By Brian Jones
September 4, 2011
Over the past three weeks Daniel preached on the lives and ministries Leo, Luther and Lewis. Wrapping up the Lʼs, Church Fathers is a sermon series Daniel has been working on for fourteen years. Fourteen years ago I was much too young to be preaching, but I have a modest sermon series of my own going.
Even before I went to seminary I was fascinated by how Christian theology and thinking plays out in contemporary American culture, particularly how often in America spirituality is manifested in a “slogan theology” or “folk religion”, where bumper sticker slogans or platitudes can be mistaken for scriptural truth.
Back in 2009 I unintentionally began this sermon series when I preached on the phrase “What goes around comes around.” This is a commonly used phrase in pop culture and in our everyday lingo. Just the other day I heard a woman mutter “well, what goes around comes around” under her breath when she felt like someone cut in front of her in the line at Target. “What goes around comes around” isnʼt a Biblical phrase, itʼs a phrase that actually speaks to the worldview of karma. Karma the idea that if you do good things, then good things will come to you, but if you do bad things then watch out, because you might need to dodge a lightning bolt. A worldview like karma – where we can feel like we are in control of our own destiny and rewarded in a way we feel is fair – is comforting to us. Itʼs also disturbingly comforting to think our enemies will get the fair punishment we think they deserve. But luckily for us, God is a God of grace, and not a God of karma – and to paraphrase Romans 3:24 – God, in his mysterious ways, “treats us much better than we deserve.”
Just a few months ago in the second sermon in the series we dissected the common bumper sticker slogan “God helps those who help themselves.” Used widely in our culture and thought by 8 out of 10 Americans to be a phrase that actually appears in the Bible, “God helps those who help themselves” is a phrase that cannot even be loosely paraphrased using scripture. Instead, what the scriptures teach us time and time and time again is that Godʼs heart is with the helpless and God calls us – his followers – to help the helpless as well. God helps. So should we.
This brings us to this morning and the third and final installment of our slogan theology series: “God doesnʼt give you more than you can handle.” Or for you Yoda fans: “God give you more than he can handle, he does not.”
Again, this is a phrase that is widely used in culture but this exact phrase appears nowhere in the Bible. In fairness to everyone who has spoken this phrase, “God doesnʼt give you more than you can handle” does have itʼs roots in scripture as itʼs actually a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which says “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.”
When I was researching how this current phrase came to be – how the context was changed and how the original verse of scripture was significantly reworded – I found that itʼs generally agreed that the culprit in the rephrasing was – wouldnʼt you know it – a preacher. We preachers are known for our one-liners and we can rarely resist an opportunity to work up a clever phrase and then repeat it over and over and over again until it inevitably ends up as a cliche.
I most recently spotted the phrase “God doesnʼt give you more than you can handle” when I was reading my twitter feed. [FIRE SLIDE ONE] When you are talking about slogans and cliches, twitter is second only to bumper stickers. Twitter is a short, quick way to communicate. Twitter allows users to post a thought, link or picture using 140 characters or less. I love twitter. I loved being able to send updates from the recent youth mission trips and, most recently, from Pyro 2. I loved being able to get updates from Anne-Marie and the Childrenʼs Ministry at Camp Pyro and from Jeff during the recent mission to Peru. I follow fellow youth ministers with twitter, I get just about all my news with twitter, clicking through the links to sites like time.com, I upload and send out pictures of my little girls to their twitter followers – which includes my mom – and I get frequent baseball and football updates so I can keep winning fantasy teams.
Twitter is wonderful for lots of things, but there are some things that twitter doesnʼt do well. Each individual tweet has a 140 character limit, which is really just a sentence and holds little room for nuance. Twitter, by itʼs very nature, is about simplifying everything. There is a risk with constantly simplifying everything. The problem isnʼt with simplicity itself. The verses of scripture that were just read could fit on a twitter line. The problem is that those verses, those simple lines, those incredibly profound lines, are set within a larger, and important, context.
