From the First Letter to the Corinthians:
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NRSV) – March 29, 2014.)
A couple of months ago, a friend mine published a list of the ten things Christians can’t say while following Jesus. One of those things was “God never gives us more than we can handle.” My friend explained, “Ever tried saying this to a person contemplating suicide? No? Well, of course not. Why? Because it is just wrong. It’s wrong for the reason that #10 (Everything happens for a reason) is wrong and it’s wrong because factual circumstances of living prove that sometimes this life does bring with it more than we can handle.”
And here is Paul, in Paul’s own verbose inimitable way, saying exactly that, or is he? I’ll admit that I first read Paul as saying what my friend says Christians can’t say, but on reflection I think Paul is rather more nuanced than that. “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength” does not (as the thing we can’t say does) suggest that it is God doing the testing; further, Paul adds that God provides us additional strength (“the way out”) that should allow us to endure the testing.
The issue for us is whether we are able to recognize and take advantage of that “way out.”
I’ve known too many people who couldn’t, family members and friends who when faced with the trials and tribulations of life couldn’t handle them and simply cracked, became broken people. My father, who killed himself in a single-car motor vehicle accident while driving drunk, was probably one of them. My mother, who weathered that event and pulled herself and her children up out poverty into relative economic comfort, was not, although in retrospect I believe she waged a life-long battle with depression. How is one person able to contend with what life throws at us and one not?
Paul assures us that “no testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” In other words, we all face the same trials; they are part of life, part of being human. They are not something “God gives us” to test us; God doesn’t give them to us at all. Some might not buy Paul’s assurances, but I think what he is saying is that the differences are of degree not kind, or perhaps that the differences have to do with our differing abilities and willingnesses to tap into “the way out” provided all of us by God.
Something I learned early in my ministry is that “the way out” has nothing to do with words, teaching, talking, writing, reading, or any of that. It has nothing to do with anyone hearing or anyone else saying “the right words.” Sometimes there are no right words. “The way out” has to do with human companionship, presence, and community.
When I was first ordained a deacon, a family in my congregation lost a teenage daughter to sudden and tragic death in a car accident. I couldn’t reach them by telephone when I first heard the news to I went to the family home thinking I could at least leave a note on the door. I found the parents just arriving home from the hospital. I had no idea what to say so I said virtually nothing; we simply sat together an wept. I felt like a complete pastoral failure; I had offered nothing that would “make it all make sense.” But several weeks later the girl’s mother sent me a short note thanking me for being there; specifically, she thanked me for not saying anything, for just being there to share their grief.
When Paul says that “no testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone,” he is reminding us of the centrality of human community. When he says that God “will provide the way out,” that is what he is again referring to. God doesn’t send the test, the trial, or the tribulation. God, indeed, does not give us more than we can handle; he doesn’t give us these things at all! They are not from God. But the people around us, who weep with us when there are no words, who support us through the troubles, they are.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.