Monday, June 6, 2011

When God Gives You More Than You Can Handle

“God will never give me more than I can handle. I constantly hear this quote at the hospital.  People are quick to say this to chaplains, and it has always made me curious why people say it.  The more I hear it, the more I think people say it to me because they think I’m secretly judging their ability to be a Christian and be one who struggles with sickness, suffering, or addiction…as though you can only be one or the other.  I think others say it because it keeps the conversation on a safe, surface level.

People often tell me it is scriptural, but they don’t remember where it is in the Bible.  Well, I am here to dispel that rumor: that quote is not from the Bible.  Sure, there are scriptures that talk about trials and temptations, but the quote “God will never give me more than I can handle” just simply isn’t there.  I jokingly say it is from 2nd Hezekiah (in case you were wondering, there is no 2nd Hezekiah).

I find it ironic that so many people who are suffering from illness or grief would turn to this quote.  Perhaps it is a comfort to them.  Perhaps they have heard it said to them by friends or family.  Perhaps it’s just another way of saying, “God will see me through this.”  And I can certainly respect that.  I just struggle to envision God with my life story in one hand and a calculator in the other, stating, “Jenny, I know you can handle ‘X’ amount of grief, so I have decided to give you ‘X-1’ so that you will be able to handle it.”

Mother Theresa played with that quote when she said, “I know God will never give me more than I can handle - I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.” I think what she is saying and what I, too, am trying to say is that sometimes it sure feels like our lives are crashing in around us.  I remember standing with a physician when he shared with a mother and father that their 5 year old daughter was brain dead.  Could you imagine me saying to them in that moment, ‘God will never give you more than you can handle’?  How about when a mother has to pick between her life and her child’s life because only one of the two is guaranteed survival…or a woman's mother dies after a long bout of cancer…or a woman in her 30s becomes a widow after her perfectly healthy husband drops dead while going for a morning run.  For some, it’s not just physical death that feels overwhelming: it’s an addiction to alcohol or drugs, a family broken apart by deceit and mistrust, or the threat of divorce when there are young children involved.

I think there are a lot of scriptures that speak to the threshold of one’s being and God’s response to it.  In Isaiah 54:7, God says, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you.  In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord.”  This certainly isn’t one of the more commonly quoted scriptures, but it’s there.  In Psalm 88:6-7, the psalmist cries out to God, “You have put me in the depth of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.  Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.” Human suffering goes deep, my friends.

I suppose I stand here today to make the case that we aren’t always kept safe from our ‘threshold of suffering’; rather, our threshold continues to stretch as life deals us more and more grief and pain.  In my own life, there recently have been instances both with my family and friends that show me how deeply we can suffer (I won’t share them on this blog because they aren’t my stories to tell).  I’m sure many times in my life, I have told people, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Well, I am here today to say I am officially retiring that statement.

My hope is that even if you use that quote, then you will also say to the one who is suffering, "I am here to listen...and I will share with you in your suffering.”  Let the patient, the friend, or the family member decide if it is more than they can handle.  And if it is, be the shoulder for them to cry on...the ear to let them be heard...and the tears to let them know you share in the sting of their suffering.

Perhaps this saying should be re-written.  I would re-write it to say, “I will never give God more than God can handle.”  So cry out, my friends…for God is listening.