Almost seven years ago, Gary took three of his grandchildren out driving in the country. Granddad, grandkids, pickup truck, old dirt country road! It started out as a wonderful afternoon. As they were driving, one of the grandchildren spotted a large jackrabbit hopping through the open cotton field. Gary is from West Texas. He is a country boy to the core. And one thing country boys from West Texas nearly always have in their pickups—a shotgun. Gary pulled the truck off to the side of the road. He wanted to have some fun with his grandkids by shooting that ol’ jackrabbit. He exited the truck and he lined the gun up over the front of the hood. The gun had a scope on it. He took careful aim and then fired. Immediately, he ran off to get the rabbit.
As he returned to the truck, he saw a sight that will haunt him the rest of his life. Apparently, as he was preparing to fire, his nine-year-old granddaughter exited the passenger side of the truck. Just before he fired, she stuck her head up to see what her grandpa was doing. She was killed instantly. And he hadn’t even seen her. As he was walking back to the truck, the other two grandchildren were huddled around their sister.
That moment sparked a season of deep grief in the Lubbock community, especially within our smaller Church of Christ community. Everyone knew Gary and his family. Few of us knew how to help them through their grief. I don’t know this for a fact, but I can almost bet that someone said this to him during those weeks that followed. I’m sure someone said to Gary or Gary’s children: Remember what the Bible says: “God will never give you more than you can handle.”
But, church, here is the problem: The Bible doesn’t actually say that. Nevertheless, folks have used this fictitious biblical passage in an attempt to bandage many wounds over the years. But, it rarely does the trick, and actually, it usually does more harm than good. Because most of us have encountered things that we cannot handle. And this passage, which really isn’t a passage, has made us feel guilty and ashamed about that. It has made us feel like we aren’t strong enough, or, we don’t have enough faith.
Well, God said He would never give me anything I couldn’t handleSo, if you’ve ever felt this way—if you’ve ever been told, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” in your moments of suffering by very well-meaning people—know this: Your inability to cope with suffering on your own is not a sign of our your small faith. Your inability to cope with suffering on your own is a very real sign that you are human. I’m sorry you were made to feel guilty or weak. That’s the last thing you needed in a moment like that. But it is because we have misinterpreted some very important words from Paul. Let’s look there together and see what he really meant.
So, I just need to pull myself up by my bootstraps and get stronger.
Why is this so difficult?
My faith must not be strong enough.
Look at I Corinthians 10:13. In this section of his letter, Paul is reminding the Corinthians that people are tempted and they often choose to do the wrong thing. He warns them that punishment always follows sin. But then, he gives them this promise:
No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities. Instead, with the temptation, God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it. (I Corinthians 10:13)Here is Paul’s main point: With sin and with temptation, you always have a choice. You can either engage in that sin, or, you can run from it. The promise from God is this: God will always provide a way for us to run from it. One can never say, then: “I had no choice but to sin.” Let’s be clear though: Paul is talking about sin and temptation, not suffering. With temptation, we have a choice. But with suffering, we often do not have a choice. In reality, there is a kind of suffering that is too difficult for us to handle, and the Bible itself bares witness to this truth. Consider Jesus’ words on the night before His death:
My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death! (Matthew 26:38)Or, what about Psalm 22? In the midst of suffering, in a fit of rage, the psalmist raises his fists to the heavens and proclaims:
Why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1)The writer of Psalm 88 writes:
Darkness is my closest friend. (Psalm 88:18)And even beyond the words of Scripture, our own life experiences tell us that there is a suffering that is too great for us to handle. I have never had to experience the loss of one of my children, but some of you have. You shouldn’t have to bury your children. And there is a part of that suffering, I imagine, that never goes away.
I have walked with people I love very much through divorce. Divorce brings a kind of suffering that just does not go away. I had a conversation not long ago with someone who was recently remarried after a divorce. I asked her how it was going. She said, “Good. No, wait a minute. Let me be honest. It’s really hard.” Divorce is a suffering that brings not only instant pain. That pain bleeds over into our children and into our future relationships. It just doesn’t go away.
I lost my father to cancer in 2003 and every Father’s Day, I get those same feelings. Those feelings are caused by the suffering I still feel. When I have questions only a father can answer, I have no one to call. There are some conversations in life that are reserved for fathers and sons. And I feel the effects of suffering every time I miss another of those conversations. There are moments in each of our lives when, in the midst of suffering, we just need someone to sit with us. Have you ever been there?
So, church, what do we do when we encounter this kind of suffering? Paul never said God wouldn’t give us more than we could handle. But Paul did say this:
Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles that we went through in Asia. We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive. It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty. This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves. (II Corinthians 1:8–9)Paul and his companions experienced the kind of suffering that they could not handle on their own. He tells us that much! But then, he writes something so very important. Those moments when suffering arrives on our doorstep, those moments when we cannot go forward on our own, those moments are so important. Because in those moments, more than any other moments, we realize how much we need God.
God never said your lives would be free from suffering. And God didn’t say you would never have suffering in your life too great to bear. But God did say this: You will never have to go through that suffering all alone. In fact, in the most personal, practical way, God came here to earth in the person of Jesus Christ to suffer with us. The Incarnation and death of Jesus is God’s way of sitting with us while we suffer. As Jesus says in the Gospel:
Come to Me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on My yoke, and learn from Me. I am gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30)Our faithfulness is not demonstrated by how easily we are able to bear the burdens that come our way. Our faith is demonstrated by our confession that we cannot bear these burdens alone, and we trust in the grace of God who bears them with us.
I recognize, though, that even that sentiment can sometimes feel empty in our times of suffering. It is wonderful to know that God is with us. But sometimes we have a hard time feeling Jesus’ presence. Sometimes, to be honest, we have a hard time believing Jesus is really there with us. In those moments, let’s not forget this truth: God is made known to us through Jesus, and Jesus is made known to us through the church, the Body of Christ.
And that means that the Body of Christ is the one that sits with us in our suffering. It is through the church that God suffers with us. Because of Christ’s Church, we do not have to bear our burdens alone. The church should never be an organization that says, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” The church is not a do-it-yourself community. Rather, the church is the community where you can come and say, “I have a burden that is too difficult for me to carry alone.” And instead of being judged, the church is the community that receives you and walks with you.
In those days following the tragedy in Lubbock with Gary, the church did, in fact, become the church. That family’s problems did not go away. Feelings of guilt and bitterness persist even today. Relationships between parents and children and grandchildren and in-laws, they are all still difficult. But Gary and his family are not alone in that struggle. And neither are you.
I do not believe the greatest tragedy in this world is suffering. Or even suffering alone. The greatest tragedy is suffering alone when you don’t have to. And church, you don’t have to. Praise God, we do not have to suffer alone.