Sometimes what seems like a terrible blow or crushing defeat can be turned into a springboard for success in life. God can make our trials become blessings.
On Sept. 19, 1967, a baby boy was born in Flint, Michigan. His parents no doubt eagerly anticipated the arrival of their little one. But they received a terrible shock when he made his debut. He was born with a birth defect: he had no right hand, only an arm that ended in a stump at the wrist.
As he grew, he was like many American boys his age—he ate, slept and breathed baseball. I’m a few years older, but I remember riding uncountable miles on my bicycle, a baseball glove threaded over the handlebars, to and from Little League practices and games.
Like so many, this young man dreamed of making it big and being a Major League Baseball player, specifically a pitcher. But how likely was that when you only have one hand?
Jim Abbott never gave up
Undoubtedly some diehard baseball fans will already know that the boy with only one hand is none other than Jim Abbott. As a youngster, he spent countless hours throwing a rubber ball against a wall. He rested his glove on the stump of his right arm, threw the ball hard and learned to slip his hand into the glove in time to field the ball. He struggled and worked tirelessly to perfect his technique. He honed his reflexes and coordination to an incredible level.
In high school he was good enough to make the cut and not only pitched but also batted for himself—even hitting home runs one-handed. He could pitch, get his hand in his glove fast enough to field a hot groundball hit back to him, get the ball out of his glove and back in his hand in time to throw runners out, even twisting to throw to second to start double plays! It was said he could pitch, field and throw the ball as quickly as most two-handed pitchers.
In college he pitched for the University of Michigan, where in 1988 he won the Big Ten Player of the Year. He participated on the U.S. Men’s Baseball Team, which won gold in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Then in 1989 he realized his dream when he signed on to pitch for the California Angels. Opposing teams repeatedly tried to take advantage of his disability by using the bunt—but he was so quick and agile it never worked. His pitches were regularly clocked at 85 to 90 miles an hour, and his fastballs consistently approached 95 miles an hour.
Eventually Jim was traded to the New York Yankees, and just before his 26th birthday, on Sept. 4, 1993, in a game against the Cleveland Indians, he achieved every pitcher’s goal and pitched a no-hitter.
Jim continued to play until his retirement in 1999. Today he works as a motivational speaker.
We can choose to grow through trials
If Jim Abbott had been born with two hands, would he ever have become a great baseball player? Possibly so. But having to overcome a physical challenge made him dedicate even more time and energy into practice and improving.
Sometimes what we may think of as insurmountable trials are what God intends to be challenges that teach and train us.Sometimes what we may think of as insurmountable trials are what God intends to be challenges that teach and train us. Let’s look at a biblical example.
Perhaps you are familiar with the story of Joseph, which is recorded in Genesis 37. He was young, about 17 at this point, and in many ways fairly naive. He was his dad’s favorite son, which made his older brothers chafe. It may be that he even took some delight in telling them his dreams of greatness, flaunting his coat of many colors, etc. But he didn’t realize he’d pushed them to the breaking point. Most of his brothers were in favor of killing him (verse 18). But his brother Reuben saved him from death (verse 21).
Instead they sold him as a slave to Midianite traders. Joseph was still a teen when he was sold into slavery and taken to a land he didn’t know, with unfamiliar customs and likely a language he didn’t understand. Wouldn’t you feel like your life was ruined at this point? He was the favorite son of a wealthy man—destined for a nice inheritance and probably a comfortable life. But all that changed.
Genesis 39 reveals Joseph was sold to a wealthy and important man named Potiphar. Joseph worked hard and tried to be wise, and most of all didn’t give up hope. He knew God hadn’t left him, and in time he began to receive favor until he was placed over everything in his master’s house.
What if it seems no good deed goes unpunished?
Unfortunately for Joseph, Potiphar’s wife was less than moral. She became enthralled with Joseph and tried to seduce him to commit adultery with her. He had been taught what was right, and he refused, even at last running away (Genesis 39:12). He was doing the right thing by fleeing sexual immorality.
