Irony: The Crust on the Bread of Adversity

Yesterday evening as we drove to a family event we listened to Neal A. Maxwell’s powerful conference address given in April 1989. As only Elder Maxwell can, he captures the truth in beautiful language that reflected truth from my own life’s experience.

I looked up the word Irony just to be sure I understood the meaning of Elder Maxwell’s words. Irony is when events happen exactly the opposite of how we imagined or intended, often with dramatic or comic effect. Irony also dispenses an inverse justice as in “no good deed will go unpunished,” and “only the good die young.”

Rather than trying to paraphrase his words, I have decided to just share his whole talk for your enjoyment.

The challenge with Elder Maxwell’s incomparable language is that it is condensed in meaning. He is able to weave more truth into a few words than a common writer into a paragraph. I urge you to ponder the meaning of his words. Look up a few if you must, but glean the liberating truths from his words. You can read his address, watch the video or listen to his address HERE. (Click on the links to the right of his picture.)


What I now read is a most wintry verse indeed: “Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith.” (Mosiah 23:21.)

This very sobering declaration of divine purpose ought to keep us on spiritual alert as to life’s adversities.

Irony is the hard crust on the bread of adversity. Irony can try both our faith and our patience. Irony can be a particularly bitter form of such chastening because it involves disturbing incongruity. It involves outcomes in violation of our expectations. We see the best laid plans laid waste.

An individual is visibly and patiently prepared for an important role amid widespread expectation of his impending promotion or election. What follows, however, lasts only a very narrow moment in time. A political victory seems so near, recedes, and finally vanishes altogether.

Without meekness, such ironical circumstances are very difficult to manage.

In a marriage, a careless declaration hardens into a position, which position then becomes more important than communication or reconciliation. An intellectual stand is proudly and stubbornly defended even in the face of tutoring truth or correcting counsel. Yet occasionally, as we all know, backing off is really going forward. Sometimes it takes irony to induce that painful but progressive posture.

With its inverting of our anticipated consequences, irony becomes the frequent cause of an individual’s being offended. The larger and the more untamed one’s ego, the greater the likelihood of his being offended, especially when tasting his portion of vinegar and gall.

Words then issue, such as Why me? Why this? Why now? Of course, these words may give way to subsequent spiritual composure. Sometimes, however, such words precede bitter inconsolability, and then it is a surprisingly short distance between disappointment and bitterness.

Amid life’s varied ironies, you and I may begin to wonder, Did not God notice this torturous turn of events? And if He noticed, why did He permit it? Am I not valued?

Our planning itself often assumes that our destiny is largely in our own hands. Then come intruding events, first elbowing aside, then evicting what was anticipated and even earned. Hence, we can be offended by events as well as by people.

Irony may involve not only unexpected suffering but also undeserved suffering. We feel we deserved better, and yet we fared worse. We had other plans, even commendable plans. Did they not count? A physician, laboriously trained to help the sick, now, because of his own illness, cannot do so. For a period, a diligent prophet of the Lord was an “idle witness.” (Morm. 3:16.) Frustrating conditions keep more than a few of us from making our appointed rounds.

Customized challenges are thus added to that affliction and temptation which Paul described as “common to man.” (1 Cor. 10:13.)

In coping with irony, as in all things, we have an Exemplary Teacher in Jesus. Dramatic irony assaulted Jesus’ divinity almost constantly.

For Jesus, in fact, irony began at His birth. Truly, He suffered the will of the Father “in all things from the beginning.” (3 Ne. 11:11.) This whole earth became Jesus’ footstool (see Acts 7:49), but at Bethlehem there was “no room … in the inn” (Luke 2:7) and “no crib for his bed” (Hymns,1985, no. 206.)

At the end, meek and lowly Jesus partook of the most bitter cup without becoming the least bitter. (See 3 Ne. 11:11D&C 19:18–19.) The Most Innocent suffered the most. Yet the King of Kings did not break, even when some of His subjects did unto Him “as they listed.” (D&C 49:6.)Christ’s capacity to endure such irony was truly remarkable.

