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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In Part One of this exploration of “Our Greatest Delusions: Free Will” I made a rudimentary case for a determinist worldview—which if true would mean that we humans don’t actually have the “free will” to choose or decide anything for ourselves, but rather exist as pawns in a big cause-and-effect game where everything that happens is fully caused by prior events. Now whether or not you buy this argument, my goal is to raise consciousness about the profound impact that genetics, life circumstances, environment, and thousands of external variables have in shaping and defining every individual life. It is also my hope that you’ll see we are not “created equal,” do not have equal opportunity, nor are we the self-made, self-actualized people think we are. Lastly, perhaps you’ll join me in pondering the role that our merit- and competition-driven delusion of “free will” plays in helping us to ignore human suffering and inequity.

In Part One I suggested we are entirely the result of a cause-and-effect chain of events, and that our successes, failures, and every “decision” we have ever made could not have been made other than exactly the way they were. “Free will” is a delusion, and we are fully caused to make every “choice” and execute every single action and behavior—by our brain chemistry, life experience, environment, biology, knowledge or lack thereof, access to role models, brain power or lack thereof, and billions of other factors. But what if our delusion of free will is actually an increasingly obsolete, evolved trait that prevents us from dwelling on our own humanness, encourages us to detach from other living things, and helps rationalize away our need to attend to human suffering and the inherent inequities of life? Should we not try to transcend that part of our nature in the interest of self improvement, as we do so many others?

One of the bedrock notions of American and Western thinking is the ideal, and the illusion, that we live in a meritocracy, where those who achieve do so from a level playing field and anyone can win if they work hard enough. We believe in competition and survival of the fittest—in what I might argue has become a perverse religion. Unfortunately, this appears to be a bastardization of the very natural process of Darwinian evolution. While I am no biologist, it seems that Darwinian evolution by natural selection is better described as “survival of the luckiest”—those with certain random mutations that favor survival over cumulative generations—than it is the “survival of the fittest,” which we have come to interpret as a forward-looking, solution-seeking, conscious and willful intent on the part of living things to change and make things better. The moths don’t say “Gee, some spots would sure help camouflage me from predators. I sure hope my kids and grandkids will help grow some.” That is not what evolution is, or how it works.

Very contrary to true evolution—descent with modification via natural selection—our Western and American ways of worshiping achievement tend in the direction of Hitler-like misunderstanding of evolution, and a eugenics-like idea of willing our way to an elect, chosen, superior status. We thusly prioritize competition over cooperation through what has become a perverse, self-rationalizing, self-aggrandizing, self-deifying vehicle that allows us to ignore those who suffer and are quite literally “less lucky.” Essentially these are the effects of free will, self determination, and to some degree libertarian capitalism.

We believe in competition at work; we regularly use primitive phrases like “fighting for” something; we want students to compete for their fair share in the world, not build bridges toward mutual benefit. And we do it all under the guise of ensuring victory via merit, by “choosing forward” in order to be on top, in a strategic position of power over someone else.

We view those who “fail” and those whom we callously chastise as “mental midgets” as less worthy beings. If only they had done it our way, we tell ourselves; if only they had worked as hard as I have; if only they were as smart as I am; if only they weren’t lazy; if only they weren’t fat; if only they could be like me, what a world it would be. But what if you didn’t really do it?

You can dismiss this argument against free will all day long, but let me ask you a pivotal question: What if I’m mostly wrong, but we still aren’t completely autonomous and self actualized? What if I’m right only to the extent that strict free will and the freedom to make uncaused choices does not fully exist, and Ron’s life as a drug dealer was merely the most likely outcome of events, rather than the only possibility. What if at every pivotal circumstance and decision point in Ron’s life he had a “free will” magical ability to make uncaused thoughts and uncaused decisions, but he was still extremely likely to make the choices he did, given the circumstances, brain chemistry, lack of role models, lack of education—which carried him through his world of abject poverty? What if I’m wrong and these weren’t “determined” choices that couldn’t have been made otherwise, but were nonetheless the most rational choices given what Ron knew and his circumstances at the time? In other words, fine, I’ll give you back your delusion of free will, but you still must see that Ron deserves some compassion and sympathy, and cannot be solely, wholly, 100% responsible for his plight!

Surely you see, however, that even this simple recognition flies in the face of the positive, self-affirming pep talk that nature has programmed us to give ourselves. We are programmed to dismiss those who don’t compete well or achieve—perhaps by nature, but perhaps also by modern culture, social structure, and the worship of the gods of achievement that I would argue have become institutionalized only in the last few centuries here in the West—since Adam Smith and Charles Darwin’s great works became widely known, and also widely distorted.