There are two kinds of simplicity. Simplicity on the first side of complexity and simplicity on the far side of complexity. Simplicity on the first side of complexity is a 14-year-old student in Confirmation saying, “God wonʼt give you more than you can handle. Everything is going to be OK!” Simplicity on the far side of complexity is when my 86- year-old grandmother – who was born into the great depression, lived through World War II, and had a husband who abandoned her, penniless and alone, to raise three small girls – says “God wonʼt give you more than you can handle. Everything is going to be OK.” Same words. Through complexity that simple statement is no longer a cliche, it is Godʼs truth. Twitter, by itʼs nature prevents complexity. You arenʼt allowed to wrestle with and through things, because wrestling takes time and energy and emotion and openness and experience and suffering. Twitter is about speed, fast, now, go go go.
Now, obviously, twitter is just an example, and really this observation is about our culture and relationships in general, where the quick and the easy can hold sway over the intentional and purposeful. Slogan theology is what happens when simple statements are tossed around too easily in a community of faith. It prevents us from getting to the genuine, profound things that should be simple. Faith doesnʼt have to be complex, but we have to wrestle through it to make it our own.
So letʼs take a couple minutes to wrestle with the original verse, unpolluted by clever preachers with our slick-talking ways.
In the Apostle Paulʼs letter to the church in Corinth, Paul was addressing a group of people who were falling into temptation. Although the Corinthians were now following Jesus, some of them had become comfortable in their faith and had begun to dabble in their old ways. There were individuals in the church in Corinth who felt that the fact that they had been baptized and partaken of the Lordʼs Supper made them immune to the temptations of idol worship. Some of the Corinthians were attending meals and festivals in the temples of pagan gods, just as they had done before becoming Christians. In their view, this was merely a normal aspect of social life in their culture, not a faith issue.
If you know anything about the Apostle Paul you know that he would have none of that. Paul, when educating Christians, was very fond of teaching by giving them a little history lesson. Paul took the Corinthians back to Moses and the Exodus, and to the wilderness generations who worshipped the golden calf, even after they had experienced Godʼs mighty deliverance from slavery in Egypt. This is a story thatʼs a telling analogy for Paulʼs argument that Christians should not become implicated in idol worship. In fact, Paul explained in verse six that the purpose of the scriptural story is (literally) “that we might not desire evil as they did.” Paul continues this argument through verse 12, then picks it up again in verse 14. Of course, itʼs verse thirteen is the most familiar, having been reworded to serve generations of Christians as a word of hope in times of difficulty. But itʼs almost always cited in isolation from itʼs Corinthians context, and for good reason – itʼs difficult to see how it fits into the scheme of the present argument, especially since verse 14 follows verses 1-12 so nicely. Verse 13, standing out like a rock between the warning of 12 and the continuation of the warning in 14, functions both to continue the warning to flee from idols, but mainly to offer a strong word of assurance.
“Flee from temptation” would actually work quite well as a tweet and might come as a welcome exhortation to your twitter followers who might be drifting toward a sticky situation. It might even get a retweet, which – if you are unfamiliar with twitter verbage – is the twitter equivalent of “Amen brother!”
But the area of temptation isnʼt the context today where we typical use or hear the phrase “God doesnʼt give you more than you can handle.” Temptation is one thing… tragedy is another.
This past week I was sharing with Danielle (and with Daniel) that I had some nervousness about this sermon, a lump in my throat as I was preparing. Itʼs easy work to deconstruct something, to tear it apart. But the words “God doesnʼt give you more than you can handle” have been a source of hope and comfort for many, when exactly what they needed was a source of hope and comfort. Itʼs also been a phrase that has been used by many with the best of intentions to offer a source of hope and comfort. These words pack a lot of emotion with many. I had lunch just this week with a friend who asked me what todayʼs sermon was going to be about and when I told him he said, “You know, Iʼve always struggled with that phrase. My mom died when I was young and she suffered with mental illness. Clearly, it was more than she could handle.” The intention is to deconstruct the phrase on the first side of simplicity, and continue to honor the emotion and the experience that people hold from the far side of simplicity.
The good news is that in rethinking this little phrase of slogan theology actually takes us to a place of greater hope with an even bigger promise attached.