You and I are so much more brittle. For instance, we forget that, by their very nature, tests are unfair.

In heaven, Christ’s lofty name was determined to be the only name on earth offering salvation to all mankind. (See Acts 4:122 Ne. 25:20; see also Abr. 3:27.) Yet the Mortal Messiah willingly lived so modestly, even, wrote Paul, as a person “of no reputation.” (Philip. 2:7.)

What a contrast to our maneuverings over relative recognition and comparative status. How different, too, from the ways in which some among us mistakenly see the size and response of their audiences as the sole verification of their worth. Yet those fickle galleries we sometimes play to have a way of being constantly emptied. They will surely be empty at the Judgment Day, when everyone will be somewhere else, on their knees.

As the Creator, Christ constructed the universe, yet in little Galilee He was known merely as “the carpenter’s son.” (Matt. 13:55.) In fact, the Lord of the universe was without honor even in His own Nazarene countryside. Though astonished at His teachings, his neighbors “were offended at him.” (Mark 6:3.) Even meek Jesus “marvelled because of their unbelief.” (Mark 6:6.)

As Jehovah, Jesus issued the original commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy, but during His mortal Messiahship, He was accused of violating the Sabbath, because on that day He gave healing rest to the afflicted. (See John 5:8–16.)

Can we absorb the irony of being hurt while trying to help? Having done good, when we are misrepresented, can we watch the feathers of false witness scatter on the winds?

Christ, long, long ago as Creator, provided habitable conditions for us on this earth, generously providing all the essential atmospheric conditions for life, including essential water. (See Moses 1:33D&C 76:24.) Yet on the cross, when he was aflame with thirst, “they gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink.” (Matt. 27:34; see also Ps. 69:21.) Even so, there was no railing but a forgiving Christ. (See Luke 23:34.)

Christ was keenly aware of the constant irony: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58.) He asked a treacherous Judas, “Betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48.) And then there was the soulful lament, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, … how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matt. 23:37.) Yet the repeated ritual of rejection was happening to Jesus all over again.

We all know what it is like not to be listened to, but how about disdain or even contempt? Furthermore, there is a difference between noticing rejection, as Jesus did, and railing against rejection, as He did not.

As the Creator, Christ fashioned “worlds without number” (Moses 1:33), yet with His fingers He fashioned a little clay from spittle, restoring sight to one blind man. (See John 9:6.) The Greatest meekly ministered “unto one of the least of these.” (Matt. 25:40.)

Do you and I understand that the significance of our service does not depend upon its scale?

Within hours Christ would rescue all mankind, yet he heard the manipulated crowd cry, “Barabbas,” thereby rescuing a life-taking murderer instead of life-giving Jesus. (See Mark 15:7–15.)

Can we remain true amid false justice? Will we do our duty against the roar of the crowd?

As the Master Teacher, Christ tailored His tutoring, depending upon the spiritual readiness of His pupils. We see instructive irony even in some of these episodes.

To the healed leper returning with gratitude, Jesus’ searching but simple query was, “Where are the [other] nine?” (Luke 17:17.) To a more knowledgeable mother of Apostles, desiring that her two sons sit on Jesus’ right and left hands, Jesus reprovingly but lovingly said, “Ye know not what you ask. … [This] is not mine to give.” (Matt. 20:22–23.) To a grieving but rapidly maturing Peter, still burning with the memory of a rooster’s crowing, thrice came the directive, “Feed my sheep,” but also a signifying of “by what death” the great Apostle would later be martyred. (John 18:25–27John 21:15–19.) How much more demanding of Peter than of the leper!

If a sudden, stabbing light exposes the gap between what we are and what we think we are, can we, like Peter, let that light be a healing laser? Do we have the patience to endure when one of our comparative strengths is called into question? A painful crisis may actually be the means of stripping corrosive pride off of that virtue.

To the humbly devout woman of Samaria who expected the Messiah, Jesus quietly disclosed, “I that speak unto thee am he.” (John 4:26.) Yet an anxious Pilate “saith unto Jesus, Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him no answer.” (John 19:9.)

