our lives(Isaiah C30 v 15). While I am starting to realize that this is the way we need to go, I for one am certainly not there! In that regard the prayers of those of you who read this would certainly be appreciated!


1 comment:

  1. Thanks Steve for sharing your article and your insight with me. It is helpful! ;)