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God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength. –1 Corinthians 10:13
by Rachel Brownson
Over the course of my work as a hospital chaplain, I have become convinced that there is a particular demon, my nemesis, my anti-chaplain, that has made itself cozy in every hospital in America, slipping from room to room each clamorous night after I’ve made my rounds, undoing all my good work with patients and their loved ones. I imagine it leaning over the side of each bed, resting a kind hand on each shoulder, and whispering gently, lovingly into each sleeping ear, “God never gives you more than you can handle.”
If you have said this to someone, I forgive you. It’s a loving impulse that flows out of the desire to empower the sufferer, to call up a future in which great good has come out of great pain by the grace of an ever-loving God. It’s an understandable misinterpretation of Paul’s promise in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength” to resist the temptation to sin. In other words, God does not set traps for us in order to catch us in a sin we can’t help committing. This passage is not about being able to handle suffering.
Here’s how I find out that the hospital demon has visited one of my patients: in the course of our conversation, she wells up with tears. I leave a little silence to honor her pain. She quiets herself and shrugs and says, “Well, they say God never gives you more than you can handle, right?” with a sad little laugh. And the look on her face is almost too complicated to parse–hope that she can handle this, terror that she can’t, wishing to be told she’s in control, and the deeper desire that someone will acknowledge that sometimes these things can’t be handled. It took me a long time to figure out what to say to this, but usually what I say is, “This sounds like a lot to try to handle.”
If God is faithful and does not set traps to lure us into sin that we can’t resist committing, if God has that mercy, why do we believe that God sets cancer traps, loss-of-a-child traps, dementia traps to test our mettle through unbearable suffering? Why do we tell each other that we can handle things that can’t be handled? I think it’s because we’re afraid. If God never gives us more than we can handle, then it’s our fault if we fall apart under the pressure of suffering, not God’s. And when your child is lying in a hospital bed with poisonous chemotherapy dripping into his port, the question of who is at fault becomes pressing.
These things are beyond our strength to handle them. People will often say to the parents of a sick child, “I don’t know how you do it,” and the funny-not funny thing is that the parents don’t know either. You don’t have a choice–events happen whether or not you can handle them. Your body breathes in and out all day. You eat food when you can. You fall asleep and wake up and another day comes, and another, whether you’re ready or not, whether there is help for you or not, whether you’re handling it or not. To tell this parent that “God never gives you more than you can handle” is to say something along the lines of “If you can’t handle this, then you are disappointing God.” So please, please don’t say it.
Sometimes we do find strength to handle things we thought we couldn’t. Sometimes we find strength to resist temptations we never thought we could resist. God is merciful, and shows us the way out. But that mercy is mercy, it’s not something we’ve earned. It’s not a reward for our passing some sort of test. It is the mercy that is common to everyone, the surprising mercy of survival. It doesn’t depend on our being able to handle anything, and thank God for that.
Rachel Brownson is a Reformed Church minister, a writer, and a board certified chaplain at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in the University of Michigan Health System.