Conquering Adversity: Lessons from Luther, Carver, and Frankl
Tony Cooke

The word “unprecedented” is being used quite a bit relative to the crisis that the world is currently experiencing. The term “unchartered territory” is also being used. People don’t like uncertainty and the unknown, and they certainly don’t like the sense of “threat” that seems to be in everyone’s face. In short, these have been unnerving times. I want to share stories of three men who overcame tremendous adversity. Their lives teach us vital lessons for today.

Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)

Lesson: Use wisdom, but trust God and care compassionately for others.

Luther, who lived when plagues were much more frequent than today, speaks of the need to help people in compassionate and responsible ways, and to use wisdom in not furthering the spread of the disease.

He writes that some “are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are…. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health…. It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best he is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have…. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city.”

During one plague, only Luther and one other pastor stayed in the city to care for the sick. He even opened his own home to care for those who were suffering. I was reminded of modern caregivers—nurses and doctors—as he writes,

“Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence…. If everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die.”

Luther took his responsibility as a shepherd and as Christ’s representative very seriously, and yet he advocated the wise use of hygienic methods and common-sense practices.

George Washington Carver (1865 – 1943)

Lesson: God will reveal what we need to know.

In the late 1800s, the south was in trouble. The boll weevil had devastated its cotton-based economy. In addition, because farmers planted had planted the same crop over and over again, year after year, the soil was depleted of its necessary nutrients. At this same time, George Washington Carver had recently graduated from Iowa State College with an emphasis in agriculture, horticulture, etc. Not only did he have the scientific and academic know-how, but he was also a man of prayer. He talked with God consistently and was fully convinced that God revealed the “secrets” of nature to him.

Carver left the lucrative and comfortable position he had as a college professor in Iowa in response to this letter from Booker T. Washington.

“Tuskegee Institute seeks to provide education—a means for survival to those who attend. Our students are poor, often starving. They travel miles of torn roads, across years of poverty. We teach them to read and write, but words cannot fill empty stomachs. They need to learn how to plant and harvest crops…. I cannot offer you money, position, or fame. The first two you have. The last, from the place you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place—work, hard, hard work—the challenge of bringing people from degradation, poverty, and waste to full manhood.”

Thankfully, George Washington Carver rose to the challenge. He taught crop rotation to the farmers in the south, encouraging them to plant peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes. And then, with God’s help, he discovered hundreds of uses for these different crops so that they could become financially profitable. When Carver testified before the House Ways and Means Committee in Washington D.C., the chairman asked him how he had learned all of these things… had he learned them in the Bible? Carver said, “No sir, but it tells about the God who made the peanut. I asked Him to show me what to do with the peanut, and He did.”

Carver later said, “God is going to reveal to us things He never revealed before if we put our hands into His. Without God to draw aside the curtain I would be helpless.” Another time, he remarked, “As I worked on projects which fulfilled a real human need forces were working through me which amaze me. I would often go to sleep with an apparently insoluble problem. When I woke the answer was there.” Carver believed strongly in the principle articulated in Proverbs 8:17—“ those who seek me diligently will find me.”

With what is going on in the world today, we need scientists who are not only academically trained, but are able to receive wisdom and insight from heaven! We can also receive direction and guidance from God for our own personal lives. How much would the world benefit if massive numbers of people would devote their life to serving humanity and lifting others through their labors?

Viktor Frankl (1905 – 1997)

Lesson: No one can take away your right to choose your attitude.

An Austrian-born psychiatrist, Frankl wrote of his experiences in a WWII Nazi concentration camp in a book entitled, Man’s Search for Meaning.  Frankl spoke of “mastering the art of living,” even in the worst of conditions, and recognized that hope was an essential skill for surviving such oppressive circumstances. He did not deny the reality of the grimness of his circumstances, but he maintained a sense of purpose by envisioning himself lecturing on the lessons he was learning in the concentration camp after his release.

Three notable quotes from Man’s Search for Meaning include:

“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”

“In the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.”

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl demonstrated the power of hope and of perseverance. He believed that if people had found a sense of purpose, they could overcome the adversities of the moment by focusing on the fulfilling of their purpose.

Remember these powerful lessons from these three individuals:

  • Use wisdom, but trust God and care compassionately for others (Luther).
  • God will reveal what we need to know (Carver).
  • No one can take away your right to choose your attitude (Frankl).