Thursday, November 10, 2016

"God never gives us more than we can bear"

It's often said that God never gives us more than we can bear (or handle). That's a popular interpretive paraphrase of 1 Cor 10:13. But is it true? I don't mean, is the Bible verse true, but the popular interpretation. The passage that forms the basis of the platitude says:

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.

On the face of it, that doesn't refer to situations in general, but temptation in particular. Admittedly, the Greek word is ambiguous. But in addition, the surrounding context is about temptation to commit sin. In particular, the sin of apostasy or sins associated with apostasy. 

So it doesn't seem to be a general promise that God will shield us from untenable situations. That doesn't mean God won't shield us from untenable situations. But you can't get that out of this particular verse.

There's also a distinction between what's objectively unbearable and what's subjectively unbearable. Between what's circumstantially unbearable and what's psychologically unbearable. Even if (ex hypothesi) God always gives Christians an opt-out in untenable situations, it doesn't follow that we never find ourselves unable to cope emotionally. 

Another ambiguity is that something might be unbearable in the short-term, but bearable in the long-term, assuming that if we persevere, the weight will lighten or fall off our shoulders. On the other hand, you have people who live with unending despair–day after day. Or people broken beyond repair. Or people who go through cycles. 

There are passages about the sufficiency of God's grace in Paul's life. Perhaps that's applicable. However, we can't just assume that God will do as much for us as he did for Paul. Paul had a unique role to play in Christian history. 

For some Christians, the promise of 1 Cor 10:13, as they understand it, may function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It gives them the extra nudge of encouragement they need to get through a crisis.

For for other Christians, it might have the opposite effect. It makes them feel guilty. They take it to mean they have the duty and ability to get through this crisis, yet they find it unendurable, and to be saddled with the belief that they've failed God makes it all the more insupportable. 

What about Christians who commit suicide? Was their plight bearable or unbearable? There's an obvious sense in which the strain was too much for them to take. 

Someone might say their plight was bearable, so if they buckled under the strain, that means they didn't exercise enough faith. There's a circular, unfalsifable quality to that explanation. If you survive the crisis, then it was bearable–and if you crack under the pressure, it was still bearable! 

Likewise, someone might say that while they felt their crisis was unbearable, we need to distinguish between feelings and reality. If, however, we're talking about an inconsolable state of mind, like acute depression, then that is the reality! It's their mental state that's beyond endurance.

Or even if they don't kill themselves, they live mechanically, with nothing to look forward to from one day to the next. They feel trapped in this world. Trapped in their body. Waiting to die. 

In a fallen world, it's not unexpected if some people, including some Christians, find life unbearable. Indeed, some believers might find life more unbearable than some unbelievers. Many unbelievers cling to this life because they think that's all they're ever going to get. They'd rather be miserable than dead. By comparison, Christians have a point of contrast. 

So it may be that God gives some Christians more than they can bear in this life, since this life is temporary. However unbearable, it will end–but not in this life. Rather, it will end when life ends, and heaven begins. 

Admittedly, that may sound hopeless compared to the claim that God never gives us more than we can handle. But I suspect that for some Christians, that platitude aggravates the sense of despair, because it's just not what they experience. So if nothing is wrong with the platitude, something must be wrong with them. 

My point is not to take a dogmatic position, but to question a facile platitude. A platitude that probably helps some believers and probably hurts other believers. A platitude that's far from unquestionable. 

1 comment: