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.
12 thoughts on “Why You’ll Never Hear Me Say “God Doesn’t Give Us More Than We Can Handle””
My heart just aches when I hear those platitudes. God told us that we would not be given more temptation than we could handle – that He would always give us a way out.
He never told us we would not be given more tragedy than we could handle. All we need do is to look around – we are daily given more tragedy than any one person can handle. What God did tell us is that He walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus told us we would have troubles. Yet we need to learn to reach out to him, to take his hand, to understand that we aren’t expected ever to go through it alone.
He is our Father, and what loving, caring, compassionate father would want his children to go through grief and tragedy alone? God’s arms are always open, and when we suffer, He suffers. He aches to comfort us, to ease our broken hearts. We may never know the whys until we see Him face to face; but if we remain faithful, we must know that will hold us tightly throughout the aching until the pain goes away.
Welcome, Susan, and thank you for your words. It gives me great comfort to believe that God walks with us every step of the way, even and maybe especially through the valley of the shadow. And I believe you’re right that when we suffer, God suffers. A God willing to be vulnerable to pain just as we are leaves me with no words but those of the old hymn, “What wondrous love is this, o my soul, o my soul!”
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I’ve often wondered how this fiction got started. It makes the Almighty out to be a mean kid with an ant farm doling out pain to the poor little buggers just to see how much they can take. Sick. The hurting don’t give a rat’s ass about what C.S. Lewis wrote concerning pain. All they know is that it hurts and they want it stopped. That’s where we come in as people of faith. I believe we have immense power to be the balm and morphine to a diseased world that is dying by degrees. And it sounds to me like you are doing just that. Oh that we had more young thirty-something women in the Protestant clergy!
Welcome, Muff! I really appreciate your comment, and I think you’re right. People in pain don’t want to hear theological platitudes in my experience, just that someone sees their suffering and cares about them. Thanks for your encouragement!!
As to how it got started–I think this statement is a garbling of “God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear” (I. Cor. 10), which speaks of temptation, not suffering.
I heard the “God never gives you more than you can handle” pulled out of “God’s grace is sufficient for you”, and “in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God concerning you”. It has not been a helpful concept of God for me to think that “all choices by humans, including abusive ones toward me, are God’s will for me, and that it is never more than I can handle”. But this is what I was taught. My process of rejecting what doesn’t work for me, and finding the God of my understanding, has been long and many times painful. I am still seeking.
It is definitely painful, Teresa. I’m still a seeker too. Blessings to you.
Like the young woman in your story, my younger sibling was killed in an accident when I was at a low point personally (but not as horrible as 5 miscarriages). I am forever grateful that I no one has ever said, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” I realize that it is very difficult to know what to say when a friend is dealing with a major grief. However, the thing that people said to me that made me cringe was some variation on, “time will help heal your grief.” Time means that he has been dead longer, he has missed more, that our memories have grown hazier. That sounds horrible. Time takes us further apart.
I’m so sorry for your loss, Sarah. Thanks for sharing your story so honestly. You’re right, it is very hard for any of us to know what to say to someone in pain. I think it’s often best to say nothing at all, just to be there. That’s what I usually want when I’m hurting.
I believe that God is with me no matter what is going on. My beloved husband died 2 months ago…very unexpectedly. I was blessed to be with him when he took his last breath..to tell him I love him…to ask him to watch over me. I miss him more than any words could say. We fit…Since his death, I have had one illness after another…nothing serious, but enough that I miss work. Thankfully, I have enough sick leave to cover it.
What I believe is that God gives me strength to continue on when I feel like hiding under the covers. He sends me glimpses of beauty when all I feel is sorrow. He wakes me each morning with the promise of a new day.
I have been told I am a strong person…I don’t know how strong I am, I only know that I have no other choice but to put one foot I front of the other. My guy wouldn’t want me to waste my life moping. He was my biggest cheerleader….he encouraged me to go to college to become a teacher and next June at the ripe old age of 60, I will graduate from college. It would be lovely to have him hug me and tell me how proud he is, but that is not to be. I will have to be content knowing he is watching me from Heaven…..still cheering me on.
Thank you for your courage in sharing, Liz. I’m very sorry for your loss, and I agree with you on all counts.