(By "Double Sundae" I mean a double-size review/rant. Short summary: I'm willing to sell and recommend this popular book...very cautiously. It's a Christian book that may help some people and harm others.)
Title: How to Handle Adversity
Author: Charles F. Stanley
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Length: 181 pages
Quote: “I know of several people who are mad at God because of the adversity that has come their way.”
This is a book I'm willing to resell very, very cautiously. This book is a well written modern restatement of some ideas that have traditionally been accepted by religious people, including Christians. In some situations these ideas are relevant, and true. The trouble is that, when the ideas in this book are not balanced by the other side of the traditional religious response to adversity, they do harm.
I read, resell, and recommend (to middle-aged people) some books that, because of the amount of attention they give to sexual feelings, I can’t recommend to young people. Some people really need to spend an hour or two letting their attention be drawn to sexual thoughts and memories, for their wives’ or husbands’ sake, and perhaps less directly their children’s and their communities’ sake. A book these readers find erotic is a good book, for them. Others need to focus on anything but their sexuality while they are dealing with sexual temptation—most people under age 25 are in that category. A book they find erotic is a book they should avoid.
As a Christian who loves and sells books, though, I worry less about the book that might aggravate someone’s temptation to violate marriage vows, than I worry about the book that might aggravate someone’s temptation to express the kind of laziness and self-righteousness that breed Christian-phobic reactions and turn so many ex-churchgoers, not merely against spiritually dead churches (which would be a good thing), but against the Holy One Whom they blame for the sins of spiritually dead churchgoers.
What Christians have traditionally classified as “adversity” is a general term for anything that makes anyone’s life more difficult. How Christians are supposed to handle “adversity” varies depending on the kind of “adversity” it is. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul discusses one specific “adversity” in his life, which he describes as “a thorn in the flesh,” which he came to believe was something God wanted him to have to endure for his own spiritual good. We don’t know exactly what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was; from his references to the “large letters written with his own hand” at the end of some of his letters, and an acquaintance’s description of his “squinting” eyes, many suspect it was deteriorating eyesight. We do know, however, that it was (1) something that only a miracle from God could have changed (Paul was not shy about demanding support from his audience), (2) about which Paul prayed for that sort of miracle, three times, probably in prayer meetings with other Christians, until (3) Paul himself reported the insight that it was, in some way, doing him good.
From Paul’s testimony, Christians may conclude that some of us may eventually encounter some form of “adversity” that we may eventually conclude has been sent by God to do us some sort of spiritual good.
It is, however, far too easy for far too many Christians to conclude that any and all bad things that happen to other people are sent to them by God to do them good—that none of the “adversity” other people report to us was ever meant to test our willingness to behave as Christ did.
Jesus never once told anybody to dispense any lofty “spiritual” counsel that suggested that His Father is a Cosmic Sadist who wants good people to suffer . Jesus, in fact, told Christians to focus on the forms of human suffering that they individually are able to alleviate, and pour out their gifts to alleviate those. The idea that Paul’s suffering may have been sent to Paul by God for Paul’s “spiritual growth” came from Paul, after his friends had tried very very hard to help; Paul reported his own insight to his supportive friends so that they could stop worrying about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Paul described many other forms of “adversity” he encountered in his long adventurous life—some with which other Christians could help him, and did, and Paul never hesitated to tell them how they could help, nor did they cavil at the mention of money; others with which other Christians wanted to help him, but couldn’t, and there is no suggestion of any misplaced blame about that.
What would Jesus do if he could watch some of today’s so-called Christians, with that hideous ghoulish grin they affect in such situations, telling a sincere young believer, “Yes, of course you need another job after a backbiter in the church has caused you to lose the job you were doing to the satisfaction of your employer and customers. Maybe some sort of welfare program can help you with that. Now the important thing is for you to accept this adversity as something God needed you to be happy about for the sake of your spiritual growth!”
I suspect that, if a rope happened to be available, He would lay it across their mouths in such a way that they’d think twice about smiling or speaking for the rest of their lives.
