It is a popular sentiment that God won’t give you more than you can handle. Christians say this for many reasons, but mostly to comfort others who are weighed down with hardships. It is intended to lend confidence to the person suffering, and some have certainly found comfort in these words. In Scripture, we see this truth when it applies to temptation. God will not allow us to undergo a level of temptation from which we have no hope of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). God will restrain the Tempter’s lies. He will also shape our circumstances so a way out is always available. The Lord will not allow you to experience more temptation to sin than you can bear.
But does God also work this way with our afflictions? Is it true that God will never put more suffering on us than we are capable of carrying? Paul testifies to the contrary in his second letter to the Corinthians.
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. ~2 Corinthians 1:8-9a (ESV)
Paul and his ministry partners experienced extreme hardship while in Asia. He says they were “utterly burdened beyond our strength.” Literally, Paul was ‘weighed down’ with a weight that he could not carry. God had indeed given them more than they could handle. So great was this level of affliction that they “despaired of life itself.” Maybe some of you have felt pressed to despair with the same weight. How should we respond under such stress? Is the common prescription “God won’t give you more than you can handle” good and biblical medicine?
While intended to offer comfort, I do not think it represents what God teaches us in his word and, therefore, offers no real hope in suffering. Here are a few reasons why:
1. It doesn’t correspond to reality.
God time and again has given his people more than they could handle on their own. Paul’s testimony above is evidence. Consider also how this advice would land on Joseph when he was sold into slavery by his brothers, and later imprisoned unjustly. Or when Daniel was cast into a den of man-eating lions, or when Job lost all his health, wealth, and children. Did God lay this burden of affliction on them because they were made of stronger stuff?
2. It misrepresents God and his purposes.
If people believe that God will give them no more than they can handle, what happens when they suddenly become so utterly burdened beyond their strength that they despair of life itself? They must force themselves to believe one of the following for comfort:
- that the affliction isn’t as bad as it seems
- that they must be strong enough to bear it, since God wouldn’t give it otherwise
- That this suffering isn’t from God at all, so there is some other cause
The first requires self-delusion and the second leads to ungodly self-reliance (more on this later). The third conclusion may be the worst. Many Christians have an unfortunate reflex to exonerate God from any charge of wrongdoing by removing him from the scene entirely. God had nothing to do with this! Perhaps some prefer to think that God is good and well-meaning but ultimately weak, rather than sovereign and acting according to the counsel of his own wise will. The Scriptures will not allow us to think of God as good and weak. Such a god is no good to anyone. The fact is, sometimes God allows Satan to sift us like wheat (Job 1:6-12; Lk 22:31,32). Sometimes God puts a thorn in our flesh and won’t remove it (2 Cor 12:7ff). Sometimes God lays a hand heavy upon us, pressing us beyond our strength. It does no good to suggest that God isn’t the one doing it, or that we are strong enough to lift it.
3. It directs you to the wrong place for hope.
Affliction and suffering are tools God uses for our sanctification. Look at the rest of 2 Corinthians 1:9:
“Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”
God’s purpose in this heavy affliction was to lead to reliance on God rather than self. Consider this: to tell someone that God will never give them more than they can handle effectively leads people to rely on their own strength! To give this advice to Paul and his partners during this trial would have opposed what God was teaching them. Paul says that God laid so great a burden on them to expressly reveal their weakness and to strip them of self confidence. This is true again with the thorn in the flesh God gave Paul: it was “to keep [him] from becoming conceited” (2 Cor 12:7) and God did not remove it but instead gave “grace sufficient for [him]” to endure it (v. 9).
In our own lives and in the lives of others who are suffering, we should focus on the comfort Scripture gives. Since God is sovereign, no suffering comes apart from his will and plan. And since we know he loves us and works all things together for our good (Rom 8:28-39), we know that whatever we endure is necessary for our sanctification and is never excessive or pointless. For the Christian, there is no needless suffering, not one drop of hardship more than is necessary for God to work his purposes in us. And what he gives in affliction he matches and surpasses in grace, so we learn to trust him. God has no design for your harm that does not have accompanying grace to heal and strengthen.
Count on it: God will give you more than you can handle. But nothing is greater than he can handle. His grace is sufficient. Few of us will learn this lesson outside of the school of suffering.