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.”

Some examples:

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.”

OR

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.

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(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.)

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Picture this: You live in white bread suburbia in Western Michigan; yours is a Christian family; a majority of local families comprise your local Reformed Church of America congregation; you consider yourself highly dedicated to the teachings of your “mega church”; and you are raising your kids to both live and spread the word of Jesus. Now picture your reaction as your teenager comes home from high school with stories of a school employee who—while on the job—is routinely trying to sell your child on Islam. Your student reports that on this day the lunchroom employee came very close to bullying him over his failure to attend an Islamic youth event he had previously agreed to attend. Your son was confronted by the employee who demanded payment for non-attendance at the Mosque event, and that employee was joined in his plea by the assistant principal—who is also a Muslim, and who echoed the disappointment in your son’s non-appearance during a private, coercive, two-on-one meeting in a closed room.

Now picture another scenario: You, the parent from above, appeared earlier that day for your annual dental visit. When you arrived in the relaxing and well-appointed waiting room, you were greeted by the usual Crescent Moon symbols, and you heard soft, morning prayer music proclaiming “I bear witness that there is no God except Allah,” among other traditional phrases. The pleasant and genuine staff greeted you, and you warmly returned the well-wishes and proceeded into the exam room to have your teeth cleaned. Between the signage and continuous Islamic-themed serenades, the hygienist worked in at least a couple of the expected references to the beauty and peace you could know through Islam, but you smiled politely with full knowledge that she means well, despite her knowledge that you are Christian.

One more scenario: To minimize time off work, you had also scheduled an appointment with your favorite ophthalmologist for later that morning. The Islamic-themed ambiance was more subdued there; nonetheless as you took your seat in the exam room, where the doctor inquired about the current state of your vision. “Hello my friend. So let me ask you, have you had any difficulties at all with your eyes … say, any troubles reading even the fine print of your Koran?”

And the greatest among these is?

So how would each of these events make you feel? If you happen to hold the beliefs of the majority, what would it be like to be the minority in your community, culturally speaking? And which of these three scenarios is more troubling to you? For me, there is one clear answer.

Let’s work backwards and make a couple of observations about the latter two scenarios, where you are patronizing private businesses whose owners are of an Islamic worldview. Regardless of whether you and your fellow Christians are in the majority or in the minority, there seems to me to be no legal, moral, or ethical problem with either of these scenarios—so long as no persecution, bigotry, or coercion is involved. Proprietors are free to proselytize and live their faith however they want, right? If we didn’t like it, we could choose another dentist, or chose another ophthalmologist.  What if it were a Muslim neighborhood and there was no alternative? Well, I suppose these are still just market forces at play, and we’d have to live with it or move elsewhere. Fair enough.

Now that being said, there is still value in pondering what it would be like to live as a minority in your local culture. While I made these quasi-fictional merchants Muslim, these two experiences are quite real and fairly emblematic for me in West Michigan; but as a non-believing minority, I experience them with Christian service providers, not Muslim providers. Truly I continue to love and appreciate these people, and harbor no ill-will toward them. (I also recognize that if I wanted to change providers, I might well wind up in the same boat anyway since they are a majority—but perhaps not.) Anyway, it’s all fine with me, though I must confess that I occasionally bristle at the constant reminders of my minority status—in terms of religion and worldview.

But let’s move back to the first scenario, the one with the high-school student; things get a little bit trickier there. How do you feel about this intervention into your family’s private religious beliefs by a government employee? And if it was condoned and supported by the assistant principal, and appeared common or systematic? The truth is that a very similar event happened recently at Michigan school near where I live, only with Christian proselytizing rather than Islamic.

From my perspective as a school board president for our local public school district, there is little doubt that had this scenario played out in our school district, but with two Muslim staff members, the mobs would quickly descend upon our board meetings and administration with a vengeance. Frankly, I’d be crying foul too, and I’d like to share why.

The most fertile ground for religion is freedom thereof

When our founding fathers escaped the crown and escaped religious dogma, they were an eclectic bunch. They were mostly Christian, of course, but some very prominent thinkers—like Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Payne, Ethan Allen, and others—were probably “deists” or “skeptics” by today’s standards, and certainly would not be considered Christians by most modern definitions. But to digress into this, or even the Treaty of Tripoli—wherein the Senate ratified and John Adams agreed via signature that “… the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”—is to miss the point. It is equally not the point that the Supreme Court has only allowed un-branded, non-specific, deistic or obtuse references to “god” on money, because the meaning of the general term “god” has been “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”

But what cannot be missed, and should not be missed, is that the founding fathers debated the separation of church and state explicitly, hotly, and at length. What they came up with was a constitution that protected the people from any government involvement in establishing or promoting one belief over another, or any belief even over a worldview of non-belief, or the “atheistic” deism of the day (a non-personal god who started things, but is not active in the world’s operation any longer). The constitution is a secular document that defines and sets forth an explicitly secular government, not just for the obvious reasons of escaping potential tyranny, but to protect religion.

And the result of this explicit decision by the framers of our government? According to the Journal of Religion & Society, among other sources, the United States remains the most religious industrialized nation on the face of the earth. As pastor Greg Boyd argued in “Myth of a Christian Nation,” and as pastors, rabbis, and clergy like Rev. Dr. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance have long argued as well, be very careful in wishing for more religion in government, because you never know what religion it may eventually espouse (or which version of the 33,000 distinct Christianities).

In the twinkling of an eye, it could happen to you

In the first example, where a government employee uses what should be the religion-free safety zone of public education to evangelize and persuade children toward his/her religion, this is a blatant violation of the letter and spirit of the first amendment, and of the very ideas that make this the most fertile land in the world for those who wish to practice and preach their religions as they see fit. Those in the second and third scenarios above, the merchants and individuals expressing their views freely, are enjoying the very fruits of that freedom.

Great constitutional minds envisioned intellectual freedom that would allow believers and nonbelievers alike to flourish in peace, and codified that vision in a constitution after much debate, saying “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” They recognized that such a limit on government would not only be a humane, modern, and an enlightened way to think, but it would protect religion and serve the greater good.

So wherever a government employee or institution tries to promote (i.e. establish) ANY religion as preferential over another religion, or over no religion, I have said it before and I will say it again: I will rise to protest the assault on the constitution. If your rights to access and practice your religion are so encroached upon or infringed upon by our government, I will loudly and forcefully stand by your side to object.

Yes, it may seem quaint or funny to some people when the ACLU protests a lunchroom teacher who promotes a religious view, when that view is the one you hold as the majority; but these are rights the framers applied to every single person, not rights that are limited only to a majority. Surely it would cease to be humorous if someday your majority beliefs fell to minority status—perhaps through immigration—and my Islamic lunch-time scenario actually played out. So won’t you join me and stand side-by-side with me in protest whenever my first amendment rights—or those of any US citizen—come under attack?

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, and A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog; © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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