Sentimental Claptrap, Part II: God Will Never Give You More than You Can Handle

One of my Evangelical friends took me to task yesterday (gently, cause he’s a kind soul) for painting Evangelicals with too broad a brush. I admit that I did focus exclusively on the tendencies of some Evangelicals, and kind of threw the rest of y’all in there with them. Mea culpa. I think probably the mature thing to do would be to clarify the post so that it more accurately reflects that this is a trend within a subset of Evangelicals, but that sounds like a lot of work, and I’ve still got four more phrases to rip to shreds. So, since everyone knows that turnabout is fair play, I’m just going to throw all the Catholics under the bus today. (Sorry, fellow fisheaters.)

Sentimental Claptrap #2: God Will Never Give You More Than You Can Handle

Image via the inimitable Crescat

This is paraphrased from the Mother Teresa quote, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”

The Mother Teresa quote doesn’t bother me. I don’t actually think it’s an accurate thing to say, but I think it’s funny, solely because of the personal pronoun used. Turn it around, though, and you get, “You know that God won’t give you anything you can’t handle. You’re just wishing he didn’t trust you so much.” See the difference? One is a humorous admission of completely understandable human weakness. The other is a big pile of asshattery.

When Evangelicals, Lutherans, Anglicans say, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” it bothers me. I wish they wouldn’t say it, because the implications are really uncharitable. But it’s a saying that (I think) is consistent with their faith traditions. When Catholics say to me, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” it literally tests the absolute limits of my self-control. I have an ocular response to them. Everything goes red. And not metaphorically. I want to punch the sibling in Christ who said that, hard, more than once, and for their own good. I want to find the nearest rusty nail and place it strategically under their path so they will step on it and not only get hurt, but also get tetanus. I want to paint my face with freaky tribal paint and chase them down the street, screaming horrifically and brandishing the Ogre’s samurai sword, just so they viscerally understand that yes, sometimes, God absolutely does give you more than you can handle.

Because he does. All the time. That fact is a cornerstone of the Catholic faith! The sacraments exist to give you divine aid, because guess what, living a Christan life is more than you can handle. And by you, I mean me.

There have been times in my life when I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God gave me more than I could handle. One of them was within the past year, during my struggle with postpartum depression. The work I had laid before me was simply too much. I was unable to do it. I was barely able to get out of bed. But even if I hadn’t had postpartum depression, the crosses I’ve been asked to bear this past year have been ones that I simply could not carry, try as I did. But with those crosses came something else: grace.

The grace that God offered me went hand-in-hand with the crosses. At first, though, I just picked up the crosses. After all, he wouldn’t give me more than I could bear, right?

Wrong. It was too much. I spent nights weeping and days crying, asking God to take some of the weight from me, and each day I staggered a little more. It wasn’t until I was basically face-down on the ground with all those crosses on top of me that I thought of changing my prayer. Instead of asking for God to make it easier, I asked him to make me stronger. To help me bear these things, instead of bearing them for me.

It wasn’t like asking a fairy godmother for something. I wasn’t immediately strong, capable, and emotionally solvent. But I knew I could be. I also knew it would require leaning on God every day. Daily prayer, then morning and evening prayer, then thrice-daily prayer. Slowly, slowly, the weight became less, though the burdens remained. I was able to carry my cross only because I stopped trying to “handle it”.

The lives of the saints corroborate what I’m saying. Could a 16 year old peasant girl really unify the French troops and “handle” the English invaders? Did God give her that task because he knew that she was some kind of European Amazon deep down, preternaturally blessed with the gift of rallying troops and waging war? No way. He gave her that task because he knew that she would say yes, and she would accept the grace that accompanied the cross. It was through Joan of Arc’s fiat that God saved France, not through her strength.

God gives us more than we can handle on purpose — so that we are forced to turn to him for grace. Well, that, or be crushed. Sometimes the crushing thing happens. You’ve seen it. You know someone who was crushed by the weight they couldn’t bear alone. We all do. That’s one of the reasons this phrase makes me want to scream…it’s so patently, visibly, demonstrably false.

Worse, it is a direct accusation of weakness. Obviously, you’d only say this to someone if they are suffering, right? Well, let’s do a little logic work on this, shall we? For the sake of clarity, let’s take out the negatives and say:

You can handle what God gives you. <—-this is a conclusion. Should we deduce the premises?

Major Premise: Everything in your life is what God gives you.

Minor Premise: You can handle everything in your life.

Leaving aside the fact that this syllogism is a logical fallacy, since it completely negates the existence of evil, what you are saying to someone who has reached a point when they cannot bear to go forward is basically, “Cowboy up, wimp.”

You are saying this about the occasion that prompted this unfortunate sentiment, be it a spouse’s cancer or a child’s death or a seemingly endless suffering: “God gave you this horrible thing, and you are capable of handling it.” Can you see how this is in no way an expression of charity?