In order to recommend this book to Christians I feel obligated to tell them:
1. No economic or social problem, which human beings can resolve “in our own strength” without being Christians, simply by acting as decent human beings, should ever be compared to Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” What the person who lost his job, or the person(s) considering abortion because she(they) might not be able to afford a baby, or the person whose house burned down, or several of the other people whose situations Stanley mentions in this book, need is practical, material “comfort” from fellow believers. Any words that may be blurted out to or about those people, before the reality problem has been fully resolved, are BLASPHEMY and should be soundly condemned by anyone representing self to be a Christian teacher.
Yes, it’s possible that the words with which someone describes the loss of his home or the fear that she wouldn’t be able to feed a child may not be theologically correct. What can real Christians do about that? Can we rush ahead and try to fix the feelings? We cannot. We dare not. That would be blasphemy; it would amount to a demand that God send us the kind of “personal growth experience” we in our insanity dared to recommend to someone who was merely going through a natural grief process, sevenfold. We must
FIX FACTS FIRST. FEELINGS FOLLOW.
Jesus didn’t scold the people who were feeling ambivalent about whether to keep listening to Him or to go home for dinner; He fed them. Once the fact of their natural appetite for food had been fixed, those feelings of ambivalence just faded away. So do the “spiritually incorrect” feelings people have about the material needs and the personal relationships Christians are called, not to preach about, but to fix.
2. Obviously, some of the things of which people complain don’t even qualify as spiritual “adversity.” They are just the natural consequences of the mistakes those people have made. However, one of the most conspicuous differences between Jesus and His apostles, and the spiritually dead modern church, is that Jesus and the apostles do not seem to have spent a lot of time looking for ways to make every hardship seem like a direct consequence of some hypothetical sin. (Job’s friends did that, and were soundly rebuked for doing it—by Job and by God.)
To be fair, partly this was because Jesus’ audience consisted almost entirely of devout Jews who had spent their lives listening to rabbis who never hesitated to call a sin a sin. What the New Testament rabbis and Old Testament prophets actually said about sin, and the consequences of sin, consisted mostly of the same sort of thing we now expect to hear or read from psychologists. The prophets and rabbis told people “If you do these things God will withhold blessings from you.” The psychologists tell people “If you do these things you will be unhappy.” To a considerable extent it’s the same thing, and similarly unnecessary.
Most of the women who’ve ever considered a deliberately induced abortion knew, before they started considering it, that abortion is a source of physical and emotional pain. Most of the family members who’ve abused each other and become estranged from each other knew they were going to feel miserable about it; they felt miserable while they were doing it. Even addicts, these days, had some idea that forming that addiction was going to be a source of pain for them; what I’ve seen far too many of are people who became addicts while they were too young to imagine how much worse that pain could be than the pain they were already feeling...in any case, then as now, most of the people who are suffering the consequences of sin, if they are Christians, do have some idea that they’re dealing with something very different from Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.”
There is one exception to this rule of which Christians need to be aware. That is the way some people honestly don’t know how to communicate with one another...especially the very young. Not everyone knows what a friendly conversation in your social circle is supposed to sound like. It is possible for sincere Christians sincerely to feel that someone’s unpopularity is the consequence of communication patterns that they suspect of expressing sinful, or at least obnoxious, social attitudes, while that person just as sincerely feels that what s/he said was either (a) perfectly appropriate, at least for conversation with other people the person knows well, or (b) probably not the right thing to say but certainly more appropriate than anything else the person could have thought of saying in that situation. In that case the church people are the ones who need to be challenged by their pastors to detach their emotions and engage in a bit of practical linguistics to analyze, without becoming judgmental, what all of them can learn from the situation.
3. The problem with telling people, across the board, that “adversity” is something God wants them to suffer, is that according to the Bible wanting people to suffer is what Satan does. God permits us to suffer, not only the consequences of what we do, but also the consequences of what other living things do. God made a world in which it’s possible that Tracy Smith is a paraplegic because Lee Jones chose to be a drunk driver—but God is not pleased by that. What God wants us to do in this kind of world is reduce the extent of the suffering in any way we can. That is what Jesus told us to do, and what Jesus did.
