If ever I wrote a piece that my Christian friends will read, I hope this is it. Why? Because this oft repeated mantra—that “God will not give you more than you can handle”—is not just mystifying and nonsensical to we who are non-believers; far more importantly, it is deeply hurtful to many Christians. Surely those who utter this supposed assurance are not being intentionally mean-spirited, so it seems obvious that they simply do not understand the implied indictment that the phrase hurls at the faith of fellow Christians, nor do they get the fact the statement cannot possibly be true. Please allow me to explain.
For arguments sake, let us assume that there is a Judeo-Christian, personal God, and that he (or she) is real. (I know what the skeptics are thinking: nobody defines god the same way, and you can’t define a supernatural being, by definition. Just work with me here; you know what I mean.) The fundamental problem is this: the statement “God will never give you more than you can handle,” is false—at least in terms of anything close to an earthy reality. He gives people more than they can handle—every single day! And they implode, suffer, and die.
Somewhere on earth, every day, Christian believers (and others) die alone. They die hungry. They die while innocently suffering pain that is sufficiently extreme and excruciating so as to drive them literally out of their minds—even here in the US, with modern attempts at pain management! They die of Lou Gehrig’s disease; they live and suffer the effects of tsunamis and subsequent epidemics of disease that kill them; they suffer tumors of the brain that destroy cognition and turn otherwise-normal people into criminals or predators; they suffer political imprisonment to which they succumb; they suffer stock market collapses, and illness, and divorce that together drive them to suicide; they suffer biological depression that is so horrifying and excruciating that they simply do not have the energy to kill themselves, though eventually many do so indirectly and unintentionally. Plain and simple, God routinely “gives” people “more than they can handle.” (Or he allows it, which if he has the power to remove it, is one in the same—but we won’t delve into the problem of theodicy today.)
Why do we say it?
Before I explain to my Christian friends why the phrase is often deeply hurtful to their fellow Christians, it seems appropriate to ask where it comes from. Why it is even uttered in the first place? Perhaps this question is better left to theologians, or even those who study the changing zeitgeist of religions, but I’ll take a crack at it.
Most often, I contend, people utter this phrase because they are trying to be supportive and encouraging. Nothing more. My guess is that they don’t really even know, themselves, from whence it comes. Others, however, may be taking a more theological approach. Unfortunately, and like most theological elements of Christianity, there is great debate and disagreement about what God has promised his believers—in this case in terms of answering their prayers. This should not be surprising; from the trinity to docetism, from transubstantiation to sexual ethics, Christians cannot agree. This is because many cling to narrow texts and teachings without understanding the context, culture, mythologies, midrash, liturgical significance, metaphors, evolving zeitgeists, history, and the allegorical expressions behind the complex “truths of divine human experience,” as expressed by the dozens of Biblical authors over nearly two thousand years. The results can be understandingly confusing, especially when one attempts to take it literally and out of context.
Such picking and choosing of select scripture, especially within certain self-affirming sects, can produce general ideas such as the ones that suggest that if you ask something of god, you will receive it. This is what I would call the “Santa-in-the-sky theology.”
Matthew 7:7 says: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
Matthew 17:20 says: “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” (Jesus then goes on to tell Peter to pay taxes with the money he’ll find in the mouth of a fish he will catch in the sea.)
Mark 11:24 says: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
John 14:14 says: “If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.”
You get the picture. Of course entire books have been written about the origin and true message behind such citations, about the Jewishness and apocalypticist mythology that greatly illuminates such admonitions, but that is far beyond the point here. The point here is that although it may be unknown to many who utter this supposed assurance, there may be a theological background behind it—regardless of how misguided or unsound the rationale for that theology. Nonetheless, I will make clear in a moment that uttering this “reassurance” is either ignorant or mean, regardless of intention—even if you could convince me that it was theologically true.
