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Spending another night in the hospital, with numerous, tedious tests being performed on my 5-month-old, was not exactly how I would’ve chosen to ring in the new year. We were hoping to leave ER visits and hospital admissions in 2013… instead, this was our fourth long-term hospital stay (fifth if you include my c-section in July).

People in a difficult position like mine often hear the phrase, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Though I don’t recall anyone specific saying this to me, the Christian blogosphere has been all abuzz about this phrase. The current trend is to take a battering ram to the sentiment and (indirectly) to those who dare to let it pass their lips. Given how many articles I’ve seen about it, it seems Christians everywhere are looping this phrase into every conversation they have with a person who is hurting.

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Why all the tension? It’s understandable on both sides. Someone you know, we’ll call him Jack, is going through a difficult time. He is trying to be vulnerable with his Christian community, and people around him know what’s going on and want to be helpful. After sharing his struggle he hears:

1. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle… he must have given this situation to YOU because he knew YOU would shine. Betsy-Fretsy down the street, now she would’ve fallen apart under these circumstances, but YOU, you are strong.” At least the person saying this is giving a compliment! But Jack doesn’t feel strong, and he certainly doesn’t want to think that God has singled him out for some sort of special refining.

2. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Remember, when God closes a door, he opens a window!” Jack isn’t even sure what this means. Why wouldn’t God just open another door for him? Wouldn’t the sentiment be more encouraging the other way around… wouldn’t Jack rather have a God who closes windows but opens doors? And why does God have poor Jack trapped in a house?!?

3.“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, but he will load you up with all manner of burdens, save for that straw that would break your back.” Assigning ill motives to God, anticipating that his goal is to angrily pile on as much as he can, is certainly not helpful to someone in Jack’s situation.

4. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” (said in a dismissive tone after Jack has bared his soul). People who say this bluntly, after a heartfelt revelation, seem to be begging Jack to stop talking about anything negative because they are uncomfortable with displays of emotion, or they are subconsciously nervous about Jack’s bad luck rubbing off on them, but they want to sound holy while asking him to shut up.

5. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle… I mean, at least you’re not deaf AND blind. At least you’re not being used for target practice by hopeful Olympic archers. At least you’re not six feet under… and alive!” The person with the million at leasts would do well to learn the art of empathizing rather than sympathizing (this video provides a short, fun explanation of the difference). Jack just wants someone to acknowledge his pain. He knows that others are in more difficult situations in one way or another. He doesn’t, however, want his pain to be minimized; he just wants someone to be bummed out with him from time to time.

Instead of climbing down into the depths with someone who’s hurting, and lighting a candle, some Christians may unwittingly shine down a harsh bright flashlight in the person’s face with their exclamation of “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” It reminds me of the Proverb: “Whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing” (ESV).

Now that we’ve seen how people like Jack might perceive this phrase, let’s look at how someone (we’ll call our someone Jill) might mean it when she says it to someone like her friend Jack. Jill went through a difficult time a couple years ago, and an older lady at church promised her (in a kind tone at an appropriate time) that God wouldn’t give her more than she could handle. This meant a lot to Jill, and she clung to that phrase, repeating it to herself as a mantra. Even though she doesn’t always feel comfortable, she tries to take a risk by telling others like Jack who are hurting this phrase because it meant so much to her. Here are some ways the Jills out there might be intending this phrase to be taken:

1. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle… he will give you the grace and strength you need for each day.” Jill knows this isn’t Scripture, exactly, but she does know the Bible verse about his mercies being new every morning. Left on her own, Jill could handle nothing, but she knows in her heart that God will equip her for whatever comes her way.

2. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle… he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion!” In Jill’s mind, God giving her more than she could handle would mean God giving her something that would make her renounce her faith. She believes that God will preserve Jack and keep him. In the biblical account, God certainly put a lot on Job’s plate, and Satan wanted him to curse God and die, but God could not allow that. It was not an interminable affliction.

3. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle… he is building you up, not tearing you down. God only gives circumstances that are working toward your sanctification, not your destruction.” Jill has learned that God will not let anything befall her that won’t be used for her greater good and God’s greater glory. The goal isn’t to test you, to break you down with so many burdens as to determine your breaking point. The goal is to build you up.

4. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle… though it may seem so at the time.” Jill certainly felt like God was breaking her. In a particularly dark moment, she lay down and felt certain that she would never get up, but she did get up, and she is still praising God – more now than she did before that awful moment. Voices of the martyrs would certainly not join a chorus proclaiming that God gave them more than they could handle. They would gloriously affirm that God preserved them, that God made beauty from the ash-seeds of their faith.

5. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Jill sometimes isn’t quite sure what she even means by this statement. She just knows that she feels tenderly toward hurting people, and she desperately wants to provide some comfort to them. She’s not always sure of the right thing to say, so sometimes she falls back on this because it’s what she knows.

In the past few months, like Jack, I have again felt like I have more than I can handle. I feel like my daily schedule is going to crush me: my life is a constant logistical frustration because of my daughter’s demanding medical needs. Emotionally I’m spent, trying to provide a reasonable level of care and attention to my family.

But, like Jill, I do take comfort in the fact that I will not be given more than I can handle, that I will still be praising God when this is all over. I understand why people hate this phrase; it can be badly used as an empty platitude, tossed at our hurting neighbors’ heads like a brightly-colored, obnoxious beach ball. But, on the other hand, I am one who finds comfort in the deep truth that we should let settle in our souls: A good and powerful God will not give us more than he will lovingly help us to bear. As I welcome the unknowns of 2014, I’m grateful for the reminder that I should carefully consider what I say to other hurting people, and that even if the words are not well-chosen, I should graciously accept what others offer to me.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

2 Corinthians 4:7-9 (NIV)

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