On the Sunday that Gil joined the Oak Grove congregation, he shared a moving testimony of his faith in Jesus. Members of our church family have come to know Gil as a man of deep faith and joyful spirit, and also as someone whose chronic illnesses have left him with significant vision and mobility challenges. But the congregation had never heard Gil reflect on how his faith has been strengthened by his health struggles. “I am glad for the illnesses and challenges that I have, and I would not trade them,” he said in his testimony. “Without them, I would not know Jesus the way I do.”
I was struck that he did not in say, “God did not give me more than I could handle.” I often hear this phrase from people who are nearly overwhelmed by their struggles. It’s a phrase that never quite rings true. What does it mean to “handle” suffering? What do we think “not handling” things would look like? Of all the topics in this Say What? series of Bible studies, I have the most contempt for this overused (and misused) phrase. It is an almost useless expression.
Saying “God won’t give us more than we can handle” misinterprets the Bible on two counts. To help us untangle this double knot, we will focus on Paul’s description of both suffering and temptation in the letters of 1 and 2 Corinthians.
Suffering is a regular part of this life
Suffering is part of human existence. People get sick, and sometimes they die unexpectedly. Accidents happen. A job loss creates financial stress. Tragically, these difficult circumstances can even pile up all at once. Challenges can come from people who oppose our commitment to the gospel; the persecution experienced by the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria has caused major suffering over recent years.
The biblical authors were not immune to suffering. In his two letters to the Christians in Corinth, Paul used his own experiences of suffering to instruct the Corinthians about the Christian life. Some of his suffering came from what were likely health issues; Paul described one challenge as “a messenger of Satan to torment me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) that quite possibly affected his physical appearance and maybe even his ability to speak. Some of Paul’s critics noted that “his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:10).
In between these two passages, Paul described the physical suffering he endured for the gospel, noting that he had received the “forty lashes minus one,” been “beaten with rods,” “received a stoning,” and was constantly in danger (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
But these difficulties did not defeat Paul. Even as he described how much he suffered for the gospel, Paul testified that God’s grace was sufficient for him, so much so that he was willing to “boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul had friends who assisted him, churches that prayed for him, and a God who promised to save him.
And so do we. What was so moving about Gil’s testimony was how he has come to see his sufferings as Paul understood his own. Gil knows his faith is secure in Christ Jesus; and he has a loving wife and church family that help with his physical limitations, even as he helps the Oak Grove congregation as an active participant in congregational life. Perhaps we can say that people have learned to “handle” their difficulties. But how much better is it to acknowledge that in the midst of our suffering—however difficult it may be—we are not alone. One of the most significant witnesses of the church is to support us and point us to Jesus in our darkest days, knowing that our faith can also be strengthened by our sufferings.
Tested beyond our strength
As with most of the articles in this Bible study series, we think we’re quoting scripture when we really aren’t. In this case, the phrase we think applies to suffering actually describes situations that tempt us to sin.
It is this circumstance that Paul addressed when he wrote, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Context is everything; spiritual temptations are the issue here, not the various illnesses, difficulties, or persecutions that might come our way.
The Corinthians were a lot like us—they were surrounded by lifestyle options that their culture said were acceptable but their faith said were not. Paul reminded them that they were not the first in God’s family to experience spiritual temptation. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-10, he cited some of Israel’s less-than-stellar history when the people decided to turn back to a former way of life because it seemed easier and more pleasing in the moment. The people were punished severely for choices that demonstrated a lack of faith in God. But our experience can be different. After affirming in verse 13 that God will provide a means to endure spiritual temptation, Paul described in verses 14-17 what those means are: the bread and the cup of communion! We need not yield to temptation because we have shared in the blood of Christ that provides for our salvation. We are not alone in our temptation because we have shared in the bread, the body of Christ of which we are a part.
It is significant that the old Brethren refused to separate the bread and cup of communion from the full love feast. If nothing else, sharing the bread and cup along with a period of spiritual examination, feetwashing, and a meal forces us to recognize that our life in Christ is inextricably connected to our life with one another. This certainly includes the way we support one another in times of illness and other struggles. But it ought to also include the way we help one another when remaining faithful to Jesus becomes difficult and other options appear more attractive.
I’d love to think we’d stop saying “God won’t give us more than we can handle” because the phrase simply misses the point of our life together. God has given us one another and our shared faith in Jesus to navigate both the struggles and the temptations of life. Those are strong enough to see us through.
For further reading
- Donald Durnbaugh’s Fruit of the Vine (Brethren Press) is an excellent resource for how Brethren historically navigated faithful living when commitment to Christ came into conflict with the attitudes and beliefs of the culture around them.
- J. Heinrich Arnold’s Freedom from Sinful Thoughts (Plough Publishing) gives helpful insight into remaining faithful when tempted by sin.
Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.