A legend tells how, once upon a time, birds had no wings and couldn’t fly. One day, God handed them each a pair of wings, which He instructed them to carry. It was grueling at first, because the wings were heavy and cumbersome. But the birds obediently carried the wings at their sides and struggled along. Gradually, the wings began to merge into the birds’ bodies. Their resilience in dealing with this adversity that had seemed like a burden, soon freed the birds from their earthbound state and enabled them to experience the miracle of flight.
As the legend illustrates, God’s plan is always far greater in scope and better for us than anything we could imagine with our limited perspective. When we are too complacent, we can get lazy. Instead of seeking new opportunities for personal and spiritual growth, we cling to the job, routine, environment, and people that feel comfortable and safe. We are like children who fear the first day of school because it is a new and unfamiliar experience. But if children are to learn and mature, they need to trust and obey their parents, get an education, and face new challenges. Likewise, if we are to grow spiritually and reach our full potential, God has to “shake us up” a bit. This often involves adversity in the form of unwelcome changes, difficult situations, painful events, or the loss of someone or something we cherish.
In the book of Job, Elihu tells Job in the midst of his sufferings: “He delivers the afflicted by their affliction, and opens their ear by adversity” [Job 36:15]. In his Letter to the early Christians, St. James encourages them, “Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” [James 1:2-3].
But how can we find joy in the midst of adversity? How can we develop the resiliency to overcome adversity? Like the birds in the story, we find our burdens difficult to carry and don’t understand why we have to cope with them. But strength and faith do not come out of the best times of our lives; they are a result of the trials and misfortune we endure and overcome. We have to struggle up the mountain to enjoy the view from the top. Without loss we cannot learn compassion, detachment, self-confidence, or dependence on God. When circumstances beyond our control force us to let go of a person, possession, job or home, we learn that these things, no matter how precious, are not what make us happy. True happiness comes from our relationship with God, which no outside circumstances can ever take away.
When fate deals us devastating blows or disappointments, we can either retreat into depression, discouragement and bitterness, or see it as an opportunity for growth. “We even boast of our afflictions,” St. Paul said in his Letter to the Romans, “knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…” [Romans 5:3-5].
In other words, we might be unable to alter our circumstances, but we can change our perspective and our attitude. When we pray about situations we want God to change, we also need to ask them to change us, to help us to learn and grow, be more resilient, and most importantly, graciously accept His will.
A friend of mine has a theory that “life is like Aikido — you have to go with the flow.” In this Japanese art of self-defense, through the principle of non-resistance you use your opponent’s strength to your own benefit. In life, we can use troubles and challenges to our advantage. The key to this is realizing that God uses all of these things accomplish his plan. It’s no coincidence that in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” are paired in the same sentence. For God’s kingdom to manifest in our lives and in the world, we need to align ourselves with God’s will. “Your will be done” is the most perfect prayer we can offer God in any circumstances. It cuts through our selfishness, desires, fears, and narrow perspective, to embrace what is best for all concerned.
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While it is not God’s wish for evil to befall us, if we trust in His loving care when bad things happen, God eventually will bring good out of it. In the words of Paul Thigpen, PhD., author, speaker and award-winning journalist: “God allows evil because He’s powerful enough to bring out of even the greatest evil a much greater good.”
While we can and should strive to improve a bad situation, we cannot find peace if we are bitter about what we can’t change, or envious of someone else’s life. Each person’s cross is fitted to his or her own shoulders. Each of us gets the particular set of lessons we need for our soul’s growth. As we look back honestly on our lives, we realize that God has never abandoned us, and many events that seemed negative at the time brought blessings in their wake. There is peace in realizing that none of our experiences, no matter how unpleasant or difficult, are wasted if we accept them with trust that there is a Master behind the plan.
When we meet God at the end of our lives, He will show us the reasons for everything that happened to us. In the meantime, we need only trust His promise to create the best results in the worst of circumstances. “In the world you will have trouble. But take courage, I have conquered the world.” [John 16:33].