“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”
At least that is what many Christians say in the face of trial or loss. But is it actually helpful? And is it true? I believe it is rather unhelpful, and only partially true.
I’ve written before on the importance of learning to sit with sadness – something we tend to avoid! It’s hard enough when it’s our own sorrow. We’d rather plunge into busyness or fixing or numbing rather than face our grief. But it’s especially hard when we are in the presence of other people’s pain. That’s when the advice or clichés come out!
First, we’ll try to fix it – if there seems to be a way of fixing. We’ll be “generous” and offer to help; we’ll make suggestions for books or podcasts; or we’ll compare this person’s pain with our own or that of a friend – anything to help make the pain go away, because we don’t like to feel it, and we definitely don’t like to feel powerless.
In some cases (tragedies or definitive losses), there is nothing we can do. When fixing doesn’t work, we start grabbing for clichés. Surely one of them will be the magic wand that will make this feeling of powerlessness go away! Surely one of them will help this person feel better so that I can feel better.
Are these clichés helpful? No, I would say not. They often have the effect of “blaming the victim” or shaming others for feeling the way they feel. Rather than compassion (“suffering with”), clichés are a way of stepping back from the pain of others and leaving them to suffer alone.
I suppose there is a time and a place for distracting or diverting from pain. Perhaps we are in a survival situation and lack the time, resources, or energy to engage head on. If mere survival is the best we can hope for at the moment, then we can indeed turn to our arsenal of distractions and find ways to minimize the pain.
Even when we are ready to face heartache, we are still human, meaning we are limited. We can’t face it all the time. It can be appropriate to take a break from our grieving, laugh together at a joke or a movie, plunge into a hobby or game, and so forth. A cliché could be helpful as permission to take a short break from the pain.
But if our Christian families and communities are unable or unwilling to accompany people as they face pain and heartache, then where can they go? Jesus does not want his Church to be a place of mere survival, but God’s own hospital in which we experience healing, redemption, restoration, and total transformation. That only happens by facing our heartache, taking up our Cross, following Jesus, dying amidst our powerlessness, watching and waiting, and experiencing the newness of the Resurrection. If we desire to be “helpful” to those in pain, we must first walk this path ourselves – as Jesus did. We can’t give what we ourselves have not experienced.
Is there any truth to this expression, that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”? Sort of. Here is what the apostle Paul says:
“No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
As you can see, the cliché is an oversimplification and distortion of what Scripture actually says.
Paul doesn’t attribute our trials directly to God’s agency. God permits or allows us to endure trials, but they are human. They are the result of a misuse of human freedom – by our first parents, by others who have caused harm, and by our own sins. Directly or indirectly, all trials in this life are the result of human sin. God allows these consequences because he has entrusted us with dignity, freedom, and real authority amidst our stewardship.
God is faithful. He is absolutely committed to accompanying us through every trial. He will never abandon us, and will never leave us without every means of assistance that we truly need to move through the trial.
God provides a way out. There is a true exit to the trial. We tend to hunker down in our panic rooms, avoiding the heartache – and ultimately getting stuck. But Jesus himself, God’s own beloved Son, has plunged into our trials. He has gone there first, and has opened up a path to new life. If we follow him faithfully, if we share in his suffering and death, we will experience a radical newness and expansiveness – and not just “one day” in heaven.
As we see in the saints, there is an amazing foretaste of this newness that comes even in this life. If you study their lives, you will find a stunning diversity of humans, all with two common features: (1) They endured enormous trials; (2) They were incredibly joyful followers of Jesus.
Like them, we will be able to bear our trials: because God is faithful to his promises, because Jesus has blazed a trail for us, because he accompanies us, and because he won’t allow us to be tested beyond our strength. Therefore, we can hope.
Hope is the answer in the face of heartache. Hope refuses to be killed by suffering (or by clichés!). Hope perseveres – not by naïve optimism, not by secular stratagem, but by waiting persistently for our faithful God to fulfill all his promises. This is the hope of mother Mary standing at the foot of the Cross on Good Friday and at the tomb on Holy Saturday – believing God’s promise, staying present, enduring, pondering, and waiting. The joy of resurrection always comes to those who abide in hope.
May we be people of hope, this Lent and always!