The apostolic church did face persecution. Although Jesus not only relieved physical suffering but, according to the Gospels, taught that His own martyrdom was necessary to spare us eternal spiritual suffering (and His martyrdom was so heinous that it must have accomplished something)...His teaching produced cognitive dissonance, which is a kind of mental suffering, in both Roman officials and the more conservative Jewish teachers. This cognitive dissonance then led to a very specific form of social, material, and sometimes physical suffering known as the persecution of the church. With regard to this specific form of suffering—not to negate all that Jesus had taught them—the apostles did encourage one another to “consider it joy” when they suffered from “the testing of their faith,” to feel that they had “been counted worthy to share in the suffering of Christ” and look forward to “great rewards in Heaven.” (And in some cases their rewards must have been in Heaven, because some of them were actually murdered.)
But we need to be clear about the difference between the paradox of being unjustly punished for doing kind things, due to other people’s mental confusion, and the kind of devil worship Abraham and Moses and Jesus were sent to lead us away from. Fawning on a Cosmic Sadist is devil worship. Using the idea of martyrdom or the idea of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as a default reaction to all suffering, including the suffering we are very clearly being called to get up and do something about, is the supreme blasphemy of preaching devil worship in the name of Christ. And if there is one specific Unpardonable Sin, one sin for which—by its nature—it is at least very difficult and very unlikely that anyone could ever fully repent, this sin must be the one.
Did God, in fact, need for Paul to live with a permanent (though not unbearable) “thorn in the flesh” like cataracts or arthritis to keep Paul from “exalting himself”—or did God merely allow Paul to suggest that thought to people whose concern about Paul’s health was becoming a spiritual stumblingblock for them? We may never know; even in Heaven there’s no guarantee that we’ll be told. What we can understand, with our ordinary human understanding, is that whatever benefit Paul got from his “thorn in the flesh” was something peculiar to Paul’s individual psyche, not something to be invoked whenever it would be inconvenient for us to emulate Jesus with a little sacrifice of labor or money.
Do you, in fact, need to adjust to a permanent “thorn in the flesh” for your own spiritual benefit? If Paul was led to think that, once, much less to believe it, permanently, then so may you and I be. But Paul was not led to present that as a conclusion to which everyone should leap. Paul was not a typical man of his time, and his time was a long time ago. In Paul’s time, if you had cataracts as a result of looking at the Mediterranean sun on the sea and the sand for fifty years, you prayed; you asked others to pray for you; possibly you tried applying soothing salve to your eyes. Then, unless you were the one documented person from whose eyes Jesus caused “scales to fall,” you knew you had done all that could be done and adjusted to life with blindness. Now we have sunglasses, and we even have laser surgery, and the Bible in no way suggests that there is any spiritual benefit in failing to use either of those things. If sunglasses failed to protect you from developing cataracts, laser surgery failed to preserve any of your vision, and prayer didn’t seem to help either, then it might be possible for you to choose to regard your impending blindness as a “thorn in the flesh” or, no doubt more usefully, as an opportunity to learn something about blindness from which you might be able to do something to help other blind people.
4. Even then, there is another possibility, also identified in the Bible. Adversity tries people. It does not try, exclusively, the individual most obviously suffering the adversity. When Lot thought he needed to protect two strangers from the men of Sodom, it was not the two “young men” who were being tried and found guilty.
I write this as a Christian whose peculiar form of “adversity,” for more than ten years now, has consisted of lack of money—entirely and alone—and lack of opportunities to earn money, even after doing work in the expectation that that work would be paid for with that money. “Well, that has to mean that you’re doing something wrong.” Does it? Does it really? Then why, when I’ve prayed for guidance about what I needed to do, have I only ever been shown the image of a sick patient trying and failing to move his hands—of God not helping me to recover from financial hardship because the way God does that is through the living Body of believers, and that Body has “gone dead” like the hands of the sick patient?
