There hasn’t been much good news for the US lately. Montana has been burning for a while, and it looks like it will burn till first snowfall. Oregon and Washington are burning too. Half the US is choking on smoke. Houston and most of coastal Texas is underwater. Florida is bracing for Hurricane Irma, which could possibly reach an unprecedented Category 6. Islands in the Caribbean are already under its sway. We aren’t the only place either. Large parts of Africa are dealing with drought and famine. Violence often follows, with looting and killing. There’s a vast amount of tragedy and sorrow out there.
In the face of tragedy, many of us are at a loss for words. This is compounded when people mock some of them, sneering at people who express their sympathy and prayers. There is one common phrase, one that gets handed from individual to individual during tragedy, that needs to go. It’s not that it is cliche or empty. It is certainly well-meant. But it gives rise to a deeply wrong view of God.
What is it?
God won’t give you more than you can handle.
Homes are burning. Lungs are suffering. Entire cities are flooded. Homes, churches, and lives have been lost. In the middle of it, people are still suffering from chronic and acute illnesses. Cancer doesn’t stop for a hurricane. Rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t care if your house burned down. In the morning, cancer will still be devouring your body, and RA will still make rising hurt. They don’t stop for loss or grief. In the middle of this, assuring people that, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” seems comforting. It seems like it ought to lift people up.
Too often it doesn’t. The implication that God gives these hardships to us, because we can handle them, leads to some pretty bad theories. For example, did God give Texas flooding because he knew they were tough enough to handle it? While I know some Texans will go ahead and qualify for the Most Resilient Award (seriously, so many people have done so much down there), that’s not why they flooded. Montana isn’t burning because they can “handle” it.
Boil the platitude down to individual suffering, and it gets even worse. Did my friend lose a child to miscarriage while I carried a healthy child to term because she could handle the grief better? Did my husband lose his mother at 19 because he was stronger than the next person, whose mother is still living? Are we to assume that God deliberately gave them tragedies because they could handle them? That’s like a parent saying, “Well, Rufus is stronger and has a great immune system, so I’m going to give him the flu. Angelica is weak and whiny, so she gets to stay healthy.” It gives God all the blame for the tragedies in life. God’s not up there planning suffering for His children.
Despite trying to reassure people that God is with them, saying this actually increases the burden. It tells people that everything is on them. They must be strong enough, otherwise, God wouldn’t have given this suffering to them! For someone already beat down and feeling hopeless, the idea that a) God gave them this mess and b) they are now supposed to be able to deal with it is incredibly disheartening. It’s the opposite of what people are trying to convey. They look at a life destroyed and feel overwhelmed and inadequate, then guilt is added. God wouldn’t have given this to me if I couldn’t handle it. I’m not handling it. I must be failing God. (or God gave this to me? What a jerk!)
What are people really trying to say? We know they don’t intend to say that God gave someone a tragedy (at least I hope not). We know they really don’t mean someone should just handle overwhelming grief, pain, or disaster by themselves because of their innate strength. What they really mean, and what they should say, is this: God will give you the strength to get through this.
It’s not that God gives us tragedy. He doesn’t. It’s that He gives us the strength to handle the tragedy. It’s not that we are strong, so something terrible happened. We can ask for and receive His strength, because in tragedy, we are weak. And it is important to make that distinction when we are trying to comfort each other. When life grinds down on us, it’s very easy to take even well-meant words the wrong way. It’s easy to think, “What sort of God gave me this? Not a good one! I’ve had it with Him.” It can damage a faith that is already fragile from hard times.
God won’t give us more than we can handle, because God won’t give us tragedy. But He’ll give us what we need to make it through tragedy, even if it will be a long, hard road. When tragedy strikes others, it’s our job to do whatever we can to make that road shorter and easier.