Do you wear glasses? Does someone in your family?
My mom tells the story of the day she received her first pair of glasses as a child. She asked her mom was those little green things were on the trees as they drove up to their home. Her mom said, “You mean the leaves?”
My mom had never seen them before with her impaired vision. The leaves were there, but she could only see them as more than blurry blobs until her vision was corrected.
A lot of us are the same way. We do not see things as they actually are. We see them as we are. And many of us are discouraged. So, when anything is new, different, difficult or not easy, we only see obstacles.
What if what we saw as obstacles were in fact opportunities?
What Stands in the Way Becomes the Way
In my new manifesto, I share how hopeful people and cynical people don’t see different scenes. They seem the same scenes from different perspectives.
The same is true for those who see opportunities within obstacles. They focus on what is possible rather than what is impossible.
In the opening of his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday shares a quote from the Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius.
“Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
What stands in the way becomes the way. The obstacle becomes the opportunity.
One of the biggest obstacles which trip us up and throw us off is adversity.
Our Aversion to Adversity
Our culture avoids adversity at all costs. We look to optimize, hack, simplify, expedite and rush all we can. From Amazon 2-hour delivery to the speed information travels today, we embrace the easy and reject the difficult. We expect and are even entitled to the path of least resistance.
This kind of worldview even pervades thinking within the Church. I’ve lost track of how often I hear people attributing God’s blessing of a decision due to the increasing ease of the path in front of them. Using the cliche “God just keeps opening all these doors”, they indicate their next decision is in large part because it’s the path with the least obstacles.
When did we get the idea that obstacles and God’s work were antithetical? In the Scriptures, our great heroes of the faith were all defined by great obstacles. They didn’t see God in the easy path; they saw God in the adversity. We admire them for their faith in adversity, but we continue to cultivate our aversion to it.
The Power of Adversity
Here’s the challenge this presents for us.
Easy things don’t change us. Adversity teaches us things success cannot.
The easiest seasons in our lives might have been very enjoyable, relaxing, refreshing and renewing. But they also softened us, caused us to drop our guard, and dulled our senses.
I believe adversity provides us with some surprising opportunities.
1) Adversity forms us.
In the Bible, Jesus’ public life begins with being baptized by his cousin, John. Jesus is then driven into the desert where he fasts for forty days and forty nights. At the end of this fortnight, the devil arrives and tempts him. Many have reflected on this narrative progression, noting that before he did any public miracles or taught any lessons, Jesus was privately formed by adversity and suffering.
If we were sitting around a campfire in the woods or over some of our favorite drinks, we could share about the life seasons which formed who we are today. Most of those stories would include trying days and times of crisis.
For me, I’d tell you about 2014, when my wife was on bedrest for 18 weeks after we nearly lost the pregnancy with our twins. Or the battle with anxiety I had when I moved from a city of 4 million people where I’d been for 14 years to a town of 40,000 for my first lead pastor position. Or my struggle with cynicism after my idealism was disappointed and I felt like I’d been duped by leaders I once admired and trusted.
Those seasons of adversity formed me. Do I want to repeat them? No. But without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
John Ortberg makes an interesting observation about adversity. Ortberg is a pastor and author, living outside San Francisco. I’ve learned so much from him – like a mentor from a distance. He once wrote: ”If you ask people who do not believe in God why they do not, the number one reason will be suffering. But, if you ask people who believe in God when they grew the most spiritually, the number one answer will be suffering.”
Adversity forms us in ways ease cannot.
2) Adversity refines our values.
I just finished reading the best-selling book, When Breath Becomes Air. Paul Kalanithi chronicles how his journey to become a neurosurgeon was interrupted by lung cancer. As Kalanithi walks the reader through the twists and turns of renewing his marriage and enduring chemotherapy, it is clear to see how what matters most to this man is evolving in real time.
We don’t have to wait for a brush with death or a battle with a disease to refine our values. We can allow a frustrating boss, a full load of classes, a tight financial arrangement, or a conflict with a friend to refine what we prioritize as most important.
A challenging season at work can change how we approach life. In a recent interview, Arizona Cardinals football coach Bruce Arians shares how he prioritizes family over his work.
“In a recent interview with SiriusXM, Arians made it clear that coaches on his staff need to prioritize their family—or face stiff consequences.
‘For our coaches, I tell them, if you miss a recital or a football game or a basketball game, I’ll fire you,’ Arians told SiriusXM NFL radio, via TheScore. ‘You can always come back and work. Those kids are not going to be there forever. They’re going to grow up and be gone.’
Arians’ policy was shaped by an experience he had as an assistant coach under Marty Schottenheimer, who had a strict policy on coaches being present in the office.
Offensive coordinator Joe Pendry helped develop a creative workaround to help Arians leave the office to see his son Jake’s game.
‘He said, ‘Well, I’ll tell him you went jogging. Just, when you get back, throw some water on your face,’ Arians said.”
Arians turned his frustration into an opportunity to create the kind of environment he wanted as a young coach and father. His adversity refined his values and it’s now impacting the lives of many families.
3) Adversity strengthens and roots us.
I can remember my dad, a pastor, often saying from the pulpit of our church when I was growing up, “We’re all either headed into, in the middle of or heading out of a crisis.”
Crisis becomes the ground in which we bury our roots. We will never be well-rooted without struggle, difficulty, adversity. We’ve all watched people who had never been faced with suffering or pain tumble over or be tossed about.
But the best example of why adversity is an opportunity to be embraced, not an obstacle to be avoided, comes from the state I’ve called home for 15 years – Arizona.
The Biosphere 2 is located near the University of Arizona in Tucson. If you’re unfamiliar, the Biosphere is a miniature version of our planet (now owned by the university of Arizona), constructed for scientists to study how the planet’s living systems actually work. Learnings from this “tiny planet” enabled scientists to innovate and come up with new ideas related to the growth of plants and collaborate with NASA about life in space.
In the biosphere 2, scientists observed trees growing faster than they would grow in the wild. However, they found that these trees wouldn’t completely mature. Before they could mature, the trees would collapse.
Later, scientists discovered the cause – a lack of wind in the biosphere. As it turns out, the wind plays a major role in a trees life. The presence of wind makes a tree stronger; it is thus able to mature and not fall down due to its own weight.
When plants and trees grow in the wild, the wind constantly keeps them moving. This causes a stress in the wooden load-bearing structure of the tree. To compensate, the tree manages to grow something called the reaction wood (or stress wood). This stress wood usually has a different structure (in terms of cellulose or lignin content). Stress wood positions the tree where it gets the best light, along with other optimum resources. This is why trees are able to contort towards the best light and still survive heavy load, even in awkward shapes.
Like trees, lack of adversity robs us of the resistance which builds our strength, ultimately deepening our roots and resiliency.
A New Approach
So, what if instead of resisting or running from adversity, we starting looking for the opportunity?
We might begin by asking some questions of our obstacle – in this case, adversity.
-What is this adversity forming in me? What is absent from my character or worldview that this difficult season could provide me a change to grow or develop?
-How am I being refined as I endure this adversity? Where are my values shifting? What is becoming more important? Less important? What is clarifying within my perspective on life?
-How am I being strengthened or more deeply rooted in this struggle? What was weak that is now being made strong? Where am I gaining resolve and resilience? How will I be different by enduring this season?
Now It’s Your Turn
When have your opportunities been hidden within obstacles? How has adversity formed or refined who you are? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.