After her advances were spurned, she lied to her husband, claiming Joseph attacked her. So, as a foreigner and a slave, he was thrown into prison—and not just any prison, but the king’s prison (verse 20).
This was one of those places for which it could be said, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
What if this had been you? His first horrible experience—being sold into slavery—could perhaps be chalked up to youthful arrogance and lack of discretion. But this time? He was punished even more severely for obeying God.
Wouldn’t you think your life was ruined?
Joseph didn’t give up or give in to sin
By the end of chapter 39 we see Joseph, though still a prisoner, placed in a position of leadership inside the prison. The next chapter reveals how Pharaoh’s chief butler and baker were also put in the prison, and they had dreams that revealed their future. God gave Joseph the ability to correctly interpret their dreams. But he remained in prison and had no idea whether he would ever be released.
After two more years, Pharaoh himself had a dream that greatly troubled him. Only then did the butler remember Joseph, and God gave Joseph the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream too (Genesis 41:16). Finally, after all these years and all his trials, Joseph was elevated to the second highest office in all Egypt (verse 40), and he was eventually able to save his family during a severe famine.
We see several important elements that were in place only because Joseph experienced these trials:
- He was in Egypt—in the right place and at the right time.
- He had been tested, and his character confirmed that he was a man of integrity.
- He had learned compassion and humility—key elements of a good leader.
- He had become an effective administrator.
The apostle Paul wrote, “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4, International Standard Version).
Blessings in disguise
No one would have questioned Jim Abbott if he had decided to abandon his boyhood dream of being a Major League Baseball pitcher—if he had decided it was just too difficult with his disability. But in spite of the challenges—one might even say because of the challenges—he excelled and achieved far more than most could have imagined.
It would have been understandable if Joseph had given up after being sold into slavery or unjustly thrown into prison. But God was working with him, showing and teaching him the things he needed to know, and putting him in the right place at the right time.
What about you and me? What is our perspective on our struggles in life? Whether they are minor or major in the grand scheme of things, do we keep in mind God’s promise to work out His purpose in us (Romans 8:28)?
Life may at times be filled with setbacks, missed opportunities, delays and sometimes very difficult hurdles to overcome. But through them all God can be preparing us for the future. If we are faithful in doing what is right no matter what, all our trials and difficulties will more often than not become blessings in disguise.
Sidebar: Roadblocks to Growth
Sometimes we fail to grow and fail to learn the lessons of trials. At times we even fail miserably. It is helpful to understand some of the reasons why.
1. Lack of persistence: Do we ever get tired of trying and quit? Some people try to learn a musical instrument, but after a short time they don’t want to try any longer and set it aside.
Florence Chadwick is known as the “Queen of the Channel,” because she was the first woman to swim the English Channel both ways and set records for both.
But in 1952 as she was swimming from Catalina Island to the California coast, a thick fog set in. After battling cold, fatigue, sharks and then fog, she asked to come into the boat—only to discover she was less than a mile from the shore!
We must endure to the end if we are going to grow (Matthew 24:13).
2. Lack of complete conviction: Far too many people go through life with the idea that they’ll do something until it becomes too hard, then they’ll quit. So they give up on a sport or instrument or friendship or marriage. It is easier to quit if you were never fully committed in the first place. God has made a firm commitment to us (Philippians 1:6), so we need to be completely committed to Him in return.
3. Rationalization: The natural human mind is very gifted at coming up with excuses and shifting blame for failures. I may not have done well or succeeded, but it isn’t my fault. Nobody can do that well, or the task was too hard. I just had a bad day, or someone else sabotaged me.
To succeed and grow, we must “own” our mistakes and learn from them. We also have to accept that difficult things happen and, like Joseph, make the best of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Without this, we’ll never build the character of God and become the individuals God is preparing us to be.