When humans see another human suffering, they want to help that other person not suffer. It’s uncomfortable and even painful for us to see another human suffering. So we automatically try and find a way to stop the suffering. But in the case of death, illness, or lingering torment, there’s no way to stop it. No way to ease it, even. Really, the only thing we can do is say, “I’m sorry” and be there, so they don’t have to suffer alone. But that’s uncomfortable too, because it implies a helplessness on our part. I think that’s why people say things like this…so they don’t feel helpless. So they feel like they have something to offer that will help ease the person’s suffering. But this kind of thing does not ease suffering or offer comfort. It induces guilt, actually, since the person is left to feel that they’re either being a big wimp, or they don’t have a strong enough faith to believe that God would give them something this awful. Both of those are completely terrible emotions to inspire in someone when they are already in pain.

This post would have been up at like 10 am, but the Ogre and I had a rip-roaring fight about it. The Ogre believes that this phrase can function as a rallying cry, a call to arms. He thinks that it reminds people of how strong they actually are, instead of how weak they’re being. I’m doubtful, but I am the person who finds inspirational videos depressing. Maybe that might work for someone who is NOT in a place where they feel they can’t go on, and maybe if the circumstances at hand aren’t tragic or painful, because no one likes to hear that God gave them misery when they’re in the midst of it. So maybe if the person is, I dunno, halfway through writing a book that keeps getting brutally edited, or maybe in the final stages of labor, or something. But even then, it’s such a trite cliché that it likely wouldn’t be encouraging so much as annoying.

He also thinks the idea of God giving you grace to handle it is implied in the phrase, but he’s totally wrong about that. It’s obviously not. If the cliché-makers had wanted to make a cliché about grace, they would have said, “God will give you the grace to handle anything.” That is not the cliché we’re discussing, though.

What is implied in this phrase, if not stated outright, is that God causes suffering. This is why it particularly makes me crazy when Catholics say this: we do not believe that God is the author of evil. He doesn’t give anyone pain, illness, or death. He allows suffering but never wills it. He permits it, but never gives it. So when it’s used in response to suffering, this nasty little phrase is not merely sentimental claptrap. It’s a lie that slanders the character of God.

Seriously, Catholics, be better than this. Follow the grand tradition of Catholic thinkers and think before you speak, then talk to yourself**. If yourself starts crying in a corner, maybe reconsider what you were planning on saying.

 

* (Please be advised that I took logic for one year in seventh grade, and I’m now going to act as if I didn’t just spend 20 minutes on Wikipedia trying to remember what syllogisms are and how they work.)

**For the record, this does not apply to bloggers, because blogging kind of is talking to yourself. Just out loud. And sometimes other people respond.

  • http://randomactsofmomness.com/ Ginny Kubitz Moyer

    Great post. So many of your points resonated with me, especially your analysis of why we offer such platitudes when people are facing tough times. I have just been teaching “Hamlet” to my high school students, and I actually brought in some resources from grief counselors about how to support people who are grieving (the characters in the play do a rotten job of it, as you no doubt recall). I told my students it would probably be the most helpful thing we’d discuss in the entire course.

    Another platitude I don’t find helpful is “This happened for a reason.” Well, maybe it did, and maybe it didn’t … but when that phrase is used about death or miscarriage …. ouch. Just ouch.

    By the way, that bear and Jesus poster made my day.

  • Brian Anthony

    I am curious to see what you have to say about St Augustine’s version of this….”God does not allow us to be tempted beyond the point of our resistance.”

    • Brian Anthony

      actually come to think of it, i would be interested to see a whole post written on that statement.

  • familysnodgrass

    I think the important point is not what we can handle but rather the fact the God’s grace is sufficient. And what hope there is in that! It is not all about us!

  • Phil Steinacker

    The Value of Your Cross

    The everlasting God has in His wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost Heart. This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with His loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. He has blessed it with His holy Name, anointed it with His grace, perfumed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God. ~ St. Francis de Sales

  • Mary

    Mother Teresa never said that. Please see the following for a list of things Mother Teresa never said. Apparently there are many false quotes attributed to her. http://www.motherteresa.org/08_info/Quotesf.html

  • Michelle Marvian

    Oh, I don’t know. Whenever I hear that phrase, I think or hear, “God never gives you more than you can handle, if you place your trust in Him.” or God never gives you more than you can handle, provided you don’t try to do it alone.”
    I think when you have a serious problem with little things like this, it may be time to look within yourself.
    If we are talking about saying stupid things when people are suffering, we all struggle with this. The other day, I searched what to say to a friend who has cancer because I was terrified of saying the wrong thing. Oh boy, that was upsetting.
    If you can look past the dumb words and into the person’s heart, you may be comforted anyway. Or, you may still be annoyed, but again, that is a call to look within.

  • Lauren Brouillette

    I never thought about it this way, thanks for the insight!

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