It’s meant to encourage someone going through a hard time — and I certainly support building up someone who has troubles. But saying, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” can actually hurt and alienate people. Also, it’s utterly not true.
First, God doesn’t give us hard times. Hard times come because we live in a broken, messed-up world. The actions of others, our own actions, and even random chance can plunge us into deep trouble, pain, or grief.
Second, there are absolutely hard times we can’t handle. Ask someone whose child was murdered, or someone mired in deep depression, or someone living with crippling pain, or someone stuck in addiction. These are deep holes out of which people often can’t climb alone.
Imagine being utterly crushed by troubles like these, where you’re barely hanging on, and then hearing someone say this to you. Can you see how this could hurt? “Really? God gave me this awful thing because he knew I could handle it? Gee, thanks God. Thanks a lot!”
I think people who say this mean well. And they certainly find some basis for this saying in the Bible. Check out 1 Corinthians 10:13:
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
The word translated as “temptation” is the Greek peirasmos, which is also translated as “trial” elsewhere in the New Testament, notably in James 1:2-4 where we are told to count it as all joy when we face trials of various kinds. The context in which 1 Cor 10:13 lives speaks of both temptations and trials.
But notice how this passage tells us that God will provide the way out. In other words, God will help us handle it. We just have to follow his lead.
Now, we can often endure hard times – that is, get up every morning and live with them one more day. As Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
But enduring isn’t handling. To handle something means to have power or control over the thing, or an ability to manage the thing successfully.
Ask any recovered addict who used to get up every day and use a substance long past the point where it stopped being enjoyable, because they had to. The very basis of 12-step programs is that the addiction is bigger than the addict can handle, and that turning it over to God is the path to sobriety and sanity. The 12 steps are a fine prototype for giving big problems to God. He will carry some of the problem himself, and he will bring change and growth in you so you can handle the rest of it.
That’s not to say God will fix everything. Murdered children stay murdered. Terminal disease still kills. But in such cases God can help you accept your reality and find meaning in it.
Hard times inevitably fall on all of us. God hopes we will turn to him when they happen, because it is in a crucible of suffering that God can show you personally how much he loves you and help you grow to become the person he made you to be.
And so I wish that Christians would instead say: Turn to God, because he wants to help you handle this. That’s the encouragement we all need.