Rejoinder: God Won’t Give You More than You Can Handle

Recently a pastor wrote a very popular blog entitled, “Confronting the lie: God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I’ve seen it frequently “Shared” and apparently it has gotten many thousands of “Likes” on Facebook. In Googling around I found other websites expressing similar sentiments. I don’t want to embarrass the author so I’m not going to name him. But I’m concerned about this notion getting wide agreement because it is terribly imprecise, misleading, and can call God’s goodness into question.

The author calls the idea that God will never give you more than you can handle BS.

He explains that

The past three weeks have been the most difficult I have ever gone through. These three weeks have been filled with illness, the terrible-three’s (the terrible-two’s are an out-and-out lie), a friend suffering the consequence of sin, a ministry I am a part of reeling in confusion and pain, having to cancel a trip to celebrate my parents’ 60th birthdays, and our family experiencing the emotional roller-coaster of finding out we were pregnant only to be told the pregnancy was ectopic and could be life-threatening to my wife if it was not ended.

Needless to say, I have had enough.

But what does it mean that the blog’s author has “had enough”? He writes that he has resorted to asking God questions like:

Why?
Why not step in?
Why not act?
Why wouldn’t you make it right?
Why couldn’t you part the clouds and provide a moment for us to catch our breath?
Why everything at once?
Why?

So apparently when the author has “had enough,” he asks God questions about why and what God is doing? That’s a strange had enough because usually when someone has had enough they quit whatever it was that they were doing that was more than they could handle. But apparently he isn’t quitting; he’s just asking questions, which isn’t sinful of itself. Thus it sounds to me like maybe he is able to handle the hardships he is going through because he’s not quitting. Do you see what I mean?

Then he writes that “It is easy to spout trite Christian platitudes designed to make people feel better with bumper-sticker theology. But insipid axioms do little in the face of the actual brokenness of the world” (emphasis his). Now I completely agree that when Christians see others struggle they shouldn’t simply spout spiritual slogans (even if they are true spiritual slogans). We are told to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), and that should be our first response to those suffering. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether God gives us more than we can handle.

The author writes that

This experience forced me to look at one such statement that gets spouted often when people go through a lot: God won’t give you more than you can handle. If I may be so bold, let’s just call that what it is:

Bullshit.

Tell that to a survivor of Auschwitz.
Tell it to the man who lost his wife and child in a car accident.
Tell it to the girl whose innocence was robbed from her.
Tell it to the person crushed under the weight of depression and anxiety.
Tell it to the kids who just learned their parent has a terminal illness.

Limp, anemic sentiments will not stand in the face of a world that is not as it should be.

But this is terribly imprecise because I don’t know what it means that these people “couldn’t handle it.” If someone survived Auschwitz and they weren’t insane or physically incapable of functioning normally in society, then in what sense didn’t they handle it? As for the other examples that he gives, which are all horrific to be sure, people seem to handle those all the time. I lost part of my spine to cancer, which was very stressful, and my wife and I shed many tears but, with God’s grace, we handled it.

Then he writes that

Now that I have said how I feel, let me back up this argument with some actual Biblical evidence. This particular statement, that “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” isn’t even in the Bible. There is a statement that sounds like it. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, ‘No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.’ But notice that verse is about temptation. That’s it. You won’t be tempted beyond what you can stand up against. This text is not saying that you will not experience more than you can bear. That idea just isn’t Biblical. If anything the exact opposite is true. Look at this text.

Other blogs have made similar comments, but the Greek word for “temptation” in that verse is peirasmos and that is the same word commonly used for “trial” in the NT (e.g., 2 Cor. 8:2, James 1:2, 12). Douglas Moo writes about the use of the word in the James passages that, that pierasmos “refers to any difficulty in life that may threaten our faithfulness to Christ: physical illness, financial reversal, the death of a loved one.”1 Obviously, then, anything that threatens your faithfulness to Christ is a trial and a temptation. Temptations, like the temptation to commit adultery for example, also threaten your faithfulness to Christ. Do you see what I mean?

