As a pastor, I talk quite a bit with people who are struggling through immensely difficult situations. And, every now and then, my counselee will tell me, "I know that the Bible says that God will never give me more than I can handle, but...." I've heard this at least a dozen times since starting my pastoral ministry, and I always try to take care to correct it gently. Why does it need correction? Because it's flat-out wrong.
I'm far from the first to point this out, but the notion still persists out there, like a viral meme spreading through American Christianity. Not only is that meme wrong, it's also spiritually dangerous. But first, let's take a look at the biblical evidence.
The phrase "God will never give you more than you can handle" is a twisting of an actual Bible verse, 1 Corinthians 10:13--" 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." Now, the Greek word used here for "temptation" can, in some cases, be rendered "testing" or "trial." However, the context of the passage makes it abundantly clear that the apostle Paul is talking about a temptation to sin. The verse, then, is addressing the fact that God will not leave us defenseless against such temptations. We can never use the excuse that a temptation was just too great to resist committing a particular sin. No, this verse makes it clear: there is always a way out, always room to say no to sin. What this verse is clearly not referring to is circumstances that put our emotional stamina to the test. That's what most people are talking about when they say "God will never give you more than you can handle," but this verse is not about that at all.
In fact, there's another verse from the apostle Paul that directly contradicts the idea that "God will never give you more than you can handle." It comes from 2 Corinthians 1:8, where Paul says, "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life." It's pretty plain there--God allowed such difficult circumstances to come up in the course of Paul's missionary work that it was "far beyond [his] ability to endure," i.e., much more than he could handle.
So, we've established that this commonly-heard phrase is unbiblical. Now let me tell you why it's spiritually dangerous. First, it assumes that God is the immediate active agent in sending difficult circumstances into your life, rather than the brokenness of our world, or human sinfulness, or our own foolish choices. And if we've been fed on the notion that "God will never give you more than you can handle," and yet still find ourselves in circumstances that simply are more than we can handle, then some Christians may be tempted to feel betrayed by God, and to turn their anger on him rather than on the immediate causes of their difficulties.
Second, the phrase implies an inward focus rather than a Godward focus to our lives. It suggests that what's really important is my ability to handle difficult circumstances, that my own strength of will is enough to surmount anything that God or the world might throw at me. This is, quite frankly, an unchristian idea. There is no room in authentic Christianity for "the self-made man," for taking pride in "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps." Take a look at the Psalms, and you'll see that there is no expectation that God's followers will be able to handle anything by themselves. David is an emotional wreck in almost half of the psalms he leaves to us, and instead of assuring us that his own strength of character will be superior to the measure of his trials, he throws himself toward God with passionate cries of helplessness. That is the true and healthy Christian attitude toward the trials and difficulties of life: to cry out, "God, I need you--I can't do this on my own."
Third, the phrase can also be spiritually dangerous when it's used as a way of trying to console other people in the midst of their trials (as it often is). When we say this to people in the middle of a tragedy, we are whispering lies into their ears. I know that the intention is usually good--we're saying it to remind them of the faithfulness of God--but it will come across either as a downplaying of the depth of their pain, or an indictment of their insufficiency. Try looking some of your Syrian Christian brothers in the eye, who've seen their baby sons murdered and their wives and daughters sold as sex slaves to ISIS terrorists, and tell them that God won't give them more than they can handle.
The truth is, God often gives us more than we can handle. And I'm not talking just about the big, all-consuming tragedies that can befall us in life. Even in the normal course of events, we are often brought up against the stark barrier of our own insufficiency. I'm a father of young kids, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that raising them--as great a set of kids as they are--is literally more than my wife and I can handle. It pushes us out of our self-reliance--we have to learn to lean on each other, on God, on the fellowship of family and Christian friends.
And that's the whole point, I think. We live in a world where terrible, unspeakable things happen--even to Christians. In light of the New Testament, we should probably say especially to Christians. Why doesn't God simply remove all these trials from our lives? We don't know all the answers to that question, and we probably won't know them all in this lifetime. But we can say at least a little bit--that trials of this kind serve to wean us off our delusions of self-reliance, and they throw us on the strength of God and his church. In fact, that's exactly the point Paul makes in the verse immediately following the one I quoted. He tells us that he has had to face far more than he can endure, and then he says, "This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God" (2 Cor. 1:9). And, really, when you think about it, where would you rather be? Stuck in the narrow limitations of your own willpower, or able to throw yourself into the endless compassion of our unending God? As Sadhu Sundar Singh once said, "From my many years' experience I can unhesitatingly say that the cross bears those who bear the cross."
(Paintings--Top left: "We Exalt O Lord Thy Providence," by Maurice Schnell (1839-1902), oil on panel; Inset middle right: "The Triumph of Divine Providence," by Pietro da Cortona, 1633-1639, fresco; Inset bottom left: "Compassion!" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1897, oil on canvas.)
Note to My Readers: Due to the busyness of my summer schedule, in which I'm serving as a camp pastor on top of my normal duties, I'll be putting my ongoing Thursday and Friday series on hold until mid-August. All other days will continue to feature new content as usual, and the Thursday and Friday slots will offer devotional and theological reflections (heretofore unpublished) from my seminary years.