In his groundbreaking book “Outliers,” Malcom Gladwell—knowingly or not—made one of the best real-word cases for determinism that I have seen in mainstream literature. In my opinion, he blows the lid off the  greatest lie in America: work hard and work smart and you too can accomplish what Bill Gates has. That lie fuels management books galore about how we can be the next Jack Welch, or the next Steve Jobs, or the next Bill Joy, or the next Rockefeller or Carnegie from the prior century. But this book explains very precisely the unique circumstances that gave these people an amazing, exclusive advantage, and why they were in the exact right place, at precisely the right point in time, to do exactly what they did. You can read all the books you want, but you’ll never get the chance these people got. It’s that simple, and this reality is but a piece of a complex puzzle that makes us far less self determined than we can even begin to imagine.

Gladwell also explains in detail why one of the greatest supposed meritocracies in North America, Canadian Hockey, also turns out to heavily favor only kids who are born in the first quarter of the calendar year. Read his book and find out why. The point is that supposedly nobody gets to high levels in Canadian hockey unless they’ve earned it. You can’t buy your way in, you can’t cajole your way in. At least that’s what we thought. But it turns out there are factors beyond the control of even the best athletes, that make it extremely unlikely that someone healthy, fit, and super-capable, if born in November, can EVER succeed as a great hockey player in Canada. Who’d have thunk? Another meritocracy that isn’t.

What about the self-made kid who came from nothing and became a millionaire after vowing that he’d never, ever be poor again? He surely did it all by himself didn’t he? Actually, no. To begin with, he had the brains. He also had the circumstances and wiring that caused him to be driven—perhaps a natural hyperactivity that was helpful. But he was also exposed to ideas and knowledge at key times in his life. He didn’t just make up the idea that he could succeed beyond his social class, as if out of thin air! He built on the knowledge to which he was exposed—and stood on the shoulders of all those humans who lived before him and contributed to collective wisdom. He had access to television; he happened to hear stories of people achieving their dreams; he had a teacher who cared and inspired him; he was once in the right place at the right time and impressed someone who lent him a hand, because he had been taught certain manners and saw on TV how to impress people. He did NOT just make up all these brilliant insights from nothingness. He had the brain power to assimilate and correlate, and each circumstance allowed the next; but much was still luck—as was his genetics, and the fact that he was healthy and was not a Down’s Syndrome sufferer. Every decision and snapshot of his life was fully caused by many prior events, beginning before birth! (Thus it would seem we should be very careful with arrogance and pride.)

The Ramifications of Arrogance

Ever notice how people who are naturally thin have their noses highest in the air about physical fitness? Never mind that studies prove the average person is less than 5 pounds different in their fit states than in their most out-of-shape states. Five pounds!!! That is a fact! The truth is that we LOVE to think everything we have, and everything we accomplish, and everything we are, is because we are so bright, brilliant, fit, hard-working, “together,” resilient, loving, or tenacious (and those who don’t have what we do are not these things). But what if NONE of it is our doing? Most people simply cannot live with that idea. But if we truly care about truth, and if we truly care about the plight of others, we must charge on.

Our Western school of thought tends to say that the “have-nots” do not “have” because they haven’t played the game correctly. They’ve made bad decisions. They’ve done the wrong things. They’ve adopted the wrong morals. They’ve been stupid. They’ve been careless. But must not we set aside our arrogant addiction to our own greatness, our own self-made status, and ask the simple question: “What if there is even a shred of truth to this argument of determinism?” Would that not change everything about how we view compassion, safety nets, education, social institutions, and government?

What moral obligation would we have to end our rule as the last 1st-world nation on earth that bankrupts the “dumb shits” for failing to purchase health insurance when they lose their jobs—and delegating them to the bankrupt status of indentured servant for the rest of their lives (as if they weren’t already)? How might we view our dismal rate of social class mobility? How might we view the fact that “The top 1 percent of earners took home 23.5 percent of income, up from 9 percent three decades earlier” (NYT, Aug. 20, 2009), as those in power buy themselves ever greater advantages and corporate welfare—and now Wall Street bailouts. How might we view the massively increasing concentration of wealth among the rich in the last 20 years, despite oodles and oodles of self-help books like the Secret, or Joel Olstein’s “prosperity gospel” that tell us we are all actually determined to get anything we want just by believing and asking? (Obviously those books and sermons aren’t working—or are working for only the super rich.)

