“God Will Never Give You More Than You Can Handle”
(September 2012 Newsletter Article)
I’m betting that most of you have heard this one before. Perhaps, you’ve even used it yourself at times. A friend or loved one is going through a time of suffering and you seek to comfort that person by saying, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”
I know I’ve heard this one many times. I’ve seen it used on Facebook and in mass emails often, and I’ve even had friends and loved ones say it to me during times of suffering. It is used with the best of intentions, and most people think that it’s a direct quote right from the Bible, or at least a paraphrase of a Biblical verse, but it is neither.
The Biblical verse this cliché is supposed to paraphrase is 1 Corinthians 10:13, where St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
To understand what St. Paul means by this, we need to look at the surrounding context. It is clear from that context that he is in the midst of rebuking the Corinthians for a) idolatry, b) sexual immorality, and c) works-righteousness (or, overconfidence in themselves). He reminds them what happened to their fathers in the faith, how they turned away from God after He had rescued them from their bondage in Egypt. God had saved them with His mighty hand and they turned away from Him so that they could indulge their own evil desires. They put God to the test and were overcome by serpents. They didn’t trust God, but grumbled against Him, and most of them perished in the wilderness, never getting to enter the Promised Land. The point St. Paul is making with the Corinthians is summed up in verse 12, the verse immediately preceding the verse quoted above, upon which the cliché in question is supposed to be based, where he says, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” And, this is followed up with the exhortation in verse 14, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” Then, St. Paul points them to an example of the idolatry into which they have fallen, moving into a lengthy discourse on their abuse of the Holy Supper.
Putting all of this together, it should be evident how the popular cliché, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” is a gross misinterpretation of the verse it is supposed to paraphrase. The whole point here is that YOU cannot handle things. It is a rebuke against those who try to handle things themselves, rather than turning to God for rescue. And, it has absolutely nothing to do with the pain and suffering we all endure in this life, whether we bring that upon ourselves or it comes from the outside, which is when the cliché in question is most often invoked. This passage is addressing those who give in to the temptation of the devil, the world, and their own sinful flesh, refuse to turn to God for rescue (“the way of escape”), and think that they’re still standing in the faith.
God will never give you more than you can handle? Nonsense! You cannot handle temptation on your own. You cannot endure the pain and suffering living in this sinful world brings on your own. You cannot handle God’s Law on your own. You cannot remain standing steadfast in the faith on your own. Left on your own, you will most definitely fall. Left on your own, you will follow in the footsteps of the grumbling and idolatrous Israelites who were overcome by serpents in the wilderness. Left on your own, God’s Holy Law will devour you whole. Left on your own, you will fall from grace, lose faith, and have the Holy Spirit depart from you.
Here’s the other reason this popular cliché is so wrongheaded: It suggests that God is the one GIVING you the temptation or the pain and suffering you’re enduring. But, we’re told in Scripture that “God tempts no one” (James 1:13ff.). God is not the author of evil. God is not the source of the pain and suffering you endure in this sinful world. That evil, those temptations, the pain and suffering with which you are afflicted, come from the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh, NOT from God. It is true that God allows us to experience these things in this life. It is true that God tests and disciplines us at times, just as an earthly father does for his children. It is true that God works all things together (even the temptations, pain, and suffering we endure) for the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). He is the God who uses what is meant for evil for good. Joseph’s brothers had an evil intent when they sold him into slavery, but God used what they meant for evil to accomplish their salvation. And, of course, the greatest example of this is the Crucifixion of His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The Jewish religious authorities meant that for evil, but God used it to accomplish the greatest good ever known in the world. So, yes, God allows us to be tempted and to endure times of pain and suffering in this life, but it is not true that He gives us these things, as if He is their source and wants to toughen us up so that we can learn how to handle them on our own, which is what the cliché really means. On the contrary, God allows these things to happen in our lives so that we would turn to Him for rescue.
God will never give you more than you can handle? Wrong! You cannot handle things on your own. If you could, God would not have had to send His Son to live and die in your place. If we want to make this cliché Scriptural and true, we would have to say something like, “God will never allow you to suffer more than He can handle.” Now, that is most certainly true, as certain and true as is the fact that you will be tempted and will endure much pain and suffering in this life. But, God will never forsake you. He will always provide the “way of escape,” and the “way of escape” is just another way of saying, “Jesus.” For, Jesus is your way of escape. Jesus is your refuge. Jesus is your rescue. He lived the perfect life you cannot live. He resisted and overcame all the temptations common to man, the temptations to which you have often fallen prey. He endured all the pain and suffering the devil, the world, and sinners could throw at Him and never wavered an inch in faith through it all, as you often do when pain and suffering come upon you. You cannot handle these things on your own, but Jesus has handled them perfectly for you. He is your way of escape. He is your mighty fortress. He is your strength. Flee from yourselves and to Jesus. That’s the whole point St. Paul is making in this oft misunderstood passage.
Do you see, then, why telling people that God will never give them more than they can handle is wrong in so many ways? As I said above, I know that people have the best of intentions when they use this cliché, but good intentions aside, it is a tragically flawed way of trying to get God into the equation somehow. Would that we never uttered this cliché again, but instead pointed our friends and loved ones, who are enduring times of temptation, pain, or suffering, to the One who can handle it all for them, to the One who has already handled it all for them, and who remains available to them to handle whatever the devil, this sinful world, and their own sinful flesh throw their way, even Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. The best advice you can give to such a friend is to direct them to go to where Jesus is for them, namely to the Divine Service in His Holy Church, where He is Truly Present to absolve them of their sins, feed them upon the sweet honey of His Word, cleanse them with the very Body and Blood He gave and shed for them, and bestow His eternal peace upon them as they depart back into the wilderness of this sinful world, where they will inevitably continue to be harassed by its temptations, pain, and suffering.
In this vale of tears, this valley of the shadow of death, you will be confronted with much that you cannot handle, my friends. But, know this: Jesus has handled it all in your place. Flee to Him in times of temptation, pain, and suffering. He will never fail you. He can handle it. He desires that you come to Him, you who are weary and heavy-laden, that He might give you peace. In Him, you have the sure and certain promise that there is coming a Day when you will be tempted no more and never again experience the pain and suffering, trials and tribulations, of living in this sinful world. You will live and reign with Him in the eternal kingdom that has been prepared for you. And, as St. Paul assures you, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
Your servant in Christ,