I’ve never denied that I made mistakes during the year my husband died, although I’ve not published enough of the details to identify the living people involved. I will affirm that they were honest mistakes, and that the worst ones came from loving my husband and stepson and from expecting the law to protect them—more even than from expecting the law to protect me—from evildoers.
But in the ordinary course of events there was no logical reason why I should have needed anything from my husband’s estate. To the extent that we’d planned that, we’d agreed that the six-figure bank account was most likely to be needed by my stepson. I had never stopped working, nor had I become unable to work. I should have been able to earn a good living, at least after the daily weeping stage of widowhood, all by myself, just as I’d done while single. I wasn’t. I’m not yet. Things have just kept happening ever since my husband died.
God has not used these things to bring out any pattern of honest mistakes I’ve been making in my business; I’ve looked for those, and that would be much too easy. God has been using them to teach me, and to teach you, some things about the way the (howling majority) of churchians who know nothing about Jesus, and the (pathetic little minority, if any) actual Christians who are alive these days, treat penniless widows.
Regular readers may feel more comfortable with some other interpretation, something about everything God taught me all through my years as a Christian bachelor and a Christian wife having been wrong—some “lesson” like “Low-investment, debt-free businesses can’t work in today’s economy” or “Introverts aren’t meant to accept and capitalize on the gift of introversion” or even (God save the mark) “Women aren’t meant to own businesses.” Those things have been suggested to me by other people, but what my faith tradition identifies as God’s leading has consistently shown that those people are mistaken, and their day will come.
One thing I have observed, when people have offered halfhearted support but not sincere, wholehearted support, has been that their day may be that very day of the calendar. One client who wanted to skimp on payments falsely referred to himself as “old and blind and crippled.” (He was about sixty, just beginning to need glasses, stronger and more active than many people are at thirty.) On that day he broke his right arm, and his business has yet to pull out of the downward spiral that started there. The human conscience does seem to have a well documented tendency to steer people into the precise forms of adversity they’ve feared, or falsely claimed, when making excuses. The excuse exaggerates some fear in the person’s mind, and then what was feared becomes real and it’s even worse.
From the tone in which Paul wrote about his “thorn in the flesh” and from the history of his time, we know that Paul was writing to a church in what some scholars might call its “Philadelphia stage,” the first-love stage in which new groups formed by sincere, enthusiastic people document miracles. Whatever Paul’s friends in Corinth understood his “thorn in the flesh” to be, they were not callous or halfhearted about it. They had done all that flesh and blood could do; they had at least tried all that prayer could do, also. His adversity probably had functioned partly to try them, and had found them to be genuine Christians.
In the modern church I'm not seeing this happen. We are in a “Laodicea stage” where the callousness, or “lukewarm love,” of church people makes God sick (enough to “spew,” in King James’ English). The most charitable thing we can possibly say, about this kind of secondhand effect of adversity, is that the people who are tried by a friend’s adversity and found guilty of callousness may have needed their suffering.
5. Oh, but isn’t it so-o-o spiritual to believe that God wants us to embrace suffering for its own sake as a means to spiritual growth? It is not. God does not want us to suffer. For people whom God has allowed to suffer according to the laws of nature, “embracing the pain” may be a delusion induced by their diseases; for people like Therese of Lisieux it probably was that. For people who have sought out suffering in an effort to “be spiritual” or feel that they’ve done penance for their sins, it is the sin of spiritual pride. For people who have urged others to embrace suffering rather than expect church people to do what they ought to have done to relieve that suffering, it is the (Probably) Unpardonable Sin of blasphemy.
So,should anyone read How to Handle Adversity? Perhaps. Some forms of “adversity” are strictly spiritual—fears, temptation, guilt, “spiritual covetousness,” dark nights of the soul—and if you, yourself, have a sort of “thorn in the spirit” that does admit only strictly spiritual relief, something that is entirely between you and God-as-you-understand-God, then you can begin with prayer rather than practical work. If you are in fact convinced that God wants you to work through some sort of adversity, as Stanley says (on page 180) that he was when some human adversaries wanted him to quit a job but he was convinced that God wanted him to stay, then you are in the rather small intended audience for the kind of counsel Stanley here offers. There is a kind of rarefied spiritual “suffering” for which trying to convince yourself that God is responsible may be helpful; at least that approach seems to have brought relief to many people who have documented that kind of suffering (while the rest of Christendom has quietly wondered whether those people might not some day be cured by medication).
