There’s no telling how often I’ve heard the phrase. I’ll be visiting with someone who’s dealing with a difficult set of circumstances – the death of a loved one, an illness or impending surgery, a career setback – and a friend or well-wisher will say: “Well, at least you know that God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
At their best, of course, these words are offered as encouragement – an expression of confidence in God and God’s ability to sustain us, even in our most difficult moments. At their worst, however, they promote a way of looking at life that might actually keep us from receiving the comfort and strength that God has promised. What exactly can we handle? And how does God fit into that?
The verse that folks are often thinking of when they make this statement comes from 1st Corinthians:
“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13)
Now granted, this passage does say that God won’t let things get to a point “beyond what you can bear.” But Paul is dealing with temptation here, not with suffering in general. In one of the readings from today’s Daily Office, he has something very different to say about suffering:
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure (emphasis mine), so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:8-9)
It appears – in 2nd Corinthians, at least – that hardships can reach a point beyond what we can bear. So what are we to make of our original statement?
Well, I’ll note in passing that we probably need to think deeply about the first part of the statement: “God won’t give you….” Inherent in these words is the idea that everything that happens to us – all the illnesses and accidents and tragic losses – are the direct result of God’s action. And while some people do believe that (and while we can’t sort it out in this blog post) – I think there’s a big difference between saying that some heartache befell us and that God “gave us” that heartache. Jesus said that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike; we live in a world where “stuff happens.” And while God may allow this stuff, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he sends or causes this stuff.
More to the point, however, there’s a way to phrase our original statement that is, perhaps, both more accurate and more biblical. As Pastor Adam Hamilton points out:
“It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.” (Adam Hamilton, Half Truths)
When we’re going through hard times, it is perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that can’t handle life and that we need some help. In fact, according to Paul’s words from Second Corinthians, that’s exactly what God desires, because that’s when we start to rely “not on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.”
Thankfully, I don’t find myself facing circumstances today that are stretching the boundaries of what I can handle – and I hope you can say the same. But even if you are facing challenges that seem more than you can bear, know that God is with you. And rest assured – that even when you can’t handle life – He can.