Can we remain silent when silence is eloquence—but may be used against us? Or will we murmur, just to let God know we notice the ironies?

Yet, even with all the ironies, sad ironies, there is the grand and glad irony of Christ’s great mission. He Himself noted that precisely because He was “lifted up upon” the cross, He was able to “draw all men unto [him],” and being “lifted up by men,” even so should “men be lifted up by the Father.” (3 Ne. 27:14.)

But how can we fortify ourselves against the irony in our lives and cope better when it comes?

By being more like Jesus, such as by loving more. “And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, [Why?] because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men.” (1 Ne. 19:9.)

There are other significant keys for coping. “And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23.) Wise self-denial shrinks our sense of entitlement.

Another cardinal key is to “live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which [God] doth bestow upon you.” (Alma 34:38.)

Life’s comparatively few ironies are much more than offset by heaven’s many mercies! We cannot count all our blessings every day, but we can carry over the reassuring bottom line from the last counting.

Another vital way of coping was exemplified by Jesus. Though He suffered all manner of temptations (see Alma 7:11), yet He “gave no heed unto them” (D&C 20:22). Unlike some of us, He did not fantasize, reconsider, or replay temptations. How is it that you and I do not see that while initially we are stronger and the temptations weaker, dalliance turns things upside down?

Jesus’ marvelous meekness prevented any “root of bitterness” from “springing up” in Him. (Heb. 12:15.) Ponder the Savior’s precious words about the Atonement after He passed through it. There is no mention of the vinegar. No mention of the scourging. No mention of having been struck. No mention of having been spat upon. He does declare that He “suffer[ed] both body and spirit” in an exquisiteness which we simply cannot comprehend. (D&C 19:18; see also D&C 19:15.)

We come now to the last and most terrible irony of Jesus: His feeling forsaken at the apogee of His agony on Calvary. The apparent withdrawal of the Father’s spirit then evoked the greatest soul cry in human history. (See James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1916, p. 613.) This deprivation had never happened to Christ before—never. Yet, thereby, Jesus became a fully comprehending Christ and was enabled to be a fully succoring Savior. (See Alma 7:11–12.) Moreover, even in that darkest hour, while feeling forsaken, Jesus submitted Himself to the Father.

No wonder the Savior tells us that the combined anguish in Gethsemane and on Calvary was so awful that He would have shrunk. “Nevertheless,” He finished His “preparations.” (See D&C 19:18–193 Ne. 11:11.) The word nevertheless reflects deep, divine determination.

Furthermore, even after treading the winepress alone (see D&C 76:107), which ended in His stunning, personal triumph and in the greatest victory ever—majestic Jesus meekly declared, “Glory be to the Father”! (D&C 19:19.) This should not surprise us. In the premortal world, Jesus meekly volunteered to be our Savior, saying, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.” (Moses 4:2.) Jesus was true to His word.

Now, in closing, I humbly declare, “Glory be to the Father”—first, for rearing such an Incomparable Son. Second, “Glory be to the Father” for allowing His special Son to suffer and to be sacrificed for all of us. On Judgment Day, brothers and sisters, will any of us want to rush forward to tell our Father how we, as parents, suffered when we watched our children suffer?

Glory be to the Father, in the name of Him who can succor us amid all our ironies and adversities (see Alma 7:11–12), even Jesus Christ, amen.

About John Pontius

I am a lover of truth.
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10 Responses to Irony: The Crust on the Bread of Adversity

  1. J.J. Brown says:

    Great article and great comments.

    For those who would like to feast further on this subject, I strongly recommend a related talk by Elder Bednar. In it Bednar quotes heavily from a different Maxwell talk, and ironically (sic) he also seeks dictionary definitions of a word used by Elder Maxwell.

    His talk is titled “The Character of Christ,” and it’s the perfect companion to Maxwell’s talk, above:

    Thanks, Bro. John for, once again, starting me on string that is just what I needed.