Stanley’s chapter 13, “Not I, b ut Christ,” pages 141 through 152, is not merely wrong but satanic if it’s generalized into an approach to all suffering. It is, however, the precisely right approach to the kind of spiritual suffering that revolves around questions like...
* “How do I know I’m ‘saved’?”
* “Why haven’t I received a dramatic new spiritual gift?”
* “Has God really forgiven me for doing...”
* “Can even Love Itself love me when I still have thoughts and feelings like...”
* “When I recognize how much I ‘get’ out of ‘giving’ or how ‘proud’ I can become of behaving ‘humbly’...”
* “Where, oh, where is the middle ground in between denying that God cares what I do with my sexuality and fearing that I’ll be condemned, by others or even by God, if anyone even finds out what my sexuality is really like?”
* “The more I try to forget myself and practice love toward people I don’t really like, the more I feel how much I dislike them...”
* “If I dreamed about Hell, not the town but the spiritual concept, does that mean that that’s where I am or someone else is going? If the dream had been just a warning, wouldn’t I have dreamed about Heaven too?”
* “Some people say I’m doing the right thing, but I want to do more...”
Sometimes these thoughts vex young people who are, in fact, in a spiritual process of growing. It is now possible (though expensive and dangerous) to observe the literal, physical growth of the “spirituality centers” in their brains. Sometimes spirituality develops late. And then, since the brain is an organ like any other, and the brain has to process “spiritual experiences” in a physical way not unlike the way it has to process light for us to see anything, there is a possibility that spiritual confusion and agitation might be produced by physical problems within the brain. In any case, for this kind of situation, Stanley’s advice may be right; at least it seems to be what works. “We can...be totally controlled by ‘self’ and yet be busy about the ‘Lord’s work’...Think about your prayers. Whom do they center on? Oftentimes it is ‘self.’ God wants the ‘self’ life crucified...God is not satisfied with well-mannered, respectable ‘self’ on the throne... God...will not let up until ‘self’ is dethroned and crucified.”
Anyone reading these words needs to know that they are not, ever, under any circumstances to be applied to any reality problem. They are strictly for the spiritual-emotional vortexes down which some people’s moods occasionally drift. When you have a strictly spiritual problem, the solution really is to affirm that your “self” is dead, your “life is hid with Christ in God,” and you should just trust God to resolve the problem for you.
So in conclusion...I received a copy of How to Handle Adversity as a nearly new book. Perhaps that’s not the way I ought to sell it. Perhaps every page ought to be outlined with warnings: “THIS IS NOT A ‘FIRST AID’ BOOK. IT IS A ‘LAST RESORT’ BOOK. NEVER OPEN THIS BOOK AS LONG AS ANY REALITY PROBLEM IN THE PHYSICAL REALM CAN BE IDENTIFIED.” Perhaps pages 141 through 152 ought to be sealed off behind a piece of stiff cardboard marked, “OPEN ONLY IN RESPONSE TO THE KIND OF ‘SPIRITUAL PROBLEM’ THAT, WHEN EXPLAINED TO ANYONE BUT AN OLD-SCHOOL CHRISTIAN MINISTER, GETS A REFERRAL TO A PSYCHIATRIST.”
A prayer of self-surrender may do more for that kind of problem than a course of tranquillizers can. But do not open this book when anyone is concerned about any aspect of physical reality. All of it is intended to begin where practical solutions to life’s “adversity” leave off; toward the end, any attempt to apply this book to the concerns of the majority of humankind would amount to blasphemy.
Charles Stanley is still alive at the time of writing, so How to Handle Adversity is a Fair Trade Book. If you buy it here for $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, we'll send $1 to Stanley or a charity of his choice.