By Nate Pyle
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
That’s one of the most common axioms we are handed in the midst of intense grief. Well intentioned, sure. Everyone needs to be encouraged, and what better way than by letting someone know they must be strong enough to face whatever circumstance lies before them because the Divine has deemed them able. But for all its well-meaning consolation, it’s about as scriptural as “God helps those who help themselves,” and “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Which is to say, it’s not. You can make the argument for these sentiments using the Bible, but you have to be a trained contortionist to make everything bend the right way.
The support for “God won’t give you more than you can handle” comes from 1 Corinthians 10:13, where Paul writes, “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear” (emphasis added). Notice that the verse is about temptation. It’s not about being overwhelmed by life. This verse wasn’t intended to be a comfort to someone reeling from the loss of a child. Paul wasn’t meaning for someone to rely on their own strength while fighting cancer. God didn’t take away your job so you could see how strong you are.
Far too often, interpretations of Scripture that make sense when life is generally comfortable are taken as true. But if the interpretation only works in the suburbs, where our lawns are trimmed and our pretenses are secured like vinyl siding, then it’s probably safe to assume that the interpretation doesn’t work. Apply the idea that God won’t give you more than you can handle to other situations, and it’s blatantly obvious that this idea only works in relatively benign situations.
To a survivor of Auschwitz say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
To a young girl sold into prostitution say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
To a Christian in Iraq whose world has been destroyed by ISIS say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
To a mother who lost her daughter to a Palestinian bomber say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
To a father from the poverty-stricken countryside of Cambodia who was injured while hunting for food and can no longer work and provide for his family say, “God won’t give you more than you handle.”
Seems cold, even heartless, no? A tone-deaf response imploring good ole American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” theology to situations involving people understandably overwhelmed by a brutal world. It doesn’t offer help but merely provides the speaker an opportunity to not get involved—to distance themselves from any responsibility. There’s no need to help because they should be able to handle it. And to the one suffering, this phrase says, Please don’t ask for help because you should be able to handle whatever it is you’re going through, because God in his divine omniscience gave it to you.
One can’t help but wonder if the phrase isn’t more for the person who offers it as misguided comfort. Seeing others suffer shakes our confidence in human durability and embarrasses us. A kind of survivor’s guilt washes over us as we thank the Lord for our well-being when confronted with another’s adversity. We feel that we should help them, while at the same time we feel guilty because of our packed schedules. Overwhelmed by the suffering in front of us, we distance ourselves from it in order to relieve our discomfort.
Coming into contact with the ill and broken reminds us of our own helplessness and susceptibility to suffering. We could lose our jobs. Our spouse could cheat on us. The hope we have for our kids’ future could be erased by heroin. And we wonder, If that happens, can I handle it? So we spout the phrase to those who are actually walking through life’s valleys, hoping that if they can handle it, we might be able to handle it too.
Truth is, none of us can really handle life. There’s too much joy, too much sorrow, too much beauty, too much pain. Life—with its baby giggles, courageous cancer survivors, immense poverty, brutal trafficking of young girls, and redemptive stories of justice—is paralyzingly large. Those who say they can manage real life aren’t paying attention to the fathomless ocean of human emotion.
Implying that we can handle whatever storm threatens our house is not biblical. If anything, it is the exact opposite. Look at what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:8–9:
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,
about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia.
We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to
endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we
had received the sentence of death. But this happened that
we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the
dead” (emphasis mine).
Paul—the one who was shipwrecked for the sake of the gospel, whose faith was so strong that people were healed when they touched rags he used to wipe his brow, who converted guards while in jail, who brazenly stood before rulers and confessed Jesus as Lord—said he despaired of life. He didn’t just have a bad day. You don’t despair of life after the flu or getting cut off in traffic or when your kids talk back to you. No, this pillar of faith thought life was too much. The pain was too great. He wanted to give up. He considered abandoning everything because it no longer seemed worth the struggle. He probably felt like a failure.
But later in the same letter, Paul would write, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). It is when we are at our frailest that Christ’s power can rest on us (see verse 9). In other words, when we can no longer keep going. When we’re fed up. When we’re empty. Confused. Exhausted. In over our heads. When life is too much to handle. In those moments, the strength of Christ’s resurrection will be seen in us. This is gospel news. This is good news.
But it is also bad news. The unfortunate thing about resurrection is that it can only be experienced after death. Until we die, we think we can do something to bring life to our weary bodies. But we need the God of death and resurrection to come into our broken lives, dead dreams, and hopeless situations. That’s what Good Friday and Easter are about. Jesus enters our death so that, with him, we might be given new life. If we want to experience this resurrection, then we must stop trying to perform CPR on our lives. As C. S. Lewis said at the very end of his classic book Mere Christianity, “Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.”
Death teaches this cruel fact: I can’t handle everything. Neither can you.
But that’s okay. Because that’s where God will meet us.
Taken from More Than You Can Handle: When Life’s Overwhelming Pain Meets God’s Overwhelming Grace by Nate Pyle. Click here to learn more about this title.
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” This is one of the most common and least helpful reassurances floating around Christian circles. It is anything but biblical. The truth is that God does allow a lot more than we can handle. But why?
Nate Pyle has walked through tragedy in his own life—professional uncertainty, the intense impact of mental illness, and the struggle to build a family because of a lost pregnancy, infertility, and adoption. As a pastor, Nate has cried with countless people experiencing deep and overwhelming pain. They want answers but perhaps even more, they want someone to sit with them as they lament.
Cliché Christianity tells us not to ask questions in hard times. Yet transformation awaits us in the dark night of the soul. In More Than You Can Handle, Nate asks with you: “God, where are you in this pain? Why don’t you step in and act?” Because when we courageously bring all of who we are to all of who God is—and stop pretending we can “handle” life—we encounter the God of Redemption. The good news isn’t that we can handle everything, but rather that God promises to be with us at the very moments we can’t handle anything.
Skillfully weaving together his own story, the stories of others, and a powerful look at the life of Jesus, Nate delivers a fresh and timely response to the pain we each experience. As Nate reminds us, the only thing more overwhelming than the pain of life is the love of a God who carries that pain with us.
Nate Pyle is husband to Sarah, is dad to Luke, Evelyn, and Wesley, and serves as pastor of Christ’s Community Church in Fishers, Indiana. Nate is the author of Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood and blogs regularly at natepyle.com. His work has been featured at sojourners.com, The Huffington Post, Christ and Pop Culture, and various other publications. Connect with Nate on Facebook or Twitter and Instagram at @natepyle79.