Lent is the season in the church year dedicated to prayer, to fasting, and to generosity – that’s why some of us choose to give something up or take something on for these seven weeks. It’s also a time to examine who we are and what we believe, and how we talk about our faith.
In that same spirit, then, we’re going to spend some time in worship throughout Lent digging into some of the most popular sayings we tend to hear from Christians that are kind of true, but don’t quite hit the nail on the head.
As usual, there is a disclaimer: some of these sayings might be helpful to you in certain moments – or might have helped you in the past in some way. I’m not saying you’re wrong or bad or hurtful for using any one of these in a way that encourages and strengthens you for your own journey of faith.
But I am going to encourage us to take this deep dive together and see if you might find something even better.
Today’s half-truth is “God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle.”
Let’s listen for the word of the Lord together.
Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
If everything that didn’t kill me made me stronger, I would be Iron Man by now.
That’s one of my favorite, go-to responses when I’m frustrated or hurt and someone tries to cheer me up by smugly reminding me that whatever I’m upset about is not usually a matter of life and death.
What they usually mean is an encouragement something along the lines of “you’ll survive this, and come out better for it,” but that’s a conversation-ender—a way to say “I don’t want to talk about this anymore”, not an invitation to deeper relationship or even problem-solving. It shuts down whatever vulnerability that person has.
That’s also how I feel when I hear someone tell a friend who’s struggling – who’s absolutely overwhelmed with grief or fear or pain – that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
But before I get too far up on my soapbox, let’s back up a little bit – where did this line even come from?
It’s sort of a twisty paraphrase of one verse from 1 Corinthians 10, which says: “No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities. Instead, with the temptation, God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.”
There are a couple of things to notice here: first, the writer is talking about temptation, not trials or hardships or the pain inflicted on us by others. If you read the whole chapter, you’ll find that it’s all about trying to encourage the church in Corinth to resist the temptations of idol worship all around them. Corinth was a port city with many nationalities and religions represented, and there were statues and gods and goddesses everywhere. You could buy little things to give as offerings to those gods, who would then supposedly give you wealth or protection or some other specific thing. There were temples and songs to sing and festivals to participate in.
But the writer reminds them that they aren’t the first people to be faced with that temptation – even the people of Israel worshipped other gods in the desert and faced the wrath of their own God. As our Scripture reading for today points out, Jesus himself was tempted with fame, with grandiosity, and with power.
The writer also reminds them that God’s not going to abandon them to figure this out on their own – that there are ways to live and thrive even in that city in that time without doing everything that their neighbors did. Jesus’ temptation is a great example: even with the twisted Scriptures that the tempter offered him, the shortcut to power and wealth, he was able to sidestep it all by reminding himself who God is, what God had asked of him, and why he was there in the first place.
Pastor and theologian Adam Hamilton says it pretty concisely: “My own experience is that when I’m tempted, there is always a way out. The problem is that I may not be looking very hard for the exit.”
One of the perfect examples of this comes from the musical ‘Hamilton,’ in a song called ‘Say No To This.’ To make a very long story very short, Alexander Hamilton was home alone for an entire summer and found himself in a situation where he had the opportunity to cheat on his wife, and then to lie about it and bribe someone keep it a secret.
The entire song details various ways he could resist that temptation – get up and go home, come clean and tell his wife about the affair and ask for forgiveness. He knows there are ways out – the song’s chorus includes the line “Lord, show me how to say no to this” – but in the end he doesn’t say ‘no.’ And that affair spirals into lies and more lies and bribery and accusations of corruption and and and…
Whether it’s the temptation to raid the freezer for that half-pint of Ben and Jerry’s at 3 am or the temptation to just let loose on that one coworker, it’s a helpful promise to remember that with the power and the help of the Holy Spirit, we can walk away.
Now that we’ve debunked that part, at least, let’s break this little proverb down a bit to see if there’s something helpful in here for us.
Let’s start with the first few words: “God won’t give you…”
When we say that, we’re implying that whatever awful thing is happening, God gave it to you.
As Presbyterians, we believe that God is sovereign – which means that God has power over all things in all times and all places. But that doesn’t mean that God wills bad things to happen, or that God makes bad things happen.
It’s a tricky thing, right? Sin and evil are real – and just as we went over a few weeks ago, suffering can come to us because of our own actions, because of the actions of others, or just because we live in a broken world. We can still trust that God is good and loving and cares for us, but that doesn’t mean we’re suddenly invincible.
Again, Adam Hamilton hits the nail on the head when he says: “Those things are not part of God’s perfect plan. They are not sent by God. But they are part of the human experience. I don’t believe God gives them, but I trust that God walks with us through them—in fact God, in the person of Jesus, has already walked through our shared human experience with us. He knew what it was to suffer and to face rejection, betrayal, torture, and death. And his resurrection proclaims that evil, hate, pain, and death itself will not have the final word in our lives.”
Here’s a hard truth: there will be times when we are handed way more than we can handle on our own.
God doesn’t ask us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. God didn’t make us with bootstraps. What God made us for was communion and community – to be in relationship with God and with one another.
So here’s a better promise than “God won’t give you more than you can handle”:
God will help you handle whatever you’ve been given.
All of your pain – both physical and heartache.
All of your worries and fears, from the past and about the future.
All of the anger and hurt.
All of the tidal waves of grief and loss.
All of the falling down and getting back up.
God is with you. God will not leave you. You don’t have to handle this on your own.
that, my friends, is good news.
 Hamilton, Adam. Half Truths (p. 84). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
 Hamilton, Adam. Half Truths (pp. 93-94). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.