I’m a little (a lot) overwhelmed these days. And I’m not the only one. Colleagues in ministry are juggling demanding calls with caring for ailing parents or children with special needs. Many of my friends are (like me) preparing to send a child off to college for the first time and illness, accidents or unforeseen circumstances are hindering the preparation process. I’m in the middle of moving half-way across the country and have no idea what I’m going to do once I get there.
And whatever personal struggles we are each dealing with are coupled with the even deeper and traumatic struggles of our neighbors. Three mass shootings in a week–one most definitely fueled by white supremacist hate. Children still remain in cages, and another group of children came home from their first day of school to find their parents gone after an ICE sweep.
Our own personal challenges and frustrations are exacerbated by the hate and the hurt that is sweeping our nation. It’s overwhelming. It’s times like these that someone in your life is bound to misquote the Bible and tell you that “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.”
They are wrong.
The Bible and the Movies
The Bible has something in common with the movies. Famous movie tag lines get altered after being told and re-told over and over again.
Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry is oft-quoted as saying, “Do you feel lucky, Punk?” But it was actually, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do you feel lucky? Well do ya, punk.”
Humphrey Bogart never actually said “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca. The line was, ““You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can. Play it!”
The same kind of evolution that turns original movie lines into something slightly different is most likely the same kind of evolution that turned a passage from 1 Corinthians into a statement that is often used to in a misguided attempt to comfort people in times of great stress.
The Bible says…
The passage (1 Corinthians 10:13) actually says: No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
Paul was writing to the people of Corinth in response to reports that things were not going well there. Divisions were forming within the church. The community was getting caught up the values of the society that surrounded them—like wealth and social status. Corinth was a major city in the Roman Empire, and it was the crossroads of several seaports. And it was a city known for its corruption, and its excessive extravagances. There were a lot of temptations to succumb to.
So Paul wants the church at Corinth to know that, first of all, they are not experiencing anything that others before them have not experienced. I don’t know why, but that’s always kind of comforting isn’t it? It’s a reminder to me that people (often with far less resources or education than I have) have come through similar and much worse situations and lived to tell the tale. If they made it, surely I can make it.
Paul also wanted the church at Corinth to know that they were not powerless against temptation. That God will not put before them tests that they are bound to fail. I like the way he puts it: God will always give you a way out. In other words, there is always a choice to be made and you have the power to make the right one. That’s what this passage is about.
And that is a good message for the ancient Corinthians as well as for the modern day Americans. This idea of not being able to help ourselves when temptation presents itself or shrugging off sin with a devil-made-me-do-it quip is not gonna fly. We have the power, with God’s help, to resist whatever temptation may come our way.
But along the way, the passage has moved from being an encouragement to those facing temptation to a misguided statement of comfort to those who are suffering. Somehow “God won’t let you be tested beyond your strength” became “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” And while those statements may sound similar, they convey very different things indeed.
More harm than good.
Telling a a troubled soul “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” is a really mean-spirited thing to say. To say to someone who is about to crack under the weight of trauma or tragedy or grief or overwhelming stress that “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is like throwing a life ring made of concrete to someone who is drowning. It might look like you’re being helpful, but you’re actually making it worse.
The statement is not only not in the Bible, it’s just bad theology. It affirms the idea that any afflictions you may be experiencing have been given to you by God. It’s like a throw back to ancient days when we thought that people who were struck by illness or had their crops destroyed or lost their spouses had somehow displeased God and this was their punishment. Saying God won’t give you more than you can handle is basically saying, “God deliberately caused all this misery that’s being heaped on you, but don’t worry, God won’t overdo it.”
It’s not only NOT in the Bible and bad theology, it’s damaging theology.
Because what the person on the receiving end of the God-won’t-give-you-more-than-you-can-handle platitude is hearing is, “If your faith were stronger, you’d be handling this much better.” After all if God won’t give you more than you can handle, and you’re clearly not handling what you’ve been given, then maybe you just need to up your prayer life. Or read the Bible more. Or just be a better Christian. It makes the person who is suffering suffer even more for feeling bad about suffering so much.
It’s not only NOT in the Bible and bad theology and damaging theology and mean spirited, it’s just not Christian! Because “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” turns a person’s problem into just that…his or her problem to deal with alone. And that is not how Christians roll. We don’t leave people to suck it up and deal with it when their lives are falling apart. Jesus certainly didn’t. I have checked. And nowhere in the Bible, not even if you go back to the original Greek and Aramaic, did Jesus once say to anyone, “suck it up buttercup!” It’s just not there.
No, Jesus calls to those who are weary and struggling with heavy loads to come to Him for rest. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. And that’s Biblical, people. I didn’t just make that up or misquote some other line.
So instead of tossing a drowning person a concrete life preserver in the form of empty platitudes that do more harm than good, assure them that they are not alone in bearing the weight of their burdens. Not only is Jesus with them, but you are, too. That the Church (at its best), is here for those who are hurting and struggling and dismayed and discouraged. And while we tell it to others, may we remember it ourselves.
Perhaps real faith is not about being strong enough to bear your burdens all on your own, but about knowing that you can’t bear them alone and trusting Jesus, as well as your brothers and sisters in Christ, to help carry the load.
Rev. Anne Russ is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), currently based in New York City. Doubting Believer is an online, inclusive and progressive Christian community. Follow us on Facebook and get emails to keep up with all that is happening.