It Matters

From the healthcare debate to economic theory and religion, the degree to which we really have “free will” is a vitally important question. I will continue to argue that our culture of competition and our delusion of free will is the true opiate of the people, one that numbs us to human suffering and unnecessary inequities, and far too often oversells personal power while it blames the victims. If we can continue to feed ourselves laundry lists of reasons the “lazy” people—those dirt bags we see on TV in the food lines, the fat people, or the third-world crazies who just can’t manage a decent constitution because they’re too stupid—just don’t deserve our sympathy, then we can continue to tell ourselves it is their choice. We should lock them in prison, bomb them to oblivion, and wipe them off the pages of our newspapers. That seems easier than truly understanding the complex causes of why things are the way they are. After all, wouldn’t we really rather read entertainment “news,” and continue living in our mentally gated fantasy community, where we leave all the important concerns in the hands of the individual?

What might it do for us if we paused and realized the degree of suffering in the world? If we realized that many people work harder than I ever have, and are smarter than I’ll ever be, and die at young ages due to poor drinking water, or die of cancer, or have bad backs, or autism, or psychological illness? What if I realized I’m not “all that and a bag of chips”? What if I realized that hundreds of thousands of people never experience true love, suffer horrible and debilitating diseases, or they go uneducated or unfed because we buy into this nearly Karmic idea that they suffer because they deserve to suffer; they suffer because they did it wrong, and we prosper because we did it right? We rationalize that capitalism/freedom requires us to be able to choose incorrectly, and thus requires a large group of failures over which we need not bother or fret. “Just look away, there is nothing we can do, that’s how it has to be if we have freedom,” we tell ourselves.

Even Thomas Jefferson knew that his artistic and visionary platitude was false: all men and women aren’t really created equal. There is a broad and cruel spectrum of physical and cognitive ability built into the human condition, from those in a permanent vegetative state, to those with severe mental and emotional impairments, to those in the middle, to those Mensa members, geniuses and autistic savants. There are adults who can read and understand this post, and even more who cannot.

What’s in it for you

“But this deterministic worldview is empty, dark, and can lead you nowhere,” you might say in final protest. “So what’s the point? What good comes from making me feel out of control and sad?” This is an understandable concern, but here is the crux of these many pages: at least for me, determinism has brought a beautiful inner peace that I have a difficult time explaining. I will nonetheless briefly try.

Remember Ron, the fictional drug dealer from Part I? We all encounter Ron in the real world. Ron might have been on the playground with our kids; it might have been our child whom Ron kicked in the head to earn his status as an alpha. Or we might have been flipped off by Ron in traffic today. Or you might work with a Ron. Clearly there is no excusing Ron’s meanness. It is not okay. Still, when someone wrongs me I can only take responsibility for my own emotional response to that wrong; and for me, seeing the underlying causes (determinants) that got Ron to the point where he flipped me off, or attacked my kid, totally changes my emotional response. I understand. I can start to see the answer to the great question “why?”—and it makes so much sense. I can often completely skip the wasted energy of anger and hate.

So now I see death differently, I see life differently, and can better celebrate the non-cruel moments—with full knowledge that much of life is unfair, and that much of it is suffering. I don’t have to like Ron. I can even still advocate for removing him from society. But I can move beyond forgiveness by skipping hate altogether, and avoid the carrying of all that anger. I can see the horrifying and glorious symphony of cause and effect that more satisfyingly explains Ron—and the world; and it gives me a sense of connectedness to the universe, agency in it, and a greater sense of inner peace as a result. I hope that makes sense. We are not outside of cause-and-effect events; we are participants in them, even if our thoughts and actions are fully caused.

I’m convinced that whether pure determinism is true or not, I must dedicate my life to better understanding the “gifts” that nature, luck, and circumstances have given me—and thereby dedicate myself to treating the rest of humanity without harsh judgment, with an eye on figuring a way to reduce the suffering of others.

Once we admit that the world is governed by natural processes of cause and effect, and that even mental “choices” are heavily or totally influenced by brain chemistry, culture, education, and exposure to prior ideas and knowledge, we can then cease our habit of abdicating responsibility for the plight of others to some afterlife, or simply looking away because it is just some sad byproduct of “free will” or freedom.

It seems to me we are morally corrupt when we view the world that way, and when we arrogantly delude ourselves into buying that we all have equal opportunity. We don’t. We are not created equal, nor can we expect great things from people who are given no education, no family, no books, no love, no stimulation, and no way to meet even the most basic of Maslow’s needs. These causes that create the effects that are the lives of real people—are our failures, and they are nothing short of abhorrent abdications of our obligations to humanity. I for one am going to stop looking the other way, and I am going to abandon the rationalization of eugenics-like notions like “survival of the fittest,” fighting for market share, and competition—since they rob me of empathy and compassion. Won’t you join me?

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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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