Comfort is a commodity we always want to give people when we find them under the pain of suffering or an onerous task. When we stand beside someone who is laying in a hospital bed, we desire them to understand God’s compassion. When a huge job is given someone and they are bending under its weight, we want to find the words which will lighten the burden. The phrase moving over our lips is often “God won’t give us any more than we can handle.” The only problem is that the saying is a Bible misquote. The phrase is an attempt to give comfort. Unfortunately, it is a misuse of a biblical truth.
The misquote is a mistaken interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
In the misquote, temptation is used as synonymous with a heavy task or more often suffering. Though heavy tasks or suffering can be the result of sin or make us more prone to develop a temptation towards sin, Paul however is talking about the actual temptation alone: the desire to pursue a sin. The Apostle Paul is showing us that God provides the tools necessary to overcome the temptation and to make another choice through a godly alternative. We don’t handle temptation we escape from it. We make a choice. Often suffering and tasks come to us, and there is no choice which can take them away or lighten their weight.
If it is true God never gives us more than we can handle, then when God allows suffering into our lives, matching it to our abilities, there is a problem if the suffering surpasses what we can handle. The quote assumes I have the mental, physical, and spiritual fortitude within myself to handle whatever suffering comes my way. If it is more than I can handle, then I’m doing something wrong, since God only allowed my suffering to come in measured portions. The problem with actual suffering is it doesn’t come with measurements. It doesn’t respect our abilities. Suffering doesn’t give us a choice to handle our situation or not, it just exists. Suffering has no respect for us as a person. Suffering can overcome our physical condition, break us mentally, and send us in a wrong direction spiritually. The misquote assumes God allows into our lives pains which are measured by our own makeup. But suffering does overwhelm us at times and does damage we cannot handle. We become distraught, indifferent, or physically even die.
In the book of Job, Satan asks permission to bring suffering into Job’s life.
And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life” (Job 2:3-6).
The passage raises many questions and directions, but focus on its relationship to the misquote. Satan asks for permission to make Job suffer. Job is unaware of this dynamic. God does set a limit, but it is not based upon Job’s character or abilities. He sets the limit at taking Job’s life. God, not Job, is the measure of what can be handled.
God knows my limits, but my limits are not what suffering matches. Nor is God the source of my suffering. The misquote puts the blame of all suffering on God and has him choosing the amount based on my strengths. God does not send suffering to Job, though he does allow it. God sets a limit for Job, but this isn’t measured by Job. Suffering comes from many sources. Suffering doesn’t ask about what we can handle, it takes from us without measuring. Suffering never considers the powers within us. It is impersonal and takes what it will. When someone argues, “God will only give you what you can handle,” we are pointing to our own abilities. God is left as only the source of suffering or an uncaring observer when neither are true. We interpret it as everything depending upon us or that everything in the suffering is about us and how we take on what is happening.
The same difficulties are seen when the misquote is given to the tasks in our lives. Moses is asked to lead the Israelites out of Egypt: “And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:9-10).
Moses, given a task, doesn’t have the abilities to carry it out. He doesn’t have the credentials: “But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). Moses argues he doesn’t know enough about God to carry out this task: “Then Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13). Moses argues he is not persuasive enough: “Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’” (Exodus 4:1). Moses argues he lacks words: “But Moses said to the Lord, ‘Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue’” (Exodus 4:10).
God counters, not by telling Moses how Moses can handle it, but rather by how God, himself will handle the mission. God tells Moses, he will be with him. God reveals his name to Moses. God says he will be with Moses’ mouth. God will give Moses what is needed to make the people believe. The story of Moses shows the whole problem with the misquote. It’s not that God won’t give us more than we can handle, that’s wishful thinking. Moses was not up to the task God gives him. God doesn’t expect Moses to handle the task on his own. God expects Moses to measure the task by God’s power.
The psalmist focuses on where our help should come from and it is not ourselves, it is not on what is in our ability to handle. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). This and the rest of Psalm 46 should replace the misquote when we see someone suffering or under the burden of heavy task. Our hearts need to be pointed to God rather than ourselves when we are overwhelmed.
We need to realize suffering and tasks are not here to test our resolve or push our abilities. They are, at times, tools of God’s redemptive plan. However, suffering is often the result of the world, our flesh, or the devil. The world is broken, we are broken, the devil is an adversary. None of these can be handled by our abilities. “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2). Tasks do at times come from God, but they are also not a test. God also gives us tasks which are far beyond us, but in those tasks, “God is our refuge and strength.” Through suffering, through burdens, God provides the resources which we do not have ourselves. We learn our dependence and need of God through our suffering and burdens. His help is not just future, but “a very present help.” We don’t need to be able to handle things which are beyond ourselves, we need a God who is bigger than whatever comes our way. Even if I must face death, God is my refuge and strength. He has walked the path of death before me and turns its defeat into the victory of my joining his kingdom. “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). This is not by our own ability to save ourselves, but the power of Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning. Death is more than we can handle, so he has handled it for us. “Therefore, we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling” (Psalm 46:2-3).
God wants his power to be available through our weaknesses. Paul speaks of this in a time of his own weakness: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
To say God won’t give us more than we can handle is a cruel phrase, implying that if you aren’t handling something, you aren’t living up to your potential. It is far more of a comfort to know God walks us through what is difficult, aiding us, giving us his strength, than to think we must handle it on our own. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear…”