The Deadly Ambiguity of Aphorisms

The Deadly Ambiguity of Aphorisms November 25, 2013

In all my years of Christian living I’ve often heard the saying, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Recently I’ve seen a couple of posts that reject this saying with great force. On the other hand, there are those that insist that it’s simply true.

The problem here is that we’re dealing with a saying, an aphorism, a maxim: a pithy statement of wisdom. The key word here is “pithy”: an aphorism is meant to convey a large idea in a small amount of space. It’s like an iceberg: 90% under water. Or like the title of a book: it’s a tag that helps you find the full and complete thought you’re looking for.

In short, to correctly interpret an aphorism you have to know the context, which isn’t present in the aphorism itself. Context is always vital. This is why proof-texting using scripture references is a problem, incidentally: it takes the verses out of context. A friend of mine used to illustrate this by taking two verses from different parts of the Gospel and putting them together: “He went and hung himself.” “Go and do likewise.” Not the right answer.

Consider the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Sometimes it does, and the point, I think, is that if push yourself into the lives of others you may well attract their dislike. But in other cases, as someone commented on my post “Monogamy Fulfills Eros“, familiarity breeds content.

The point of an aphorism, of any small nugget of wisdom, is to be useful in practice. I think this is the key to interpreting them. If an aphorism seems useless to you in your current circumstances, then either it wasn’t meant to apply in your context, or you’re not interpreting it correctly. (Of course, it might also simply be wrong…but that only can be true if there’s no obvious interpretation that’s useful.)

In the case of “God will never give you more than you can handle,” both Nate Pyle and Calah Alexander point out that Christians often run into situations that are more than they can handle, situations that knock them down, that they cannot take in stride, that they cannot cope with. And to tell someone in such a situation that “God will never give you more than you can handle” is to tell them that they ought to be handling this. It isn’t comforting; it’s a slap in the face, the sort of thing one of Job’s friends might have said to him in his extremity.

But I don’t think that’s what the aphorism is meant to mean; and I don’t think it’s a saying to be told to someone in extremis. I think it is meant to be a reminder to me, when I’m having problems, that God is in charge, that God is present, that God is not trying to crush me out of existence. Even if I am on the verge of despair, God is with me; and though I might be tempted to despair, by His grace He will not let me be tempted beyond my strength. Even if I die, if I hold fast to Him and to His grace, He will bring me through, and I will spend eternity with Him in Heaven.

In short, it’s not about handling things in human terms or with human strength. It’s about holding fast to God.

But, you might say, that’s not what it says! And read one way, you’re right. (And my reading of it might not even be what was originally intended. But I find it useful to me; and judging from the comments I’ve seen on the above two posts, on Facebook and elsewhere, many others have found these words similarly useful, and a lifeline in horrible circumstances.

One final note. When you’re confronted with someone in trouble, listen to them. Help them if you can. Love them. Ask if you can pray for them. Acknowledge the problem. Even if you feel useless, your prayers are a boon, as Simcha Fisher describes here. Don’t spout aphorisms about what they can or can’t handle, or you might drive them closer to despair.

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