How should we handle ADVERSITY?


By John O’Leary

“I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4 12-13

I loved to help as a kid.

So as we prepared to leave for vacation, Dad entrusted me with a flashlight to guide him as he lugged heavy suitcases from the back door of the house, through the darkness of the early predawn morning, over to the roof of our 1984 Mercury Marquis Wagon.

After we finished loading the car and tying down the bags, we went back into the house. Me, again leading the way with the flashlight. Dad, following behind, acting as if he’d never make it without me.

Together we then went room by room waking my four siblings.

We were about to embark 1,200 mile road trip from St. Louis, Missouri to Naples, Florida. Five cranky kids, two parents, seven suitcases and miscellaneous pillows and sleeping bags trapped for 20 hours. In one car. What could possibly go wrong?

Not far from Macon, Georgia, about twelve hours into the journey, smoke began to rise from the hood of the car. The engine had actually caught on fire!

We spent the next several hours on the side of the road, waiting for a tow truck to shuttle us to the nearest exit. Once we got there, our family cruiser was diagnosed “shot.” So, we unpacked the wagon, loaded up a rental car and continued on our journey.

Sweaty. Exhausted. Grumpy. And we still had nearly ten hours to go!

When we finally arrived in Naples, Dad checked into our hotel, got our room key, and quickly went about the work of unpacking the car. Not strong enough to lug the suitcases, but longing to help, Dad put me in charge of the keys for the car.

My sole job was to hold onto the car keys.

On the last trip up, as the elevator door opened, as if in slow motion: I lost my grasp on the keys. I then watched them fall toward the opening in the elevator shaft, and into the abyss below.

I looked at my dad in horror.

The man had been up for more than 30 hours. Had been driving for more than 20. Had dealt with obnoxious kids, a broken down car, and now this. He looked at me, looked back at the cavernous opening and then back at me and said, “Well, we’re going to have to get help fishing those out, aren’t we?”

No anger. No wrath. No blame.

Just love.

As a seven-year-old, I remember this experience vividly… letting him down… feeling horrible… and being absolutely transformed by his reaction.

We can choose to be angry… or we can choose to embrace the gift of free will

Eighteen months later, a much more serious event occurred, and my father again would surprise me and redeem me with his love.

This time back in St. Louis, an ambulance had just rushed me to the ER. The nurses were working on me and telling me that everything was going to be okay.

As they spoke I looked down at my body and knew they were wrong.

Less than an hour earlier, with my parents both out, I’d gone into the garage to see what might happen if I poured a little gasoline onto a piece of burning paper. I had seen older boys in the neighborhood do this a few weeks earlier and I’d been waiting for the perfect moment to try it myself.

I set the piece of paper burning on the garage floor, bear-hugged a five-gallon can of gasoline, and tipped it toward that paper. Before the liquid ever came out, the fumes inhaled the little flame into the can, created a massive explosion that launched me twenty feet against the far side of the garage. Surrounded by flames, and on fire myself, I ran into the house, through several rooms, and was eventually extinguished through the heroism of my older brother, Jim.

But the damage was done.

So as these nurses did their best to reduce my physical agony and lessen my emotional pain, nothing they could do or say would reduce my anguish, my pain, my fear.

Looking down at my nine-year-old body, with no skin on it, in a room surrounded by a bunch of strangers, I had only one thought going through my mind that morning: I just blew up my parents’ garage. My dad is going to kill me!

And then I heard his voice down the hallway, “Where is my son, John?”

I was totally convinced he was coming to finish me off.

Dad pulled back the curtain, walked over to me, looked into my eyes, and spoke.

I’ll never forget what he said.

“John, look at me. I have never been so proud of anyone in my entire life. And my little buddy, today, I am just proud to be your dad. I love you.”

No anger. No wrath. No blame.

Just love.

It was an inflection point that shaped the rest of my life. It was a greeting, a moment, that shifted a little boy’s thinking from wanting to die, to desiring to live.

This man shepherded me during the next five months to follow in the hospital. He was with me through painful nights and brutal days, through amputations and surgeries, through bandage changes and physical therapy, from the morning I entered the hospital until the afternoon I returned home from it.

And I saw repeatedly his active faith, sincere kindness and genuine love displayed afterwards.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I had many setbacks and mistakes. Dad was always there, not to cuddle, but to challenge me to learn from it, grow from it and do better because of it.

Today, Dad lives his faith through the manner in which he endures the progression of his Parkinson’s disease. He’s lost his job and his physical health. He’s lost the ability to participate in former hobbies and the capability to drive. He’s lost the ability to walk and speak clearly. And yet, he remains grateful, joyful, and faithful. Everyday.

No anger. No wrath. No blame.

Just love.

So how should we react during the adversity of our lives?

I clearly have an awesome example in my dad, but I also realize that many of us don’t.

Many of us never experienced that type of love, kindness, support, and unconditional love from their dad. Many of us grew up with shadows of men who were over-worked, out of touch, emotionally inept, physically distant and thus have a painful father-wound remaining today.

This is yet another reason we are blessed to have the perfect example of Jesus Christ as a model in our lives.

Yes, Jesus came to save mankind, to call us to repentance, to speak Truth, to fulfill the Law. He came to show us what real power and real authority looks like. He came to teach us how to live, and how to love and how to pray.

So how should we handle adversity?

James answers in writing, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1 2-4)

As things get difficult in your businesses and your families. As stresses mount in your communities and in our world. As illness occurs, debts grow and life happens, we can choose to be angry and let that anger allow us to distance ourselves from others and God.

Or we can choose to embrace the gift of free will. We can choose to be a light to a world in darkness. A world that longs to make sense of their sorrows, their losses, their days. A world that craves for the light of Christ to shine brightly in their lives.

No anger. No wrath. No blame.

Just love.

Far from weak, it’s a perfect way to handle betrayal, disappointments, setbacks and challenges. Far from soft, it’s an awesome way to grow a business, raise a child, and bring others closer to a personal relationship with Christ. And far from naive, it’s the only way to not just endure the drudgery of adversity, but to be truly on fire with gratitude for it.

This is your day. Live Inspired.

At the age of nine, John O’Leary was expected to die. Today, he teaches others how to truly live.

John is an inspirational speaker and expert on overcoming adversity. John shares his message – LIVE INSPIRED. – at more than 120 events each year, for clients such as Southwest Airlines and LEGO.

John has an online community of 75,000 people and, in addition to Solutions, is a contributing writer for

John’s first book, On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life, will be published in March 2016 by Simon & Schuster. You can pre-order your book at