Christians can make the strangest claims when comforting those who are suffering. What do you say to someone whose life is falling apart? If you have but few precious minutes with a person who’s lost a job, home, spouse, child, or all sense of purpose, what comfort do you give?
We might turn to conventional wisdom instead of Scripture and end up saying something like, “Don’t worry, this wouldn’t happen in your life if God didn’t think you could bear it.” The sufferer may object, head shaking and hands up. But you insist, “Look, seriously, the Bible promises God won’t ever give you more in life than you can handle.” There it is—conventional wisdom masquerading as biblical truth. You’ve promised what the Bible never does.
Temptations Versus Trials
In 1 Corinthians 10, the apostle Paul writes, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. 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.” His discussion is specific: he’s writing about “temptation,” a snare that breaks a sweat trying to drag us into sin. Using a predator metaphor, God warned Cain that “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). Sin stalks us, but God is faithful. Sin desires to overcome us, but there is a merciful way of escape. Sin sets the bait, but for the believer—praise God!—sin is not irresistible.
Now if people apply Paul’s words about temptation to general sufferings, you can see where the line “God will never give you more than you can handle” comes from. I don’t doubt the sincerity and good intentions of those who use this phrase, but sincerity isn’t enough. Even Job’s friends meant well.
The Twin Errors
There are at least two errors in the unbiblical notion of “God will never give you more than you can handle.” First, it plays on the cultural virtue of fairness. Second, it points the sufferer inward instead of Godward.
1. Trials that Are . . . Fair?
If you give your children boxes to load into the car, you make visual and weight assessments that factor in their ages and strength. You don’t overload their arms and watch them crash to the ground with stuff splayed everywhere. That would be unfair. The saying “God will never give you more than you can handle” strikes a tone of fairness we instinctually like. There’s something pleasing about the idea that the scales are in balance, that God has assessed what we can handle and permits trials accordingly.
But there is a glaring problem with the “fairness” that undergirds this conventional wisdom: God has been unfair already, because he has not dealt with us as our sins deserve. He has been longsuffering, forbearing, gracious, and abounding in love. The sun shines and rain falls even on the unjust (Matt. 5:45). God transcends the categories of fair and unfair to such a degree that we have no position to evaluate his actions or weigh his will. His ways aren’t subject to our culture’s standard of fairness.
2. The Power . . . Within?
Suffering doesn’t ask if you’re ready. It may come slowly or with a vengeance, but it doesn’t ask permission, and it doesn’t care about convenience. There’s never a good time for your life to be wrecked. But the saying “God will never give you more than you can handle” tells me I have what it takes. It tells me I can bear whatever comes my way. It tells me God permits trials according to my ability to endure. Think about what this conventional wisdom does: it points people inward.
Yet the Bible points us Godward. As the psalmist says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling” (Ps. 46:1–3). When our strength is failing under crushing burdens, the answer is not within. God gives power to the faint and increases the strength of the weak (Isa. 40:29). The power comes from him to those who wait on him.
Where Trials Direct Us
Trials come in all shapes and sizes, but they don’t come to show how much we can take or how we have it all together. Overwhelming suffering will come our way because we live in a broken world with broken people. And when it comes, let’s be clear ahead of time that we don’t have what it takes. God will give us more than we can handle—but not more than he can.
The psalmist asks, “Where does my help come from?” (Ps. 121:1), and we must be able to answer like he did. We must know and believe, deep in our bones, that “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (121:2). When trials come, trust that the Lord’s help will come. This news is helpful to sufferers since we’re saying something true about God instead of something false about ourselves.
Paul recalled a time when God gave him more than he could bear. In a letter to the Corinthians, he wrote, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8). Paul and his associates had been in circumstances that transcended their strength to endure: “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (1:9).
Then he provides a crucial insight into his despair. Why were he and his companions given more than they could handle? To “make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). God will give you more than you can handle so that his great power might be displayed in your life. Indeed, a greater weight of glory is still to come: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
You might not consider overwhelming sufferings to be “light” and “momentary,” but think of your trials in terms of a trillion years from now. In the middle of affliction, sometimes the most difficult thing to hold onto is an eternal vision. Paul isn’t trying to minimize your affliction; he’s trying to maximize your perspective.
Suffering doesn’t get the last line in the script. In this life, God will give you more than you can handle, but the coming weight of glory will be greater than you can imagine.