An Alternative Defense
We’ve already demonstrated that the statement at hand is simply not true; still, a few apologetic Christians might say that even death is not the final word on what god did or did not give you. Just because Christians suffer and meet their demise—or even cause their own death—this is not the end, so even still God has not given you more than you can handle.
But this defense can easily be shown to be disingenuous. After all, if someone gives the assurance that “God will not give you more than you can handle,” surely they would not be equally as likely to phrase it this way: “These events about which you worry might indeed torture you to indescribable depths here on earth, and in the near future result in massive psychosis and ultimately death—after great suffering, but I am here to assure you that in the next life everything will be okay.”
No, clearly when the phrase in question is uttered conventionally we are talking about earthly reality, and suggesting that in this circumstance in this life, here on earth, God will give you what you need to overcome this situation—if you believe.
Blaming the Victims
Ahhh, but did you catch what I added to the end of that last sentence? I hesitated whether to add “if you believe” or not, because some Christians do add that part, while others do not. I’ll argue that most who utter the phrase do not intend to add that latter part. Still, this is the other “out” through which people will disagree with my assertion that the statement “God will never give you more than you can handle” is flat-out false.
Theses few Christians will say, implicitly or explicitly, that if you have enough faith, God will then take care of you and give you what you need to overcome adversity. Indeed this is where the rubber meets the road in my assertion that for most Christians, the utterance of this statement can be—and should be—deeply offensive.
Why? Because it is nothing less than an attack on the faith of those who are afflicted and/or succumb.
If you are a Christian and you utter this phrase, it seems to me that you do so of only two sets of motives and beliefs.
A) You believe genuinely that if someone has enough faith, God will then take care of them. If this is your belief, than when you spew this mantra you must be willingly indicting those many believing Christians—who were genuinely good people, who believed, and who tried with all their heart to live their faith. You must be willingly telling their friends and loved ones “sorry folks, but she just wasn’t a good enough Christian. She just didn’t really believe enough or things would be different.”
B) You are trying to be nice, and encouraging, and you are trying to be a good and supportive person, but you are ignorant of the fact that you are making a flat-out, provably and empirically false statement—that could also appear to be a mean indictment of faith as in option A.
If option A fits you, even if you believe it with 100% certainty, you are a rude, self-righteous, dogmatic pedant to point out someone’s lack of faith to him or her—and/or his or her relatives and friends—at such an inappropriate time.
If you are person B, you have two problems. The first problem is that statements that are knowingly false are usually of little comfort, so the goal of the mantra is not met. The bigger problem with option B is that given that people know good Christians suffer, succumb, and die, you will be quite probably be interpreted as person A anyway—the rude, self-righteous, dogmatic pedant.
Summary and Disclosure
My mother died of breast cancer in 1994, after struggling with the disease for a decade. Throughout the process she appreciated the kindness, warmth, meals, support, shoulders and prayers of her many friends. My mother was a devout Christian. She was, however, not dogmatic or literalistic. She loved her Bible, but as a life-long Methodist was not enamored of literalistic, Pentecostal, Baptist, or Evangelical theology—though may of her friends and people close to her were of those leanings.
As disclosure of my personal baggage in seeing her hurt, as well as to provide a tangible example to make my point, I wish to share that some of those friends would utter the mantra to my mother on occasion.
Mom was a lovely, caring, warm, accepting, gentle, and forgiving soul. She would thank the person and try to set it aside. But in quiet moments she would confess that she heard it as an indictment. It was hurtful. And for reasons I’ve explained, I understand that hurt.
Gail Gibson was as close to a model of what a Christian life should look like as most of us could hope to attain. For the sake of people like Gail, who are good and believing Christians, I hope you’ll join me in finding some other way to try to encourage and support people you care about, than to utter the phrase, “God will not give you more than you can handle”—even if you believe it.
(Stephen L. Gibson is a great cocktail party guest, and founder of the truth.bloomfire.com social learning community. He is also the author of A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth via the popular Truth-Driven Thinking podcast program. Steve also posts random thoughts via his Perspectives blog. © 2011, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)