I don’t know if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this piece of cherished Christian advice, but it is devastating and destructive: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I’m not sure where to even begin to dismantle this half-truth that gets tossed around, thinking it is encouragement, when in fact it is the worst kind of religious malarkey. It heaps guilt and shame on the one who, in fact, can’t handle the pain, suffering or heartbreak in their lives.
Context in the Bible is crucial. I start with the ancient city of Corinth. The isthmus of Corinth offered shippers the opportunity to save themselves the hazardous voyage of sailing the dangerous waters around the southern tip of what is now Greece, and instead create a land bridge where boats would offload their cargo, haul it across the five or so miles, and put it back on boats heading East or West. There is now a canal that serves that purpose. Like any crucial economic center in today’s world, Corinth had it all, including the worst debaucheries the ancient world offered. It was a wide-open town.
Raised in an atmosphere of moral license, many of the early gentile converts to Christianity struggled with the ethical demands of their new faith, which was rooted in Old Testament culture of Judaism. Paul was particularly concerned about the continued allegiance to idolatry and the licentious behavior that was condoned in the culture. He wanted to make it clear that Christianity wasn’t just a tweak to their pagan lifestyle, it was a full makeover. I don’t know about you, but changing old habits, especially a bad habit is not easy. It was in this context that Paul uttered this advice:
If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. (1 Corinthians 10:12-13)
The promise is that when we’re tempted to go off the track in our lives, there is always an alternative to the hurtful, self-destructive choice we’re contemplating. I do believe that to be true, having had to wrestle with some difficult habits along the way. We don’t have to wrestle with that nasty stuff in our lives by ourselves. If we will humble ourselves we can let God help us not only through the presence of God’s Spirit within us, but God’s Spirit around us through the community of faith in which we participate. I know if I’m tempted, I can take a time-out to pray. I can pick up the phone and call the key men and women in my life. I can choose to do the right thing today and save the not-so-good thing for tomorrow. I’ve stayed sober for twenty-two years doing just that. Putting off until tomorrow that which I shouldn’t do today.
It’s ironic that something encouraging, which offers an alternative for the tough self-destructive stuff in my life, somehow morphed into a blanket statement which heaps more guilt and shame on all of us. But that’s what the power of “satan,” the accuser does with the truths of God. It makes them into something they’re not.
As with the statement, “Everything happens for a reason,” “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is predicated on a world-view in which God is pulling the strings, and we’re the puppets whose strings are getting yanked. I reject the notion that God causes evil and suffering to descend upon our lives, and like controlling a spigot, turns the suffering off just before we’d drown. I do understand that some of my suffering has been caused by poor choices, and as already stated, God provides a way out of that horrific maze. But I’ve stood powerlessly by as the innocent are cut down by evil, the bad choices of others, and the unfairness of circumstances which defy any explanation, let alone a Pollyannaish one that somehow faults the victim for their inability to handle the pain, suffering, and grief.
The fact is sooner or later, something bigger than we are is going to overwhelm us, and is going to be far more than we can handle. I am daily becoming more aware of the cost of love—to love is to embrace pain and loss. There is no way around it. Love will break my heart, and the people who love me will have their hearts broken. I’ve stood with so many of you as you’ve said “good-bye” to your spouse, parent, child, and dear friends. I learned from you. God was there, and those of you who let others hold you up when you couldn’t stand provided an example of what it looks like to trust the loving community around you. No matter what happens in my life, I don’t have to handle it by myself. That is in fact unbiblical. I can rely on God’s presence and my brothers and sisters in Christ to carry me. My hope is not in my ability but in the people who surround me and will provide, maybe not what I want, but what I need. It is the biblical “one anothers” which will make the difference. Here are a few of the many found in the New Testament:
- “…Have equal concern for each other.” (I Corinthians 12:25)
- “Carry each other’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2)
- “…Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)
- “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32)
- . “…“Encourage one another daily…” Hebrews 3:13)
- “…Pray for each other.” (James 5:16)
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