More Than You Can Handle
“Things Jesus Didn’t Say: God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle”
A Sermon on Luke 5:17-26
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
August 4, 2019 – 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you.’ Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, ‘Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the one who was paralyzed—‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.’ Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today.’
We are continuing our summer sermon series today: “Things Jesus Didn’t Say.” And I’m going to tell you right off the bat that this one may be hard for some of us. Jesus nor the Bible ever say “God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle.” It’s not in there anywhere. And friends – it’s also not true. We’re given more than we can handle all the time. But there is still good news to be found in Scripture – better news even than this phrase would give us.
I say this one is going to be hard for some of us because this saying is often embraced as a comfort or self-empowerment. I have latched onto it many times when I felt defeated or lost, and I’m sure some of you have, too. And to whatever extent it has helped people in the past, I’m grateful for this cliché. But it’s in the spirit of some other popular sayings that aren’t really all that helpful when we look at them too closely. We lump it in with phrases like “Everything happens for a reason” and “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” – neither of which are in the Bible, as well. But all of these phrases, when used at times of pain and suffering, can actually inflict more damage than they mean to.
There’s some truth to this phrase, of course. It speaks to God’s undying faithfulness, and of the inner strength that God has given all of us. In fact, it sounds a lot like some things that do appear in the Bible. 1 Corinthians: “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.”[i] It sounds similar, but 1 Corinthians isn’t talking about God giving us trials – it’s talking about God helping us around temptation to sin – it’s a fine distinction, but an important one. Of course, we can also point to the popular verse in Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”[ii] That is true, as well – but it’s the strength that comes from God, not the trial.
There are two big problems with the phrase “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” The first is that it implies that God doles out all the bad things in our lives. Yes, God is all powerful, but do we really believe that all of life’s hardest trials come from God? Or do they simply come from the world’s brokenness? I mean, think about it – when say “God won’t give you more than you can handle” in the face of a friend’s darkest moments, we are suggesting that God is the one who gave them cancer, who caused their divorce, who made them infertile, who got them fired, who decided a life should end too soon.
Let me put it in more immediate terms. Last Sunday, after we worshipped together, there was a mass shooting at a festival in Gilroy, California.[iii] On Tuesday, there was a deadly shooting at a Wal-mart in Southaven, Mississippi.[iv] On Friday, a 25-year-old woman was killed while a bystander to an armed altercation while attending First Fridays with her boyfriend down in the Crossroads – her father is one of the pastors at Church of the Resurrection.[v] Yesterday afternoon, 20 people were killed in a mass shooting at a Wal-mart in El Paso, Texas.[vi] Last night, there was another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio – 9 are dead, so far.[vii] That’s a lot of people who are mourning. Those are a lot of empty places at dinner tables tonight. Those are a lot of churches frantically prepping for funerals. Did God give them no more than they could handle? Did God give us this sinful epidemic of gun violence? No.
We mean well, but when we tell people that “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” we suggest that the worst things in life come from the God who loves us. We unintentionally prompt people to ask “Why would God do this to me?” or, worse, “Why doesn’t God care about me?” Friends, this is dangerous and harmful theology. These are the perfectly justifiable questions that make people leave church. And it goes against much of what the Bible tells us about God. Scripture says that:
God is love.[viii]
God created the world and called everything in it good.[ix]
God’s way is perfect.[x]
God is gracious, righteous, and full of compassion.[xi]
God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.[xii]
The world is broken. Sin and death and pain have ruled for a long time and God is working with us to overcome them. I promise, God doesn’t need to dole out the bad stuff – the world does that just fine on its own. So, we should stop inadvertently suggesting that that things come from God. In our Old Testament reading today, Jeremiah is experiencing the worst that the world can throw at him. And rather than putting that on God, he says: “This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope; The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.”[xiii] God isn’t the author of pain and strife, God is the faithful healer.
That brings me to the second problem with the phrase “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” We experience things we can’t handle all the time. Sure, on our own, we might be able to handle some disappointment and sadness, but have you known anyone who truly handled the big stuff alone? Do you know anyone who has – completely, by themselves – handled cancer, divorce, infertility, unemployment, or grief? Do you think any of the families or communities mourning victims of shootings this week can handle it by themselves? Of course not. The truth is that we’re given too much to handle all the time, and God is faithful still.
In our Scripture today we learn of a paralyzed man who wanted to see Jesus. As much inner strength and determination as I’m sure he had, the reality is that he couldn’t manage getting to see Jesus on his own. So, his friends carried him. They carried him to the house where Jesus was and, when they couldn’t get in, they lowered him in through the roof. I wonder if you can think of times you weren’t able to handle what life had given you and some friends or family carried you? What are things that you’ve handled only with the help of people that God put in your life? Perhaps it was friends, or family, or a teacher, or a pastor, or a therapist, or even just a stranger. We have all had people carry us when the burden was too much to handle.
And let’s be honest, sometimes other people can only get so far. Sometimes, the only one who can completely carry our heavy burdens is God. The paralyzed man couldn’t heal himself, he couldn’t even forgive his own sins – but Jesus did both of those things with just a word. There is a lot in the world we can’t handle – but God can help.
I’d suggest to you then that instead of saying “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” a truer saying would be “God will help you through anything you have to handle.” Or, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”[xiv] Scripture never says that we won’t go through hard times or that we can overcome anything by ourselves. What Scripture does tell us is that God is faithful and loving, and will never leave us. And so while “God will help you through anything you have to handle” may sound like splitting hairs, I honestly believe that it’s more faithful to the good news. I don’t want a God who tests me to my breaking point – I want a God who never leaves me and helps me limp through the breaking points. That is the God I hear promised in Scripture.
Beloved, life is sometimes going to give you more than you can handle. I have to be honest, I’m not sure I can even fully get a handle on praying for the violence we’ve experienced in our country this week – and praying is the easy part. The actions to prevent these kinds of shootings in the future is the hardest work, and we simply can’t handle that work without Divine help. But God promises us strength, grace, compassion, and love. With God, and with people who carry us when we need it, we can make it – rough as the going may get. To paraphrase our next hymn, “When other helpers fail and comforts flee, the help of the helpless will abide with me.” Or, put another way, God will help you through anything you have to handle. Amen.
[i] 1 Corinthians 10:13 (CEB)
[ii] Philippians 4:13 (NKJV)
[viii] 1 John 4:8 (NRSV)
[ix] Genesis 1
[x] Psalm 18:30 (NRSV)
[xi] Psalm 116:5 (NRSV)
[xii] 1 John 1:5 (NRSV)
[xiii] Lamentations 3:21-23 (NRSV)
[xiv] Philippians 4:13 (NKJV)