Science appeals to me because of its ability to identify objective truths. You can describe something true about carbon in a way that’s much harder to do about a novel or a painting. But although I like science, I’m not a math person – I studied biology in college because it let me learn science while mostly avoiding equations. So it took a special teacher to make me like a really math-oriented science like physics. Mr. Blanchard (I changed his name), my high school physics teacher, was able to do that. He made physics fun and understandable, and helped me have the confidence to take more science classes. And while I don’t remember much physics any more, I do remember one particular day in his class.
The class had done poorly on an exam, and we were all feeling panicked about it. Mr. Blanchard, to put things in perspective I suppose, told the class that at one point in our lives we would all fail big time at something that really mattered to us. One student, with considerable chutzpah, asked Mr. Blanchard what he had failed at. Without missing a beat he answered “being a father.” No one asked him to explain that, and he moved on with the lecture. But I knew what he meant because my friend’s older sister went to high school with one of his kids. She had told me that one of his teenage sons had committed suicide. I don’t know if Mr. Blanchard was really a failure of a father; parenthood is not something where we can be assigned pass/fail grades. But he thought he was a failure, and there are no second chances when it comes to raising children.
Mr. Blanchard’s prediction that failure is inevitable is at odds with an idea I’ve heard regularly at church, which is that “God will not test us above our ability.” Is this true? And where does the phrase come from?
The word “test” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible, Book of Mormon, or any other book of scripture. “Trial” and “adversity” are there, but not in any phrase that suggests our trials will be tailored to our ability to resist them. The scriptures do say that God will support us through adversity, and that God has blessings for those who endure adversity well. For example Alma 36:3 says,
“Whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles.”
And Doctrine & Covenants 121:8 says,
“If thou endure [adversity] well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.”
The scriptures acknowledge that adversity is hard to deal with, and tell us that God can be a resource for us as we encounter life’s problems. But in my (admittedly not exhaustive) search, I can’t find anything saying trials will not be above our ability to resist. If they were, it would mean that God is involved in calculating the conditions of our lives to fit a pre-measured assessment of our abilities, and I think that would be totally at odds with the fact that mortal life is about growth. If we are only given tests we can pass (even if we have to work hard to pass them), we don’t learn anything about ourselves. I don’t quiz my son about alphabet letters he already knows, I ask him questions I’m certain he doesn’t know the answer to. It’s a teaching method. Likewise, taking practice versions of standardized tests is helpful because you don’t know what you don’t know until you take the test and get things wrong. God is not about tailor-making trials that are calculated to test us just to the limit of our ability to behave well but no further. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if our trials were calculated to never test us beyond our breaking point, we couldn’t really grow.
In meeting adversity, my response to it is seldom what I would like it to be. I curse about it, complain about it, and sometimes hurt other people in the process of dealing with it. Failing to respond to adversity with perfect composure and perspective doesn’t necessarily mean I was tested beyond my ability, but it may. And given that I fail with regularity, I’d say I’m tested beyond my ability with regularity.
There is another reason I’m uncomfortable with the idea that our trials won’t push us beyond our ability, which is that it assumes that God is involved in the minutia of our lives, creating trouble for some sort of didactic purpose. Things happen to everyone that are unfair, undeserved, and unexplainable. I don’t think God puts those things in our way, it’s just life. The notion that God is the source of suffering is not consistent with my belief in a loving God.
So where does this bit of folk doctrine, that we won’t be tested beyond our ability, come from? It’s almost certainly a twist on this scripture:
“There hath no tempation taken you but such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
I can take this scripture at face value and accept that it is within my capability to not succumb to temptation (although of course, I do). But there is a distinction between temptation and adversity. I think it is beyond the human condition to be able to weather all of life’s challenges with perfect faith, hope, and charity. We inevitably fail, sometimes majorly. I think the important thing is to not get down on ourselves too much about that, but to instead know that with Christ’s help, things can be made right in the end.
Do you frequently hear the idea repeated that you won’t be tested beyond your ability? Why do you think people hold onto this idea? Is it a benign mis-rendering of 1 Corinthians 10:13, or does it cause problems?