While the original scripture spoke specifically to the topic of temptation and our modern day paraphrased version speaks to the topic of personal perseverance through tragedies and hardships, the irony is that our modern day rephrasing could have been born in part out of temptation – the temptation of our Western culture to rely only on ourselves. If God has given us only what we theoretically should be able to handle by ourselves, then what reason do we have to rely on him? Someone shouldʼve have consulted with the makers of those F.R.O.G. bracelets. Remember those? They stood for “Fully Rely on God” and tens of thousands of them have been sold. Maybe the bracelet makers are on to something. Doesnʼt “God wonʼt give you more than you can handle” elevate in a way our self-reliance, and minimize our reliance on God?
A phrase like this becomes wildly adopted because it fits with other traditional American ways of thinking – we are encouraged to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and we are apt to use other phrases like “God helps those who help themselves.” “God doesnʼt give you more than you can handle” is also like most other bumper-sticker slogan theology in that it is a promise that appeals to my concerns about myself and my well- being, which in fairness isnʼt far from our minds when we are struggling deeply, wondering if the people around us are going to be OK.
But the truth is that over and over again in the Bible, we see men and women who are given far more than they can handle. The prophet Jeremiah was charged with preaching repentance to the people of Israel, a calling that caused him to be beaten, plotted against and rejected by everyone, even his own family. Emotionally, that was far far more than he could handle as we read in his many laments.
Job – the poster boy for having so many of lifeʼs tragedies thrown at him – was driven to his knees and instead of his friends giving him a pat on the back and telling him that “God wouldnʼt give him more than he could handle” they recommended to Job that he should just curse God and die. Those friends of his couldʼve used a dose of Minnesota Nice.
It was Jesus himself who prayed at the time when he knew his own death was imminent that if there was any other way – anything – that he was open to it.
But, in fact, it was the ministry of the Apostle Paul that was one of the more powerful examples of this truth found in scripture. In his second letter to the very same Corinthian church he writes: “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits. Danger in the city, danger in the wilderness. In toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, am I not weak? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
Paul doesnʼt tell us these things to boast in how he shouldered all that suffering and adversity and took it like a man. Paul does it so that we might know that God will always give us more than we can handle. Paul boasts “of the things that show my weakness” because those things show his (and our) dependency on the power and mercy of God.
Finally, it was our hero from last week – C.S. Lewis – who struggled deeply with the loss of his wife to cancer who wrote this: “Among the huge Atlantic waves of bereavement, poverty, temptation, and reproach, we learn the power of Jehovah, because we feel the littleness of man.”
God is making it clear that we are not self-sufficient. We need not just hunker down and power through every situation. We cannot white-knuckle our way to holiness. We need God. Whereʼs my FROG bracelet?
Even though 1 Corinthians 10:13 dealt specifically with temptation, believe it or not, there are still some good words it has for us regarding our present usage as a source of hope in time of tragedy.
The first noteworthy feature of the original text is that both times the word “you” was written they were both plural. If Paul wouldʼve written in southern Greek he wouldʼve used the word “yʼall.” This means that the experience of the trial and the efforts at handling a trial are never presumed by the scriptures to be borne by an individual alone. Paulʼs assumption is that any testing you experience is never in isolation. Yʼall donʼt have to go it alone. Should we create a new tweet? “God will not test us beyond what all of us can bear together.”
Remember Paulʼs little history lesson that took us back to the exodus. The theme of deliverance should be on our minds. The promise, Godʼs promise that is still good for us today, is that with every test, the faithful, dependable God will provide an exodus – a way out – just like in olden times. Isnʼt that the sentiment that was trying to be conveyed when those words first written to the Corinthians were rephrased and spoken by us today?
In times of tragedy, hardship, and sorrow our faithful God will deliver us and provide a way through, and you should never feel like that experience must be borne alone, but instead the community should hear the call to prop one another up. While we may never fully know why challenges come our way, we can take comfort from the prophet Jeremiah, the Apostle Paul, the church father C.S. Lewis and my 86-year- old grandma, who through experience wrestled with simple, cliched words in the midst of their complex and heart-wrenching circumstances, to find a new simplicity that lived on the far side of their struggles. It was a new simplicity of community and deliverance, and a full faith and reliance in a God that loves us dearly. A loving God with outstretched arms and the power to create a universe that will walk with us through whatever trial, temptation, heartache, or tragedy we face.
Perhaps, then, the better tweet would be “God doesnʼt give us more than HE can handle.” Now retweet that to all your followers.