I have noticed a number of blogs I follow creating posts about the things Christians should stop saying. I’ve read (or at least skimmed) through most of them and find myself overwhelmingly in agreement.
Most of the things these posts are encouraging us to stop saying are nothing more than Christian platitudes, a sort of bumper-sticker theology, that sounds good but doesn’t really do anything for the person in need. We use them as cop-outs. They are easy answers we fall back on when difficult questions are posed. Most believers are conditioned to not question those platitudes. And when non-believers lash out against their seeming meaninglessness, we just shrug them off as hostile outsiders.
So, yeah… we need to stop doing that.
But other than reading those posts and nodding in agreement, I really haven’t done anything to stop myself from using those old, tired platitudes. I caught myself using one just a little while ago. And that’s when I decided it was probably unrealistic that I’d drop ALL Christian platitudes overnight, but it should be realistic to alter my behavior enough to eradicate ONE from my list of go-to phrases.
After some thought and contemplation, I have decided the platitude I’m going to abandon is the one I dislike the most when it is used on me: “God will never give you more than you can handle.”
What’s wrong with that, you ask?
Well, to start with, it just isn’t true. Show me where in scripture Jesus Christ says that. Show me where, in the Old Testament or New, that this is an acceptable theology.
The entire book of Job is a story about a man who was constantly handed more than he could handle. In fact, just looking at it from the outside was more than his wife or friends could handle. That’s why they found it easier to believe Job was a secret sinner being punished than an innocent man suffering. And every time Job came through the ordeal, strong as ever, the devil begged for leeway to do MORE HARM. It just kept going on and on like that until Job finally broke down and confronted God in a face-to-face showdown.
And yet, we still toss that old platitude out there: “God won’t give you more than can handle, so just keep trudging along.”
I sometimes wonder if we’d say the same thing to Jesus if we had been present when he was dragging his cross up the side of Golgotha. Would we have looked at him and said, “It’s okay–don’t worry about the nails and the whips and the hammers and that ugly crown of thorns… God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
Jesus never looked at his road to the cross and uttered any such nonsense. In fact, the night of his arrest he went into the garden and prayed so hard he sweated blood and begged God to take the cup from him. But in the end, Jesus was willing to submit to the will of God, even if it meant he had to face the cross and the nails and the whips and the hammers and that ugly crown of thorns…
And if that isn’t enough to remind us that sometimes we are asked to do things that we could never handle on our own, Jesus tells us that we have to pick up our cross and follow him.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t handle a cross. So why do I keep trudging along with one? Because I recognize that this is not about what I can or cannot handle, this is about God’s will.
So, if I know that I have this cross which is more than I can handle, why on earth do I keep telling other people God won’t give them more than they can handle?
Because it’s easy. When I’m confronted with the young woman who has just learned her toddler still wearing diapers has inoperable brain cancer, it’s easier to dump things back on God than to try to comfort her. When a teenager dies in a car accident, it’s easier to hand the responsibility back to God than to do something about why so many teens die behind the wheel.
It lets me off the hook.
God is not some Big Meanie in the Sky who is reaching into people’s lungs and inserting cancer or flicking trains off the tracks like they are matchbox cars. God is not sitting in heaven trying to think of all the ways that suffering can be piled upon us and push us to the breaking point without going over the edge.
And what about the people who do break under the pressure? Are they weak? Did they not believe enough? Did they fail God by breaking? Or did God miscalculate what they could handle?
And back to our responsibility–why do we get off the hook so easy?
Recently, the Kanawha Valley (where I grew up) has been in the national news as a result of the Elk River chemical spill. This one had all the earmarks of sensationalism, which meant the news cared about it. But it’s not the first chemical spill. And it won’t be the last. The Kanawha Valley is nicknamed the “Chemical Valley” due to the number of chemical plants in the region, and we all grew up with the same worries and concerns about cancer. We all grew up playing in the rivers, but knowing we might be sealing our doom later. There are stories of mutated albino catfish at the bottom of the Kanawha River that are bigger than full-grown men. Supposedly, there are scuba divers who swear they’ll never go back down to the bottom of that river again. Our mutated fish stories put Bart Simpson’s three-eyed fish to shame.
So, when people in the Kanawha Valley get cancer, why do we get to dump it back on God, blame God, and ignore our own individual and societal sins? Why don’t we have to address the weak environmental regulations, the lack of oversight of chemical plants, and our own slavish commitment to a system that compels us to look the other way and worry more about money and profit than health and safety?
When we look at someone and say, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” we aren’t spouting a harmless platitude. We aren’t just quoting bumper stickers. We are telling a lie. We are blaming God for things that may very well be our own fault. And we are effectively pulling a Pontius Pilate: we wash our hands and condemn innocent souls to death by our own lack of action.
So, I won’t be saying that phrase anymore. Instead, I’ll be telling people that life is sometimes hard. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and the innocent suffer. But God has given us each other and is with us, and if we are willing, we can pick up our crosses and march together, doing God’s will and living as a part of God’s Kingdom here and now.