If you have been a Christian for longer than a month, then I’m sure you have heard someone say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I’ve heard pastors, biblical counselors, and many other Christians make this comment. However, we need to think critically about this statement though based on what the Bible says: Is it really true to Scripture?
I want to make a case that this statement is untrue and unhelpful. Many godly, mature, and more knowledgeable Christians may disagree with me. If you are one of them, I still hope you read this and engage in the conversation so we can charitably help one another deepen our thinking on this topic. My goal is not to make anyone feel condemned or attacked, but rather to help us all sharpen our thinking, so we can be more precise and helpful as we minister to individuals who are suffering.
Why do I believe the statement “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is untrue and unhelpful? Here are two reasons: (1) The Bible does not teach this. (2) The Bible teaches the opposite truth (at times God does give us more than we can handle). In addition, I think we can give more precise and helpful encouragement to individuals who are suffering.
Reason 1: The Bible does not teach that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
Many believers claim that 1 Corinthians 10:13 teaches “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” This verse states, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Many people teaching that “God won’t give you more than you can handle” explain that the word “temptation,” or peirasmos in Greek, can refer to a temptation to a sin, a trial, or any type of suffering. They are right. In fact, the Greek word used here for “temptation” can be used to speak of both suffering and sin. If you look in a Greek lexicon, it will show “testing” or “trial” as a possible way this word can be translated. Why, then, is it wrong to claim that this verse is addressing testing, trials, and suffering?
Any good book on hermeneutics will tell you every word has a range of potential meanings. The specific meaning an author intends to communicate when using a word is determined by context. A specific example of this concept is that the phrase “beat it” can be used as a command to tell someone “get off my porch,” or it can refer to one of the greatest Michael Jackson songs on the radio. You know which meaning I, the author, intend based on the context of the statement in which I use the phrase. It is here that we come to an important interpretive rule. I can intend to communicate the first or second meaning, but not both at the same time. This rule should be applied to 1 Corinthians 13 as well: Can “temptation” be referring to temptation to sin and to testing/suffering at the same time? There is one way it might–if I am intending to communicate with a pun. However, I do not know of anyone who claims that Paul is attempting to make a pun in this passage. In the context of this passage, we cannot claim Paul meant to reference both temptation to sin and trials/suffering simultaneously through this single use of the Greek word peirasmos. In fact, if we attempt to interpret this verse as though Paul has intended both meanings simultaneously, we commit what New Testament scholar D.A. Carson calls an exegetical fallacy. In his book entitled Exegetical Fallacies, Carson calls this specific type of exegetical fallacy “illegitimate totality transfer.” This is the fallacy of reading every possible meaning of a word into a single use of a word. Carson writes about this interpretive error under fallacy 13, “unwarranted adoption of an expanded semantic field” in the word-study fallacies section of the book.
Thus, the question we need to ask is not what range of meanings a word can possibly have in all of its uses, but rather, what did the author mean to communicate through the word in a specific context. When we look to the context of the passage to determine which meaning Paul intended, we find that he is addressing sin, not suffering. Verse 6 addresses those who “desire evil.” In verse 7 Paul addresses “idolaters,” showing the context of this passage is sin. Verse 8 identifies this idolatry specifically as “sexual immorality.” The following verses continue to address sin as we read of “put(ting) Christ to the test” in verse 9 and grumbling in verse 10. Verse 12 gives the exhortation “therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall,” which continues the focus of the passage on addressing sin. Verse 13 continues to address sin within the context of these verses. The plain reading of this text should lead us to conclude that Paul chose to use the word “temptation” to address temptation to sin, not trials and suffering, in this passage.
God, through Paul, is telling us in this passage that no one will be tempted to sin beyond what he or she can bear. That is amazingly good news. Praise God for His grace to us. However, this passage does not teach that a person will not face a trial or suffering beyond what he/she can bear.
Reason 2: The Bible teaches the opposite. At times, God does give people more than they can handle.
In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul’s autobiographical story in verses 8-11 clearly shows that God may give someone more suffering than he or she can handle. Paul says that he and his companions were “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” He continues by saying, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again.” This passage shows us Paul was burdened beyond his strength. To be burdened beyond one’s strength is to have more than he or she can handle. God, through Paul, is saying people can experience more suffering than they can handle.
Furthermore: We can give more precise and helpful encouragement to individuals who are suffering.
Can I make a confession? I don’t know what “handle” means in “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” How are people defining “handle” when they make this statement? When different people say “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” do they all mean the same thing? The reality is that the saying “God won’t give you more than you can handle” can actually mean quite a few things. Regardless of what you believe about my previous two points, I hope we can all see that this saying is vague and unhelpful because of its imprecision. We, as counselors, pastors, and helpers can all make more precise and helpful statements than “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
I want to propose we adopt a new text to be our go-to text for encouraging sufferers. Rather than using 1 Cor. 10, I submit we should use 2 Corinthians 12:7-10:
So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
I propose we cease saying, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” and begin to encourage people by saying, “God will give you all the grace you need in every situation you face.”
Why do I believe that the statement “God will give you all the grace you need in every situation you face” is more helpful for a sufferer? First, it is a more precise. It more precisely reflects the theological truths of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 and other texts that suffering people need to know. No matter how much suffering people face, and how deeply they hurt because of that suffering, they know the truth that God’s grace will be sufficient for them in all their needs.
Secondly, the focus is on God not us. The saying “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is a man-centered statement that focuses on the person’s resources or abilities. Focusing on oneself and one’s resources in suffering does not bring great comfort and hope. Focusing on God and His resources for us in suffering does bring great comfort and hope.
Thirdly, God gets more glory. Paul tells us that it was when he did not have the strength to face his own suffering that he found God’s power and faithfulness was sufficient to provide what he needed. It was his inability to endure the suffering he faced that led Paul to a greater knowledge and experience of God’s provision, comfort, and deliverance. God may give the suffering people around us more than they feel, think, or believe they can bear. God wants His people to know through 2 Corinthians 1 and 12 that He is all-powerful and that they can hope in Him and His power.
Fourthly, this approach avoids the harm that “God won’t give you more than you handle” can do to a person. Many sufferers feel their suffering is beyond what they can bear. For these individuals, hearing the message “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” can communicate that they are not good enough or that something is wrong with their faith. This message that “God won’t give you more than you can handle” can also breed a self-focused and self-reliant way of thinking. The sufferers may feel they aren’t trying hard enough, or aren’t reading their Bibles thoroughly enough or aren’t praying fervently enough. They can experience guilt, shame, and doubt based on a misunderstanding of God’s Word. This unintended consequence of “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is antithetical to the gospel and must be refuted by gospel-oriented preachers and biblical counselors. When we feel weak and unable to persevere through suffering, we should not look to ourselves for help; we should look to God for help and hope. People who feel they are enduring more suffering than they can bear are not too weak, soft, or simply lacking in trust. Explaining that God may give more suffering than people can handle has been freeing and liberating for individuals I have known who are suffering through domestic abuse, illness, and other situations. These individuals were able to see that no matter how bad things got for them, God would give them the grace they need in every situation they faced.
For these reasons, I hope you will join me in putting an end to the belief that “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” and begin to encourage people by saying, “God will give you all the grace you need in every situation you face.”