I was sitting at the bedside of a tearful patient, a woman hospitalized with pain and bleeding after her fifth consecutive miscarriage. A few hours after she checked in, she got a phone call from a family member telling her that her youngest sister had been killed in a car crash. Her nurse asked me to visit her that evening, and so I sat, holding her hand, telling her how sorry I was. Then she said it. “I know they say God won’t put on us any more than we can handle, but I . . . I just . . .” She fell back against the bed, sobbing too hard to speak.
“But it feels like more than you can handle right now,” I offered. She nodded and squeezed my hand.
“I don’t understand,” she cried. “I’ve always had faith, but I don’t understand all of this.”
“Neither do I,” I told her, and sat in silence with her while she continued to cry.
In later visits, she told me that she felt as though her world was coming apart, that all this loss was absolutely too much to bear. And because she had been told that God would not give her more than she could handle, she felt as if God had broken a promise, as if God had betrayed her. I could tell this was hard for her to admit. Through listening without judging, I hope I helped her believe that God would not condemn her for being honest. It takes a lot of faith to stand before God and say that it’s all too much and you don’t understand. We’re always most honest with the people we love. We trust them with our anger and our hurt as much as with all the good stuff. I believe we can be brutally honest with God. I believe that’s what God wants, more than platitudes and pretty prayers.
I continued to overhear other visitors say to her, “God won’t give us more than we can handle,” and I understand that it was out of their own anxiety. In a recent post, Rachel Held Evans wisely noted that we resort to such “Christianese” in the face of suffering because we are terrified to make ourselves truly vulnerable to the pain. I would add that we are also terrified by the questions that arise in such situations. If God has brought all these awful things into my life, what does that say about what God is like? Could God really love me and allow this? Or if God is not responsible, then is God not in control of anything? Does my suffering have any meaning? Can I handle this, and if so, how?
It is not my belief that God gives cancer, or miscarriages, or spinal cord injuries, or heart attacks, or multiple sclerosis, or head bleeds, or pulmonary embolisms, or any other of the atrocities suffered by my patients, and by people I love. Those things happen for reasons beyond my understanding, but I think it has something to do with the fact that we live in a broken world filled with broken people, all waiting to be redeemed. There are times when life gives us more than we can handle, and I have seen people crumble under the weight of it, at least for a time. But I believe that in the midst of those horrors, God is at work. And while God did not promise not to give us more than we can handle (nope, it’s not in the Bible), I believe God can be trusted to give us comfort and peace and strength, even if it’s only enough to get us through this day or this hour or this breath. When we do get more than we can handle, the best news I know of is that we don’t have to try and handle it alone, and somehow, little by little, we can make it.
What are your thoughts about the idea that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”? Is this something you have said or heard at difficult times? Have you found it to be helpful or hurtful in the face of your own suffering? How do you or would you answer the questions I listed above that arise in tough situations? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.