Date: August 7, 2016
Title: “God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Job, Chapters 1 and 2 (selected verses)
You may be surprised if I tell you that, in the Star Trek television episodes, and even in all the Star Trek movies ever made, nobody ever actually says “Beam me up, Scotty!” Likewise, in the classic film Casablanca, the character of Rick never does say “Play it again, Sam!”
These lines have become so embedded in the cultural milieu that we are convinced we know where they’ve come from, and even why they were said. And the same is true of the Bible. You could fill a book or two with witticisms, proverbs, moral one-liners and truisms we imagine must be in the Bible, but are not. So today, we begin a four-week sermon series to de-bunk just a few “Scriptures that Aren’t”.
And we begin with this one: God won’t give you more than you can handle. You’ve heard that, I’m sure. It’s a phrase often offered to people in times of trial, in moments of great upheaval, distress and uncertainty. It is given as if to suggest to the suffering one… “Don’t worry. Keep your chin up! Everything will be okay. God wouldn’t give you this pain or grief, illness or sorrow, loss or confusion, heartache or suffering… God wouldn’t give you this if you couldn’t get through it.”
God won’t give you more than you can handle. It makes my skin crawl. First of all, it’s not in the Bible. There is something similar there, but as they say – in the Bible, just like with hand grenades, “close” is not good enough! The passage which causes this confusion comes from 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul writes:
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humanity. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are temped, God will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
Now, at first glance, this may appear to be much the same. However, this little snippet of Scripture is found within a much larger context which is all about temptation, not at all about suffering. To say we will not be tempted beyond our ability is a far different thing than saying we will not experience anything we cannot meet and match. In fact, throughout the Bible we read of people who feel overwhelmed by the suffering and the fears confronting them. Later in 2 Corinthians, for instance, Paul says this:
Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles we went through…we were weighed down with a load of suffering so far beyond our strength we were afraid we might not survive.
And the Psalms are filled with lamentations of woe. Who could forget My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Even Jesus quoted remembered that Psalm as he hung dying on the cross.
So God won’t give you more than you can handle… is not in the Bible. And not only that, it isn’t even true! God does not “give us” the suffering we encounter to test us or to try us or to help us to grow. William Sloane Coffin, ten days after his son Alex was killed in an automobile accident, preached a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City in which he said, in part:
When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice looking middle-aged woman, carrying about 18 quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God.”
Coffin said Instantly, I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. “I’ll say you don’t, lady!” I said. Nothing infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy and muteness.
Coffin goes on… The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is “It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.
When God praises Job for his integrity, the point is not that we are simply supposed to “grin and bear it” – whatever “it” may be in the moment. I do not think God is impressed with Job’s stoicism so much as with Job’s realism. At least in the beginning of the story (you may remember that Job loses his patience more than once as the story unfolds); in the beginning, Job resolutely refuses to put the blame on God for his losses or his pain. Rather, Job seems to understand that “it is what it is.”
Grappling with the problem of suffering and our tendency to want to sentimentalize our faith, Mark Schaefer asks:
Could you imagine saying to an inmate at Auschwitz, “Don’t worry; God never gives you more than you can handle”? Could you say it to a woman whose children are killed by a long-buried landmine while they are playing? Or how about to a refugee who survives the massacre of her entire village? Could you say it to someone who has just been given a diagnosis of a terminal illness? Or someone overwhelmed by grief and loss? Could you say it to someone who is crushed by depression or anxiety?
If all we are prepared to say is “God never gives us more than we can bear”, then in situations where such a platitude is clearly false, we are left with nothing to say.
Schaefer goes on to suggest that the problem with this saying goes beyond the fact that it is not in the Bible. It even goes beyond the fact that it is not an accurate reflection of our experience. In Schaefer’s words:
It has one other major failing: it places all the focus in the wrong place. The sentiment that God never gives you anything more than you can handle makes it all about what you can handle. And as I am fond of saying, if I could add a line to the creeds or to the commandments, it would be “It’s not all about you.”
Job’s encounter with God eventually points this out. And Paul reminds us of it in the second letter he writes to the Christians in Corinth. Just after he says they were “weighed down with sufferings so far beyond their strength they thought they might not survive”, Paul writes:
Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:9)
Paul is suggesting what Job finally figured out – that our suffering is not something apart from God, but it is a place in which we can encounter God. It is okay to feel overwhelmed, to wonder if you are at the breaking point, and to imagine you cannot possibly go on. You are in good company – from Job to the Psalmist and all the way to Jesus himself – when you cry out “Where are you, God?”, and ask “How long, O Lord, how long” will this suffering go on? Again, in Schaefer’s words:
Faith is not some kind of contest of worthiness. It is not a simple system of incentives and rewards, of challenges and payoffs. It is a lifelong journey of facing the struggles of the world and moving forward with hope.
A few years ago Dr. Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University became an instant celebrity when he gave a lecture at that school entitled “The Last Lecture”, when he was dying from pancreatic cancer. In that lecture Pausch had a few choice things to say about this lifelong journey of facing struggles and moving forward with hope:
I’m not in denial, but I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t enjoy the time I have left. Yes, I’m going to die soon, but as Buzz Lightyear would say, “Not today!” We cannot change the cards we are dealt; just how we play the hand. You just have to decide if you are a “Tigger” or an “Eyeore”. It’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the Karma will take care of itself; the dreams will come to you.
Today we baptized a baby. If I could tell Caeli Joy one thing this morning, if I could give her one piece of advice to carry her through her life, it would be this: The life of faith is not all about you. The life of faith is ultimately all about God. It is about the God we know who meets us at the point of our deepest need. It is about the God we know who loves us in the midst of our lowest moments. It is about the God we know who walks with each of us and helps us to walk with each other. Because from time to time, you are going to need my help, and from time to time I am going to need your help in order to see our God meeting us, loving us, walking with us all the time. Thanks be to God! Amen.