What the saying “God will never give you more than you can handle” means

In times of trial, difficulty, and suffering, Christians of all stripes will not hesitate to lay a comforting hand on the shoulder of their loved ones and assure them that God will never give them more than they can handle.

This is meant to be a pep talk. What they’re really saying in that moment is: “You can do this!” or “You got this!” or “Just keep on keeping on!”

While offering some encouragement to someone going through a hard time is a good and noble thing to do, if you have ever used the phrase “God will never give you more than you can handle” to offer that encouragement, I want you to take a moment to say a quick little prayer of repentance!

Not only is this saying not a helpful thing to say to someone going through a hard time but it’s also nowhere to be found in our Bibles.

Scripture enjoins us to “encourage one another and build each other up” but says nothing about needing to use inane clichés to do so! 

The idea that “God will never give you more than you can handle” is both from the Bible and not from the Bible.

The saying that God will never give you more than you can handle isn’t from the Bible. And yet, it’s origin is still the Bible.

Wild, I know!

In 1 Corinthians, Chapter 10, the Apostle Paul writes this:

The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Careful readers of scripture that we are, we of course note that Paul IS NOT saying that we can handle every situation and circumstance that is thrown our way. Rather, he is simply saying that God will never give us more TEMPTATION than we can handle. Paul doesn’t go any further than that.

It’s only when we take Paul’s words about temptation and apply them to suffering more generally that we arrive at the idea “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Although well-intended, at the end of the day, this is a misreading of the Bible’s teaching.

Go on – break out your magnifying glass. You will not find the idea that “God will not give you more than you can handle” anywhere in the pages of the Bible!

Case in Point: The Story of Noah

Just imagine this scene adapted from the Book of Genesis:

God looks down at the world and is upset by humankind’s wickedness. God determines the best course of action is to just start over. Noah and his family are deemed righteous by God and so are given instructions to build an ark. They do just as God commands.

After Noah assembles all those animals he’s famously pictured with, the heavens open up and the rain starts pouring down. Noah and his family enter the ark, closing the door behind them.

The waters rise and rise and rise.

Several days into their voyage, Noah happens to look over the edge of the ark where he sees a lone man standing on what used to be a mountaintop. At this point, however, all but the man’s head is submerged by water. The man cries out for Noah to save him.

Noah replies, “Don’t worry, God will never give you more than you can handle.”

Glug. Glug. Glug.

While this is a tongue-in-cheek example, the truth is the Bible is chockfull of stories about people who are faced with circumstances that they cannot handle and, in some cases, are totally defeated by.

The story of Noah and the ark is suuuuper dark – why is it such a famous Sunday School story!?!?!?

What the Bible Actually Says

The Bible brings together two seemingly incompatible ideas: God’s unwavering love for us that works all things for good on the one hand. And on the other hand, the fact that bad things really do happen to us – sometimes beyond our capacity to deal with them.

This tension is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the inspiring words Romans 8, in which the Apostle Paul boldly proclaims that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus while at the same time pointing to circumstances that will cause us to question that love.

READ ROMANS 8:28-34

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In other words, suffering and the love of God which works all things together for our good are not mutually exclusive.

In some cases when we experience hardship, we can can actually see how some good came out of it: We were prideful. We were vain. We were hard of heart. We had deluded ourself into believing we could do it all our own. And now, on the other side of that hardship, that pride, that hardness of heart, that pretense of self-reliance has been stripped away. Maybe we found a reservoir of strength within us, that we didn’t before know was there.

But the vast majority of the time, we have no idea how any good is being brought about through hardship and suffering that we endure. We experience trauma, we get hard diagnoses, our relationships crumble, people we love die. And we cannot see, we cannot imagine, we cannot even begin to fathom how any good can come of it.

In those moments we are like the disciples, standing at the foot of the cross looking up at the dead and bloody body of our savior, unable to believe that God could possible redeem this situation. 

But the audacious faith of the Bible is a faith that says if God can redeem the cross, if God pull life and light and salvation from an instrument of torture and execution, then there is no situation or circumstance on earth that God cannot redeem even if we can’t see how.

From NPR.org – Musekeweya’s voice actors in the recording studio.

A Better Way Forward

And the beautiful thing about that kind of faith is that it sets us free. 

It frees us so that when we see a loved one going through a hard time we don’t have to pretend to see a silver cloud in their suffering. We don’t have to pretend we have a God’s eye view of the situation and assure them they can fully handle the burden they’ve been saddled with. Quite frankly, it’s possible they can’t.

Rather, a trusting faith likes this frees us to to just say,Wow, that must be hard. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. But can I sit with you in that hard place? Can I help pray you through that? Can I walk along with you in that? Until maybe, hopefully, we reach the other side together.”

May it be so!