Stuff Christians Say — Erica Barthalow
If you grew up in church like I did you’ve probably heard these words, likely uttered at the worst possible moment in your life or the life of someone you love. In the throes of a tragedy, a sweet, well-meaning soul reaches over, reassuringly pats your back, and says, “God never gives us more than we can bear, dear.”
I’m sorry, but that statement has always made my skin crawl.
Would you say that to a mother who just buried her child? Or a wife who’s reeling from the loss of her best friend? I hope not.
I’ve experienced plenty that was well beyond my capacity to bear: helplessly watching my children suffer for months on end with illnesses that had no medical explanation or solutions, bowing under the crushing weight of anxiety, and dealing with a crisis of faith, to name just a few.
While the statement is technically true, the way that’s it’s used in Christian colloquialism is not true. At all. And it’s not helpful. It’s like a parent who repeatedly “consoles” their child after a bee sting by saying, “Yeah, I once got stung 20 times in one day.” Technically true? Yes. Helpful? Not so much. And a little dismissive of their pain.
Saying “God never gives us more than we can bear” to someone who is hurting carries the subtle implication that she should stuff her extremely difficult, painful, damaging, messy feelings down and “handle” them because that’s what she’s supposed to do, and all of her feels are making us wildly uncomfortable. It’s a religious way of saying, “Buck up dear, this isn’t too much for you” (and if it is, then something is clearly wrong with you because God wouldn’t give this to you otherwise). I understand that it’s usually said out of a loving and concerned heart that just wants to make everything better, but it doesn’t make things better. It just doesn’t.
The phrase comes from an oversimplification (or incomplete interpretation) of a verse in 1 Corinthians where Paul addresses the believers in Corinth and warns them away from idolatry and sin. You can read about it in chapter 10:13. But the problem I have with the “you can handle it” interpretation of that passage is twofold: 1) it insinuates that if you’re experiencing suffering, trials, or temptations then it must be from God (that’s a thought for another day) and 2) you can clearly handle it, because it wouldn’t be happening if you couldn’t. As if pronouncing that statement over a situation casts a magic spell that suddenly makes whatever you’re facing less devastating or painful.
Anyone who has crumbled under the weight of anxiety and depression knows there’s no magic spell or statement that can wave away the fog you live under. You don’t handle it. It handles you. And it often feels like way more than you can bear. And certainly more than you want to.Please hear me. I’m not disagreeing with Paul. God is indeed so faithful to provide for us in the middle of temptation and trials. I’m taking issue with our interpretation of the passage that implies that we can (and should) handle it in our own independent, self-sufficient way.
All my temptations and trials serve as a reminder to me (as I think they’re meant to) that I need God, and I need friends who will surround me when I’m feeling broken down, overwhelmed, and hollowed-out. And that’s what saying “God never gives you more than you can handle” fails to communicate. It fails to acknowledge that I know you need me and that I’ll be here for you.
I’m trying to push to the deeper layer of this “handle it” theology and drive at the heart of our beliefs about how we live out a life of faith. Are we meant to handle it (whatever it may be for you)? Or are we to lean on each other and God as we face temptation and trials.The only way I was able to bear those things I mentioned at the beginning of this post was with a loving and patient community of friends by my side who lifted me up when I reached out and pointed me back to God.
Paul says in that same passage that God promises to provide a way out of our trials and temptations, and I believe God’s faithfulness and provision often shows up through the sweet friend who scoops you up off the floor of your dark pantry when anxiety has you frozen in the fetal position, or a friend who’s not afraid to get up in your business and ask you personal and pointed questions about your life and relationship with God, or a husband who dances you around the room to remind you that there’s hope when you’re feeling overwhelmed, and then gets up at 5:30 the next morning to drive an hour just to get you a cinnamon crunch bagel and a Starbucks chai because he loves you and he can’t fix everything—but he can be there.
If your life is unspeakable right now, and you’re pretty sure you’ve got more than you can handle staring you in the pupils, I’m not going to say “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Lord help us! I’m going to remind you that God is faithful and there is hope for you today. Of this much I’m sure. Look around. Who has he provided for you? Talk to them today! Lean on them. Be vulnerable enough to let them walk with you.
We can bear it. Moment by moment. Together.
~Gut-Check and Action Steps~
- If you have a friend who is having a hard time, instead of saying “God never gives you more than you can bear,” how about saying, “I’m here. I’ll walk with you, beside you, and together we’ll get our strength from God who is more than faithful to see us through.” Because he is. He so is.
- If you’re struggling today, who’s there for you? Make a list of friends or family that you can reach out to. And if you don’t have anyone on that list look for a church in your community that you can connect with.