  2. Rosamond Taylor says:

    As I listened to this talk, the picture it brought up in my mind was of Elder Maxwell sitting, studying the scriptures and noticing some “irony” in the Savior’s life and that triggering him searching for other instances of irony in the life of the Savior. I thought, “Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to be able to study the scriptures with Elder Maxwell?” I miss him because I loved his beautiful and deliberate use of language. He was an artist – our ears were the canvas and words were his paints and brushes.
    Irony in our lives – it adds that “sting” to our adversities that deepens the hurt. How many times have I commented about “Murphy’s Law” or quoted, “the best laid plans of mice and men”? My dad used to say, “If we didn’t have bad luck, we’d have no luck at all!”
    However, not all ironies are negative…perhaps the greatest irony is that the more we submit our will to the Father, the greater our reward can be. Glory be to the Father for such a blessing and for those who have taught us this lesson!


    • Robin Carlson says:

      thanks Rosamond loved that simile about ears as canvases and words as paints and brushes.
      Would like to pose a question to all. I note that most of us are leaving out the word “hard” which falls just before the word “crusts”. For myself, having lots of experience with trying to slice through literal hard crusts with a very well used and old bread knife, that modifier effects my perception and understanding greatly. I find that “hard crusts” also brings to mind what a challenge real hard crusts are to try to chew. So…
      By overlooking that word are we also missing out on better comprehension?
      Robin Carlson


  3. ken h says:

    True justice very rarely happens in this fallen world that we live in. The worldly prosper and have their “15 minutes of fame.” The humble saints of God that I know quietly live out their lives unknown to anyone outside of a very small circle of family and friends. I feel that a loving Father in Heaven uses ironies to help us not to have our hearts set upon the things of the world and the honors of men. He has warned us against seeking those things because He perfectly knows how distracting and destructive those things can be for us. He wants us to let the injustices that these ironies bring roll off our backs as water rolls off the back of a duck. These ironic moments can make or brake us in our journey to Christ. If we become bitter and cry foul and then become offended, we could be tempted to withdraw from active membership in the church. Many inactive people that I have home taught over the years claimed that they were offended many years before and chose to stop going to church because of feeling offended. Thank you John for sharing Elder Maxwell’s wonderful and timeless message.


    • Rusty Taylor says:

      Your remarks reminded me of a sad time in my life. There was a time, when I was in my early 20s, that I felt the only people who were kind to me were non-members and the only people who hurt me were members of the Church. It was definitely ironic and I let it hurt me so much that I did go inactive for a short time. I thank God that the Holy Ghost did not let me alone and eventually I realized that the only person I was hurting by not going to church was MYSELF. So, I swallowed my pride and went to the bishop and started going back to church. Thanks, Ken & John, for triggering that reminder!


  4. Steve H. says:

    I love the expression “crust on the bread of adversity.” Wonderful use of the language. It’s now up there with “the milk of human kindness has turned sour.” I wonder if such a clever turn of phrase can happen with the Adamic Tongue. I sure hope so. Wouldn’t it be ironic if I turned out to be illiterate in that language? Thanks for sharing the depth that is Maxwell.


    • Languages are intriguing. I had a dream while on my mission that I could speak Latin. In my dream I found myself conversing with three men in Latin. In the dream I understood what I was saying, how it worked and the grammar, syntax and vocabulary. For a while after I awoke I could actually remember Latin. That day we tracted into a professor who taught Latin at a big university. We spoke for hours about Latin and I found that I knew a great deal and was able to discuss the gospel with him because of that small connection. He did not invite us back, and I have never been able to understand why the Lord prepared me so well for that contact. I can only imagine that in the Lord’s economy that he was very important. Even today, 40 years later, I can remember some Latin words I learned in that dream if I hear them spoken. A strange twist on the gift of tongues perhaps.

      I’m not sure how that is relevant to anything at all – but you triggered a memory.



  5. Robin Carlson says:

    Bro John;
    Thanks for posting this. Truly a remarkable message that I am happy to learn of even though I am 23 yrs late. So glad for the blessings the Lord has poured out concerning technological advances such as videos>dvds>internet video re-plays, etc. Great help to backsliders such as myself.
    Robin Carlson


  6. Donald says:

    Beautiful. I miss Brother Maxwell. Thank you for reminding us of this wonderful talk.


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