Christians often say that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” What they mean is that the troubles in our lives are measured out by God to be at the limit of what we can bear. The idea is supposed to be reassuring that even though we feel overwhelmed, this is not actually the case. We assure ourselves that we can manage our crises since God has limited the strain to within our ability to handle it. What people intend as an assurance is actually a statement about us instead of a statement about God’s involvement to care for us.
Possibly this may be true that God limits our troubles to within our abilities, but the biblical warrant for this sort of providence is lacking. On the contrary, I think that God often overloads people with troubles and distresses so that we will surrender to him. We need convincing of our weakness, inability and need for him. We need to be overwhelmed so that we will turn to him in our distress. If I could handle the demands of my circumstances as scaled to within my powers, then why would I need God?
The reason that many people repeat this mistaken axiom is that they misinterpret a statement of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NASB 2020).
“No temptation has overtaken you except something common to [humanity], and God is faithful, so He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.”
The context is clear that the audience at Corinth could be assured in two ways: (1) their temptations were entirely normal as the sorts of temptations that all people have to bear with, and (2) God could be counted on to provide for them to withstand the temptation instead of surrendering to it. This second assurance accords with Hebrews 4:15, where Christians are told to ask God for grace to help in time of need, and the context is a crisis of temptation to evil. God offers to support his people to withstand temptation when they are threatened with evil. He intends that we cope with temptations (and all things) through his involvement, with him, and not by ourselves. Perhaps the Corinthians wanted an excuse for following what they imagined were exceptionally severe temptations, but Paul strips that excuse with the assurances of God’s provision for them. The people at Corinth (and all Christians) could be expected to withstand their temptations to evil because of God’s involvement with them as evil pulled at them. The tone may even be a gentle rebuke.
Another assuring statement about suffering crises in life is Romans 8:28-29, where Paul states that our troubles in this life are ordered by God for the good purpose of conforming us to Jesus. The assurance is a lens for us to see all of our troubles as God’s instruments of our sanctification. Often the items that block us from God’s involvement and our being conformed to Jesus must be attacked by God, like the way a surgeon removes an obstructing tumor or a clog in an artery.
Our surgeon-Father uses troubles to provoke deeper levels of humility and surrender in us — the same surrender and humility that we see in Jesus. As Paul had to accept by means of his own distress — his thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:1-10), we need to accept our weakness before we can receive God’s involvement for making us more closely joined to him. Similarly, Jesus warns the disciples that without his involvement, they can do nothing (John 15:1-8). Human beings are created to operate in total dependence upon God’s presence and action (dependence that we practice through prayer). Like individual branches of a grapevine that have no independent ability to produce grapes, individual Christians do not have it within themselves to produce God’s works.
The convincing that we need is about our inability in ourselves and our total need to surrender to God’s involvement with us. Many Christians admit that we try many options to help ourselves before resorting to praying for God’s help. His positive intention is to give us more than we can handle! In many situations of my life, I have seen that God orders my circumstances (Romans 8:28) so that I will not be able to handle it so that I will feel desperately overwhelmed. This distress is good for me since the near-drowning experience quickly moves me to pray as a first resort instead of a last resort.
Therefore, I question the axiom that “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” when this is voiced as an assurance that I can handle my troubles. The mistaken use of the axiom attempts to give hope through God’s limitation of our distresses, but I think God is more involved than that to order troubles just as he did with the cross, Paul’s thorn in the flesh, Job’s compound disasters, and Joseph’s perils in Egypt. Instead of seeing my crisis as having been scaled down by God so I can handle it, I think God has provoked the crisis so that I cannot handle it—so I will turn to him. When I am tempted to trust in my own abilities through working harder, what I need most is God’s involvement to prove me wrong. I need repeated convincing that I cannot handle anything on my own. God has created and saved me to be a vessel and instrument for his works, just as Jesus said the same of himself: “I can do nothing on my own initiative” (John 5:30 NASB).