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The University of Adversity

The University of Adversity

From a sermon preached by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts at Trinity United Methodist Church in Fort Walton Beach, FL, on September 16, 1990, and used by Rev. Spencer Turnipseed at the first meeting of our association at Scarrett-Bennett Campus in Nashville, TN, in November, 1993, four years before AIA was incorporated.

Introduction and Summary

During half-time of a football game, two sportscasters were discussing the great running back for the Chicago Bears, the diminutive sweet-spirited Walter Payton, the all-time leading ground-gainer in the National Football League..  “Do you realize,” said one, that Payton has gained over nine miles rushing in his career?”   The second responded, “Yes, and to think that every 4.6 yards someone was knocking him down!”

Maybe that describes your life.  Truth of the matter is, that describes the life of most of us.  Life is a risky business.  We rightly admire the ones who pick themselves up or are pulled to their feet by a teammate, dust themselves off, and get back into the huddle.

There is a lot to learn in life and we should learn all we can.  Successful living and ultimate achievement belong to those who have matriculated and graduated from the University of Adversity.

The Sermon

Next to Jesus, most of us see the Apostle Paul as the greatest hero of the New Testament.  We are moved by how he bravely faced his last moments when he was taken to a lonely place outside Rome.  A broadsword flashed in the early morning sun and St. Paul went “home.”

But that was only the last of the adversities he faced.  It took years after his conversion on the road to Damascus before he was accepted by the main body of Christians in Jerusalem and in the Gentile world. 

In addition to that, he writes in II Corinthians of his physical sufferings: “Overworked, scourged, imprisoned, and many times face to face with death.  Five times the terrible 39 lashes, 3 times beaten with rods, once stoned and 3 times shipwrecked, and 24 hours adrift at sea.  Constant danger on the road, danger from robbers, danger from rivers, danger from fellow countrymen, danger from foreigners . . . I have toiled, “ he writes, “and drudged; I have gone without sleep, hungry and thirsty and suffered from cold and exposure.”  (II Cor. 11:23-27). 

He was still a long way from Rome when he wrote that.

How did he do it, handle all that adversity? 

He left a clue.  He wrote earlier in that same letter, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed.”  That’s how the Revised Standard Version translates what he wrote.  J. B. Phillips translates it this way: “We are handicapped on all sides; but we are never frustrated; we are puzzled but never in despair; we are persecuted, but we never have to stand it alone; we are knocked down, but never knocked out.”

St. Paul is a hero to us not by being martyred so much as by persisting despite the hardships, knocked down, but not knocked out.  How is that for a post-graduate degree from the University of Adversity?

When we think of heroes, we may have a military image in the back of our mind.  Napolean Bonaparte went so far as to list the major characteristics he sought in the ones who joined his armies.  He listed 78 items and then put them in their order of importance.

My first choice for a hero would be courage.  Napoleon, however, listed that as second.  He wrote, “The first qualification of a soldier is fortitude under fatigue and privation.” 

The truth of the matter is that this is the real battle. 

Most of us would be fine with one grand exhibition of courage but would not sign up to fight on, day after day, under great hardship.

We all watch, more often unawares, those around us who somehow manage despite difficult circumstances.  Many are caught up in slow-moving tragedies that never seem to have any “winner-take-all battle.”  There are folks with sick and crippled bodies we only rarely glimpse but who press on doing what they can.  There are people with invisible emotional wounds and family problems who somehow keep life from falling apart.  There are people who struggle to pay the rent, hang in there with their kids when they go wrong, or pursue employment with no luck.  When we realize how they keep going, we are struck by their fortitude.  They “soldier” on despite their adversity.  They are seldom honored for their effort but they sustain the very fabric of our communities.

Napoleon was right.  Fortitude comes first.  Courage comes later.

The opposite of fortitude is self-pity. 

Oh what a temptation that is!  It is almost addictive because it is so easy.  Adversity then becomes someone else’s fault.  It makes us into helpless victims.  It disrupts imagination and creativity.  It destroys hope.  It presumes the trouble is endless.  It seeks no way out.  It isn’t even trying to make the grade in the University of Adversity.

When Victor Hugo was exiled from his beloved France, he spent 18 years in the Channel Islands.  For this man who had been the Royal Dramatist, exile was worse than death.  Each afternoon at sunset, Hugo would climb to the highest part of his island near the coast and look with longing toward France.

Legend has it that each day he would go to the beach after his meditations and seek out pebbles to throw in the water.  The children who knew him finally asked him why he did that.  Victor Hugo smiled gravely and said, “Not stones, children, not stones.  I am throwing self-pity into the sea.”  Little wonder that those 18 years of adversity led to his giving the world his greatest works and most profound insights.

Let me move on to a second major lesson learned in the University of Adversity.

St. Paul’s description of his tribulations were always put in the plural, “we.”   “We are handicapped on all sides; but we are never frustrated; we are puzzled but never in despair; we are persecuted, but we never have to stand it alone; we are knocked down, but never knocked out.”

He was not alone.  With him were a number of others at different times: Barnabas (he’s one of my favorites), John Mark, Phoebe, Luke the physician, and Silas among others.  When we share our adversity with others, it is harder for self-pity to block out our friends and family, those who care for us.  Reaching out can mean there is that hand that pulls us up to our feet, just as Walter Payton found with his teammates.

God usually does His saving through someone else.  We are saved through Jesus.  We are saved by the friend who actually hears what we feel is hurting us.  We are saved by someone who happens along and happens to say the right thing. 

While leading a tour of the giant Sequoias in a national park in California, the guide described how each tree had very shallow roots.  A Midwesterner accustomed to the trees in his part of the country asked how the huge trees could stand against the winds off the ocean or off the mountains.  “Sequoias lack a tap root like the great trees where you are from.  But their surface root system intertwines with the roots of the other Sequoias around them.  As a natural community, they withstand storms very well.  When the strong winds come, they hold one another up.”

We too have surface roots like that.  Yes, fortitude is a tap root reaching for the living water of God in the midst of a parched land.  But our surface roots are entwined with the roots of those around us so that during hard times, they hold us up and help us keep going. 

These are the lessons we learn in the University of Adversity.


In the ebb and flow of life, we may find ourselves in deep water that swamps us, or are caught up in the entanglements with surroundings that grasp at us and debilitate us.  Or the storms of life strike and leave us knocked down.  We will all be there someday, if we have not already experienced it. 

“God is our strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear,” the psalmist writes. 

Oh but we do fear.  How tempted we are to quit.  How tempted we are to feel sorry for ourselves and do nothing but drift till we die.  

Those who have known the heart stopping, grinding, fearsome helplessness which can overwhelm us in our troubles, know how hard it is to reach out for a helping hand.  In the University of Adversity we discover, as Paul also writes (in I Corinthians 4:7), “It is clear that the glorious power within us must be from God.  It is not our own.”

But the Hand of God comes when we reach out.  It may be one with callouses and big knuckles!  But that hand is out there and is among those who surround us in our times of trial. 

It is part of our ministry as Associates in Advocacy to be watching for the seeking hands.  We should know.  We are graduates of the University of Adversity.

Shared by Rev. Jerry Eckert
Presented at the opening of the Nov. 13-14, 2007, meeting of AIA, held in Elk Grove Village, IL, at the Super 8 OHare Motel.