More Than You Can Cope With?

There is a phrase which gets trotted out sometimes in Christian circles when someone is having a rough time: 

“God won’t give you more than you can bear.”

Right now, if someone said that to me, I’d probably feel most like punching them. Nowhere in scripture does it say that, or even imply it. It’s not helpful when people say it, because it piles guilt on top of all the bad stuff which may be happening in someone’s life. The thinking which follows hearing that statement goes something along these lines...

‘I feel as though I can’t handle what’s being thrown at me, but if I’m a Christian, I’m not supposed to experience anything beyond what I can cope with. Ergo, I must not have enough faith/must not really be a Christian.’

The phrase is supposed to be a comfort, but it feels more like a stab to the heart. There are times in life when, faith or no faith, we feel as though we're drowning and there is no-one to help us. That phrase is apt to make us try to ignore, or at least belittle, what we’re suffering. It can lead us to continue to strive to ‘cope’ on our own, and not acknowledge that we can’t cope - so we struggle on, instead of reaching out and asking for help.

From where did the phrase arise?

I think it probably comes from two sources. First of all a passage in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth:

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NIV)

And, secondly, a passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 (NIV)

That first quote is concerned entirely with resisting the temptation to sin - it’s not at all about coping with suffering - even though resisting sin is hard and can lead to us feeling as though we’re suffering. 

The second is more subtle, and is easier to read incorrectly. Some things are bad. God can use bad things which happen to teach us lessons, which lead us to feel as though He is using our bad experiences for our good. The (wrong) implication is that everything that happens must be good for us, and we can fall into the trap of believing that things which go really wrong do so because we don’t have enough faith, or because we’re not really Christians.

If we combine the idea behind both those incorrect ideas, we can get somewhere near to ‘God won’t give you more than you can handle.’ But it’s wrong; it’s false. There is always a way out of sin - a route we can run to escape it. Suffering isn’t like that. Sometimes it hits us, and we can’t do anything to get away from it...

My friend Naomi suffers from chronic migraine. It’s through no fault of her own - it's just one of those things. The pain and anguish must be unbearable. I used to suffer from episodic migraines... They were awful, and when I was in the grip of one, I’d wish I could either die or get better right now, but in the back of my mind I knew that, within a few days, the symptoms would subside and I’d get back to normal - but that isn’t the case for Naomi - she has them all the time. I shudder when I think what life must be like for her.

My father died a couple of months ago. So I’ve been grieving. Death is inevitable - everyone does it, sooner or later, so it follows logically that suffering grief at the loss of a loved one is also universal. In fact, the past couple of years seem to have seen troubles heaped on top of troubles. Life has felt, at times, pretty unbearable. It has felt as though I have been run down by a bus. And as I have begun to get up, another bus has come along and flattened me again. It's kept on happening. And each time I’ve struggled to my feet again, I’ve felt a little weaker, and a little less able to face the next ‘bus’. And each time it happens, I worry that this time I may not have the strength to ‘get up again’ at all. I'm really, really, fed up with the unrelentingly repetitive nature of it.

The psalmists seem to have had their share of unbearable suffering too:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
Psalm 22: 1-2

From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;


You have taken from me friend and neighbour -
darkness is my closest friend.
Psalm 88: 15-18

That feeling does seem to be common to all - even Jesus. Think of his time in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night he was betrayed and the train of events leading to his death on the cross were about to be set in motion.

He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." Matthew 26: 37-38

We too can cry out, “My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death!” And when we do this, we find God—the one who, in the person of Jesus, suffers with us. When we become aware that life has piled more onto our plates than we can cope with, we find a promise - God is faithful:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5: 6-7

As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103: 13-14

But, to be honest with you, these can feel like tired old clichés. When it really hurts, God can feel so far away. It can feel as though we’re locked away alone in a dark box filled to the brim with pain. This is where you and I come in. We need each other; we need far more than tired old phrases. We need someone to open the box and let the light in.

In those times when life becomes unmanageable, and unbearable, we need to be willing to walk alongside each other. When we do this we, in effect, put flesh and bone on the person of Jesus. We can be with one another in the midst of our anguish, helping each other carry the load. We as the body of Christ have an opportunity to act as Christ...

When we are willing to sit with someone in the pain; to walk with someone when life’s path is too hard and stony to walk alone; to shoulder someone’s burdens when they are crushed under the weight - then we become the embodiment of those promises from scripture. We become living proof that whilst life can sometimes be too much to bear, we can move forward together in the love that we show each other because He loved us first.

I am very grateful to God for those who have sat with me; cried with me; hugged me; walked alongside me; helped bear my burdens through life’s struggles. Despite my faith, without them willingly ‘being Christ’ in my troubles, I’d long ago have sunk without trace under the weight.

Copyright © Phil Hendry, 2022