My Dear One,
There’s a saying that’s always really bothered me: “God never gives you more than you can handle.” I’ve known many who felt it was more than they could handle. Indeed, it seems like it was more than anyone should be asked to bear. At times like this, are we really being tested? Is there any truth to this saying that has both been a source of hope for some and a source of deep pain for others? Where does it come from anyway?
As a pastor, I walk into my church’s sanctuary worship space several times a week. Most of the time I walk into an empty quiet room. But not so on a Sunday morning. I love walking in the door and listening to the buzz of people talking. We walk into this place, catch up with how everyone is, and then I walk in the room and sometimes against my own will call us to be quiet and to focus on something that almost none of us is focused on at that moment in time: that we’ve stumbled and fallen over this past week and we need to turn again to God and ask for forgiveness. It doesn’t matter who we are talking about, you, me, the youngest, the oldest, the happiest or the saddest, the first or the last, we all stand in need of forgiveness, every week. It doesn’t matter who has messed up a little or who has messed up big time. We all need to be forgiven, every week.
Why? Because we are tempted and fall. We are tempted by many things that cause us to stumble and fall. Pride. Arrogance. Self-assuredness. Self-reliance. Other-reliance. Idolatry. Addiction. Judgmentalism. And worship of many, many things that are not God. They all trip us up when we forget to pay attention to where we are standing and what we are standing on. In First Corinthians 10, the apostle Paul says it so plainly,
“So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 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. Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.” 1 Corinthians 10:12-15
If you think you are standing, if you think you aren’t in need of forgiveness or you think you’ve got it all under control – that’s when you are most susceptible because you’ve let your guard down. You don’t think you are at risk of falling. Watch out, he says, watch out that you do not fall.
Lent is an annual time for those of us who are Christians to double-check our footing. But perhaps it is an equally good time of year for us all. (Is there ever a time we don’t need this?) We may think we don’t have need of repentance. We may turn a blind eye to our own sin and ignore the weakness in our knees. We may be looking at the person next to us all worried about how they are falling. And that’s when it will get us almost every time.
But don’t think you are all that special just because you are being tested. Paul says, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” You may think your trials are bigger than everyone else’s. You may think you have it worse off or that they can’t possibly know what you are going through. But really people are facing the same temptations every day that you face. Some of them are falling too. And some of them are able to stand. But the only thing you can safely presume is that everyone else is struggling to stay standing just like you are.
And then Paul gives us the kicker. He says, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength …” We have taken these words and twisted them around to make the phrase “God never gives you more than you can handle.” That is a paraphrase of this passage from First Corinthians. And what we think it means isn’t what it actually means at all. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of what this verse actually says. Because so many of us use it as a means to beat ourselves up. We convince ourselves that God is punishing us and that even if we’ve reached our breaking point, or even if we’ve already been broken and we are lying in pieces on the floor, we say, “Oh well, God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Well, God may not. But life will. Life will give you more than you can handle. In fact, that’s exactly what Paul is saying. You, as an individual, you cannot handle it. You are not strong enough. You are too susceptible to falling.
Paul’s actual words, again, are “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength …” And the key to this verse is in the “you”s. Those “you”s are both plural. What Paul is saying is “God is faithful, and he will not let y’all be tested beyond y’all’s strength.” Paul is writing this letter not to an individual but to a community of Christians in Corinth. He’s not saying that anyone of us has the strength in and of ourselves to be able to stand it all. But rather precisely because we do not we have others to help us endure it. God will not allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear together. If you try to bear it alone, however, it will crush you. That’s why you need you need to learn to rely on others and not just yourself. You need your family and your friends. You need a faith community be it a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or a group of friends who gather regularly at a house or pub for deeper discussion.
But it doesn’t even stop there. First Corinthians continues: “God is faithful, and he will not let y’all be tested beyond y’all’s strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that y’all may be able to endure it.” Did you get that? God will provide the way out. Right before he writes this, Paul was just recounting the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the wilderness, when God provided them a way out across the Red Sea. And he tells us too, that when our back is against the wall and we are caught between a great army coming after us and nowhere to escape to, God will provide a way out. Not just for one of us. Not even just for Moses our great leader. But for all of us – together. God will give us our own exodus.
“Therefore, my dear friends,” Paul continues, “flee from the worship of idols.” What is it that we are worshipping that is not God? What is it that we’ve put at the center of our lives that does not belong there? What false belief, false hope, false security, do we continue to bow down to and worship? What is it for you? What is it for me? What is it for all of us together? Let’s flee from it. The very thing we think we are running towards may be the army coming after us. If we are not running towards God, we are running in the wrong direction.
Let’s together run to the Lord, our God – who is faithful, who is loving and who will never test us beyond what we can bear – together.
following The Way,
Elder of the Week: Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu, which means "Old Master," is accredited with writing the ancient Chinese book of philosophy, the Tao Te Ching. Coupled with Confucianism, Taoism helps form the basis of much Chinese philosophy and religious beliefs. A short work of 81 poems (sometimes called chapters), the Tao Te Ching (which translated roughly means "The Book of The Way and of Virtue") is a beautiful and deeply profound work that continues to speak important words to the way we choose to live our lives. As you consider more carefully the way you are choosing to live, a work such as this has the potential to open up new ideas, formulations, and feelings within you. A popular translation can be found at Amazon here.
For now, I'll leave you with this poem, encouraging you to explore all the rest.
Governing a large country is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking. Center your country in The Way and evil will have no power. Not that it isn't there, but you'll be able to step out of its way. Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself. Tao Te Ching, chapter 60 (Mitchell/Nelson translation)
This week, take some time to double-check your footing. Answer for yourself the questions:
What am I standing on, counting it to be solid?
Is this really something I should put this much trust in?
If my answer was not God, is this my god instead?
Am I happy with my answer to all of these or do I feel a need to change something before I fall?