Further, earlier in 1 Cor. 10 Paul gives examples of temptation/trials like v. 9, “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes.” That specific temptation/trial is found in Numbers 21 where it says that the people complained that there was “there is no food and no water” and the Lord sent snakes among them which killed them. Was a lack of food and water a trial or a temptation? Both! That’s why the words are interchangeable.

Also, Peter wrote in 1 Pet. 4:12-13: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing [peirasmos], as though some strange thing were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” If God won’t allow us to be tried or tempted beyond what we are able to resist, then in what sense can’t we handle those trials or temptations? You see, trials and temptations always challenge us on whether we are going to continue to do God’s will or not—they have a lot in common.

Then the blog author mentions the trials that Paul and others went through in Asia:

For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (2 Cor. 1:8-9)” (emphasis his).

He continues that

Later, Paul will write it is when he is weak that the strength of Christ is seen. In other words, when we can’t do it any longer. When we are fed up. When it has become too much. When we have nothing left. When we are empty. When it is beyond our capability to deal with it. Then, in that moment, the strength of the God of resurrection will be seen. Until we get to that point, we rely on ourselves thinking we can handle it and take care of the problem.

I have two things to say about this. First, I absolutely, positively agree that we must seek God for strength! I surely agree that without his help I can do “nothing” (John 15:5), but if I am relying on God, doesn’t He then help me to handle it? If the author’s only point is that we can’t handle hardship without God’s help, then that’s not even slightly controversial, right? And if we can handle things with His help, then why write that it isn’t true that He won’t give you more than you can handle?

Second, in the 2 Corinthians 1 passage, Paul doesn’t say they couldn’t handle it; he only said that they thought they were going to be killed. That’s not the same thing as not handling it?

Then the blog author writes: “Don’t hear me saying I am rejoicing because of the last couple of weeks. I am not. Not once have I danced around our house shouting, “Yeah suffering!” Instead, in the midst of pain and hurt, I am actively expecting God to do something.” But, again, isn’t his “expecting God to do something” handling it?

But I’m also concerned because when people proclaim that they’re not rejoicing it sounds honest, but it also suggests that Christians who do rejoice in their sufferings are really intellectually dishonest (maybe he’s not saying that but it could be taken that way). After all, Peter does tell us to rejoice in trial and in James 1:2-4 we read “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials [peirasmos] of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” In other words, James and Peter say we can rejoice, even in suffering, because of our expectation that God will work it out for our eternal good. It’s about keeping the eternal perspective. By the way, people can feel sad and rejoice at the same time–parents giving away their children to be married do it all the time!

All this being said, let me say again that I agree with the author’s concern that Christians shouldn’t use certain phrases like “it’s going to be all right” or “God will never give you more than you can handle” as quick quips meant to end the conversation so that they don’t have to be burdened by obeying Scripture and weeping with those who weep. We need to be there for and with people who are suffering. We need to come alongside them and allow ourselves to hurt with them. Let me be very clear about something: sometimes people think that crying isn’t handling it. People equate handling it with stoicism. That’s not true! Just because you may shed many a tear doesn’t mean that you haven’t handled it. If you continue to honor God and to do His will through whatever hardship you may encounter, even though you are crying your eyes out, then you have handled it as God would have you and you can look forward to eternal blessings! As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

So, no, God won’t give you more than you can handle as long as you rely on Him. After all, as it says in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

That’s not controversial, though, is it?

1 Cor. 4:7-11: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

Amen.

  1. Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 70. []
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5 Responses to Rejoinder: God Won’t Give You More than You Can Handle

  1. Kim says:

    I haven’t read the article that you are rebutting but I agree with the fact that God often allows us to go through more than we can handle. I know many people who have attempted suicide and several who have succeeded. I personally have gone through fires that felt like they would overwhelm me. It wasn’t what “I” could handle but what my God can handle. Had I not been a Christian I would have ended thing long ago… guaranteed. Knowing I could trust God and having a different perspective from the world is what pulled me through some of the darkest times. We are very breakable but our God is not. It is His strength we rely on.

