We all know those times when someone says something nicely to hide a harsher meaning, like when someone says, “That’s a very brave proposal,” by which they mean, “That’s insane, it’s never going to work.” Or when someone says, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” which kind of sounds comforting, until you realise that the subtext is, “Suck it up, princess, and stop complaining.” Of course, we don’t say the subtext; we might not even mean it that way, but to a person who is struggling, that’s how it can come across.
A friend of mine is mothering highly traumatised children. For these kids, security is scary, because they’ve never known it. When things are in chaos, it’s more familiar to them. They’re constantly acting up, because that feels safe to them. And their deep assumption is that people abuse or neglect you, so they’re pushing and pushing to see when she will reach that limit. Meanwhile, day after day, year after year, she pours herself out in unconditional love to counter those assumptions, labouring so that one day they will be able to believe that they are lovable and loved. It is exhausting work at every level: physical, mental, spiritual. And she is spent.
Our own situations will be different, but that feeling is familiar to many of us, that sense that we haven’t got anything left to give. Perhaps we fantasise about giving it all away, or running away from it all. Yet many of us will also feel guilty for such feelings, describing them as sinful. If only we were a little less selfish, surely we wouldn’t be feeling this way. After all, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.
That adage is actually not in the Bible. It comes from a rendering of 1 Corinthians 10:13 “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” But the logic works something like this: in any situation, you will each experience temptation, like the temptation to hate a child who asking too much of you, or the temptation to hide away when stresses get too much. But to follow through on these impulses would be inappropriate, and even your desire for them is wrong, because the temptations are not more than you can bear. Instead, your task is to keep soldiering on with the task assigned to you by God.
There are two problems with this line of thinking: one is about understanding what the biblical text actually says, and the other is pastoral.
First, we have to work out who this verse is written to. V.12 addresses “you who think you are standing firm.” This verse is a warning to those who think they are invincible, who are likely to fail in resisting temptation because they are overconfident. The message to them is, “If that happens, it’s not God’s fault! You were the one who didn’t heed the warnings!” Which means, this passage is definitely not written as advice to people who are feeling the burdens of life encroaching on them.
Perhaps this analogy would help: if someone’s cold, you tell them to put on a jacket so they don’t get frostbite, but if someone is underwater, that’s foolish and potentially dangerous advice to give. Putting on extra clothes might make them sink! And what they need is air, not a jacket! Their issues are different and they require different approaches. To take the advice for the person in the cold situation and apply it to the person underwater doesn’t make sense. Likewise, to take a passage written to those who are overconfident and apply it to those who feel they have nothing left to give is nonsensical.
Second, to tell someone who feels at their wit’s end to simply keep going is to misdiagnose their problem. Their issue is not a lack of endurance: the way they are poured out already should be evidence enough that they’re a pro at enduring! It’s also not that they’re trying to do it in their own strength rather than relying on God. Leaning on God is not some abstract idea of God giving you extra capacity: in the New Testament, it is most often expressed in knowing the care of God’s people. 1 Corinthians, like most of the New Testament letters, is written to a group of people. All the instances of ‘you’ in this passage are actually plural - youse guys, as we say in Australian English. It sounds different if you say, “God is faithful: he will not let you guys be tempted beyond what you can bear together,” doesn’t it? That helps us see that the passage is written to a community who are to be bearing one another’s burdens. One person’s struggle is not theirs alone; if they feel that it is, then there has been a failure at the community level.
So when my friend said to me that there was this darkness in her heart, that she did not want to keep going pouring herself out for these traumatised children, I said to her, “I don’t think that’s your sin talking so much as your exhaustion!” If there’s sin to be identified, we need to look at our community level, not only at her heart.
Perhaps the next thing out of my mouth should have been, “What can I help you with? What can I take off your plate?” But the problem is, I’m in the very same place. My supports are low, and the demands made of me are high. I suspect this is not an unfamiliar state to many of us. I can count at least another half dozen conversations I have had just this week with other women who are struggling with all that is being asked of them.
This is why as Christians we must become skilled at seeing the structures and systems that exist or do not exist in our communities. If we only see things from an individual perspective, we will continue to labor alone, bent double by the guilt that we should be able to handle this, and smarting from the shame that we are not relying on God enough. God’s heart is not to tell you to knuckle down and keep going; it is to provide you with a community who can bear you along in life’s struggles. It’s together that we must ask these questions.
We are made to nurture and be nurtured in community, because we are the image of God, who is a community of Father Son and Spirit. When we feel the wrongness of being forced to go it alone, it’s something very deep within our soul crying out that this is not what we were created for. We need each other and it’s when we experience this that we are most human. We are more like the image of God when we are experiencing the support of others. So the next time someone tells you, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” do them this favour: remind them that you are someone that God has given to them to care for, and that doing so will be of benefit to you both.
Tamie hails from Adelaide and lives in Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES).