“I know I’m about to win! I’m just so close!”
In the back of mind I can still hear myself saying those words as my friends Lance, Gene, Murali, and Rich dragged me away from the poker machines in Tahoe. It was the first time I’d ever gone gambling. I’d played penny poker with my friends before or we’d play for Goldfish crackers or something like that, but this was real money and it was exciting! The first time I won and heard those coins clinking into the tray made my heart race as the prospect of suddenly becoming rich seemed oh so close. I won a whole dollar in nickels, but it sounded like much more. I went from playing one line to three and then three lines to five because who doesn’t want to get rich quicker? Pretty soon I went from five cents per pull to a quarter and it all starts adding up. Especially when you’re losing. I’d win JUST enough to keep me going, but overall the casino was getting the better of me. Slowly the amount of money I was losing was getting bigger and bigger, but I could swear I was JUST about to win the big jackpot!!! I KNEW IT!!! I had gone in only planning on playing about $20 worth of nickels and already I was at cresting over $40. Pretty soon, I was getting into food money. Remember I was pretty young at the time with little to no money coming my way. But before I started thinking about selling my clothes to the pawn shop, my friends came over and pulled me away. “Dude, forget about it. Let’s go.” “But I’m so CLOSE.” I actually said those words. “I’m SO CLOSE!” “You can’t win dude (remember this was the ‘80s – there were a lot of ‘dudes’). It’s set up for you to lose.” “But I know I’m going to win big!” My friends told me they were leaving and they had the car so I had to go, but it was so hard to leave that seat. I realized later when that feeling finally died down that I was sucked in by the allure of big money. Even for nickel poker. If it hadn’t been for my friends, I might have starved the rest of the trip. I needed them without even realizing it.
Sometimes life is like that. We need more help than we realize.
There are times when you’re caught in the middle of something and it all just seems overwhelming. Or you get lost in the weeds. You just get deeper and deeper and can’t see your way out. Pretty soon, you’re in so deep that you can’t even find your way back to where you were and suddenly fear and anxiety creep in. Or it comes on suddenly like an ocean wave. Have you ever been in the ocean and maybe your back was turned or you mistimed your jump or a wave was bigger than you thought and suddenly you’ve got water in your mouth, you’re pushed off your feet, and you’re tumbling through the water not sure which way is up? Life can be like that at times. The sudden death of a loved one. A relationship coming to an end. A scary diagnosis from the doctor. In those times we turn to our friends and our family, the people who love us the most, and we look to them for comfort because we are feeling so frightened or sad or angry or all three and we are simply overwhelmed. We’re looking for a hint of hope in seemingly hopeless times. And then someone says, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
That one always has bothered me.
“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I know it’s only said with the best of intentions and the person is trying to say that in time everything is going to be okay. But those words are filled with problems. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Because right away, we’re implying that God DID this, whatever this is. God did this TO YOU. God gave you this tragedy. For whatever reason that only God can understand, God caused this to happen. And somehow we’re supposed to believe it’s for the greater good. Do bad things happen sometimes for something better to occur? Sure. Like getting a shot at the doctor’s office. We go in almost every year to get a flu shot and while I’m not happy about them sticking a needle in my arm, I know that this temporary pain is for my long-term benefit. But this is different. God CAUSED my brother to die? God CAUSED my husband to divorce me? God CAUSED me to get a disease? We struggle with God causing these kinds of things because they aren’t just temporary pains for a greater good. These are the kinds of pain we carry with us for a lifetime. These are the kinds of pains that cause us to hold back our trust, to struggle with relationships, to doubt the existence of God. But God does it anyway?
The other half of that is that we are supposed to bear it.
Somehow, our friends or loved ones have deemed that we are strong enough to take whatever God is throwing at us and come out okay on the other side. And even though it’s probably not meant that way, what they are also saying is that we don’t need any help. We can handle it on our own. But that’s the thing. In situations like this we sometimes can’t handle it on our own. We need help. We need support. We need the intervention of friends and loved ones to nurture us and to guide us, because sometimes we are in a place where we can’t see straight or think straight or make rational choices. And we rely on the grace and mercy of those around us to help.
People believe “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” comes from the Bible.
But it doesn’t. Instead it comes from a misinterpretation of what the Bible tries to share with us. We’re going to read this morning from 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 so if you have a Bible or a Bible app with you, this is Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth in the New Testament. 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. This idea that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” I believe started with Job. In the Book of Job in the Old Testament (the part that was handed down before the birth of Christ), God allows Satan to tempt Job away from his faith but to no avail. Satan tells God that he could tempt anyone and God says, “Nope. Not Job.” And give Satan permission to do whatever he wants other than hurt Job himself. And Satan does. He kills Job’s children, he wrecks devastation upon his herds, he sets fire to his property, he gives him a disease and his wife tells him to commit suicide. Despite all of this, Job remains God’s faithful servant. But what most people don’t know is that the Book of Job is not a true story. This isn’t meant to be historical literature like 1 and 2 Kings or Chronicles. Instead it’s meant to convey an idea about God through story. The Book of Job is more akin to an expanded Aesop fable than it is to historical literature. But because most people don’t know that they treat Job as if it happened word for word. And it becomes this ultimate example of God not giving us more than we can handle. But it’s just not true. The story is meant to show us the power of faith through difficult times and how faith in God and trust in God can give us strength. But it’s not meant to say that we will never be overwhelmed with what happens to us in life. We can’t all be Job, nor are we supposed to be. In the same way, this passage from 1 Corinthians is meant to encourage us in times of difficulty but instead it’s been misinterpreted to say “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. 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 endure it.
“He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.”
That’s the troubling line. “He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” That’s where we get this idea that God doesn’t give us more than we can bear, but the differences here are subtle and significant and that’s why I wanted to read the whole passage to you. Because when you read it in its entirety, you get a clearer picture of what’s happening. In the church at Corinth, they weren’t struck with some catastrophe and now Paul is writing to them with words of condolence. What’s happened is that some of the people have strayed far away from God. Paul compares them to the original Israeli people under Moses and how they all had the same background and opportunities, but ended up being unpleasing to God. In the same way, the people of the church at Corinth have the same background and same teachings, and Paul is warning them not to drift away as the early Israelites often did. Instead he is encouraging them to look for a way to overcome the temptations that will surely come. He tells them to look to God, not to solve your problems for you, but to seek out his wisdom in every situation.
Sometimes we look to God to solve our problems.
And by that, I don’t mean to equip us with the knowledge, wisdom, and insight to make an informed choice. Instead we look to God to literally solve our problems like a genie in a bottle. If you want to lose weight, just rub that bottle hard enough and somehow God will magically clear your vision, sight, smell and desire from wanting that Twinkie. That if we just pray hard enough, God will make asparagus taste better than a chocolate chip cookie! But that’s not how God works. God nudges us. God gives us a brain. God puts people in our lives to help us. That tugging in your brain that we call a conscience? That’s God trying to lead you to make the right decision. But God doesn’t magically make things better. Instead God loves us all and hopes that we will reach out to him in times of trouble. He hopes we will be open to his solutions and healing for our lives. But we still have to seek it.
God is waiting for us to put out a “Help Wanted” sign on our lives.
To acknowledge that we can’t do it alone. God stands ready to help, to offer us solutions, to give us alternatives, to put people in our lives – but we still have to acknowledge that we need it. In his book Half Truths, Adam Hamilton writes, “The promise of Scripture is not that we won’t go through hard times…What Scripture does promise is that at all times, good or bad, God wants to be our help and our strength (pp.84-86).” The promise of Scripture is not that we won’t go through hard times, but that at all times God wants to be our help and strength. That’s the key. We WILL go through hard times. There will be times when its more than we can bear. But we don’t have to make that journey alone. If you haven’t made that decision to turn your life over to God or if its something you’ve been struggling with, I want to encourage you to do so. To be open to the possibility that there is a God in Heaven who really does want to help. That his help may come in ways you are not expecting. A friendly voice, a kind gesture, a mysterious note, or even an email.
When I was at Roswell UMC back in Georgia, my senior pastor told me they were going to have to reduce the staff. It was during the height of the economic downturn and they were looking to find ways to save costs. Being the low man on the totem pole, I was going to be let go. My DS at the time contacted me and told me that I was likely to go to a city that would have been really difficult for my family. It was about an hour and a half each way from Cassie’s work; three hours everyday would have been eaten up just from traveling alone. It would have been in a community that would not have been a good fit for me. And would have drastically changed where the girls were going to school. It didn’t seem like this was where God wanted me to go. We tried different options and looked for alternate solutions, but couldn’t come up with any. Finally, I plopped myself down in my closet (we had a pretty big closet), shut the doors, and turned off the lights and I surrendered to God. I just prayed, “God, I can’t believe this is where you want me to go, but if it is, that’s where I’ll go. But if it’s not, would you open a door for me and I promise to walk through it. Where you lead, I will go.” An hour later I got an email from a friend of mine on the West Coast who happened to be a DS in the Cal Nevada Conference asking how I was doing. I told her about everything going on and an email came back telling me to hold on. I didn’t know for what, but I waited. Within hours, she had received permission to talk to me about a possible opening in California and wanted to know if I was interested. And that’s the short version of how I came all the way across the country to serve in our conference today. I’m not saying that’s how it will work for you or that God will take immediate action in your life. But I’ve found that in each instance where I truly surrendered myself to God, something has happened. It’s not always what I expected (in fact it almost never is), but something happens and I know that God’s hand was in it. God doesn’t test us in the way we often think. I don’t think God sets up situations to see if we are faithful. I think things happen to us and God hopes that instead of turning to the world we seek his guidance and his help. Like I said, it may not always turn out the way we want, but if we are willing to go down the path God is taking us it can often be even better than we imagine. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.