  2. clayjones says:

    Hi Kim, I’m not sure I understand your comment. It sounds like you have, in Him, handled whatever you have gone through. As for those who have committed suicide, that they chose to take a sinful course of action to alleviate their suffering doesn’t mean that they had to do that. God would have had them learn from Him on how to handle their suffering properly. For example, sometimes Christians get drunk in the midst of their suffering. Should they do that? No. But sooner or later, as these Christians continue to abide in Christ, then they will learn to handle their problems in a godly way.

  3. Dan says:

    Perhaps death itself – suicide in the present context – may not always separate us from the love of Christ. Clay’s example of drunkeness or some other willful and unrepentant sin is the only thing that can. Wilfully giving up on God in this life would be such a sin. On the other hand, I’ve elsewhere argued that clear cases of brain damage are different. While we must not excuse sin too quickly, I do think the distinction matters. A mind clouded with poorly functioning brain activity is much like a car with malfunctioning controls. Damage done is still evil but the intent may not necessarily be so. Believers agree we’re all born into sinful flesh so we need Christ’s redeeming righteousness. But it seems equally incontravertible that a person with a brain handicap is not accountable in the same way as someone with a fully functioning brain. In fact, it would not be succumbing to temptation/trials as much as succumbing to illness. Therefore, while suicide, or actions leading up to it, may indeed be sinful, the act alone of taking one’s own life may not always be evidence that ties with God were broken (aka – tempted beyond what we can bear). Somehow, these tragedies are made to fit in the grand plan of God’s sovereignty. I do think these cases are difficult to discern and are probably more the exception than the rule.

  4. Benjamin Lavine says:

    Dr. Jones,

    One issue I have with your interpretation of ‘temptation’ in 1 Cor 10:13 is that you neglect to address the last part of the verse where Paul states, “…But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it (NIV).” In this context, one can argue that Paul is clearly refering to ‘temptation’ as a ‘sin’ and less so as a ‘trial.’ You may be correct in your broad hermeneutic of peirasmos as a trial that encompasses the temptation to reject Christ, but in the context of 1 Cor 10:13, a more proper interpretation is a narrower reading of peirasmos as a temptation to sin. If not, then based on your interpretation, we would read this as God providing a way out of our trials within the context of what this author is referring to. How does God provide a ‘way out’ with respect to the life’s tribulations such as those listed by the author?

    • clayjones says:

      Hi Ben,

      First, all trials are also temptations. Let’s look at the immediate context. Paul wrote in v. 6-10:

      Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

      I already mentioned the third example in the blog itself but let’s look at the other two. The first example comes from Ex. 32 where the people of Israel didn’t know why Moses hadn’t returned and so they decided to make their own gods and began to indulge in what Paul called “pagan revelry.” Was that a trial or a temptation? Both! Israel was frustrated and so they decided to worship other gods. How similar this is to the temptation of pornography! A guy finds that life’s not going his way, he’s frustrated, and then he remember this photo he’s seen on the internet and in no time at all, he’s indulging in his own pagan revelry. This is a temptation and a trial. Is he going to be faithful to God? Is he going to deny himself? Or is he going to return to the internet fleshpots of Egypt?

      The next example is from Numbers 25. Israel was told that they were going to be marched around the desert until they all died, then some beautiful women come into camp and they start having sex with them and pretty soon they are no longer faithful to God but start worshipping idols.

      Every trial is also a temptation to sin! When a child dies, or someone gets cancer, or gets fired, etc., they are tempted to doubt whether God will take care of them. They are tempted to drink too much. They are tempted to accuse God of wrong. They are tempted to enter the sexual fantasy world to feel better for a moment.

      Second, your wrote, “If not, then based on your interpretation, we would read this as God providing a way out of our trials within the context of what this author is referring to. How does God provide a ‘way out’ with respect to the life’s tribulations such as those listed by the author?” But the “way out” that Paul refers to isn’t necessarily that you no longer face that temptation (sometimes it might be that but that isn’t true most of the time). Here’s the passage: “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.” He provides a way of escape, not so that you no longer face the temptation, but so that you can endure it without sinning. For example, most Americans are one or two clicks from porn. Although some may throw away their computers, most Christians are learning to not succumb to porn even though the temptation still exists.

      But, again, if every trial is also a temptation to sin then we can “handle” that trial without sinning! That’s handling it!

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