“God won’t give you more than you can handle?”
I just got an email from an old friend who was reaching out with a question. I thought the answer might be helpful as we head into a new year.
She asked, “Where does it say, God won’t give you more than you can handle?”
Maybe she was having a bad day. Maybe she was feeling overwhelmed. Maybe her life didn’t feel like her idea of what a Christian life is supposed to feel like. She didn’t say.
But I know enough people who feel overwhelmed just ten days into 2020 that I think I want to share my response with you, too, just in case you think it is somehow a failure on your part when you feel like you are dealing with more than you can handle.
I suspect my friend googled that verse but couldn’t find the right citation, and for good reason: “God won’t give you more than you can handle” isn’t actually in the Bible. In fact, that quote sometimes gets used in a way that distorts what the Bible actually says. (Although there is one verse that says something similar…)
Here, in part, is how I responded to her email.
What the quote gets wrong
First, what that quote gets wrong:
“God won’t give you more than you can handle” makes it seem like you must not being doing it right if you are overwhelmed. It makes it seem like being overwhelmed is a failure on your part, maybe even a sin.
That’s just not true.
It’s OK to be overwhelmed. In fact, sometimes having more than you can handle is actually a gift from God, since it drives you back to dependence on Jesus. That’s what Paul experienced.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia.
We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.
Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
2 Corinthians 1:8-9 (NIV)
Paul doesn’t say God won’t give you more than you can handle; he says that when you are so overwhelmed that you feel like you are going to die, the resurrection of Jesus is right there with you.
Having more than you can handle (even to the point of despair!) leads you to needing Jesus.
Needing Jesus is good.
What the quote gets right
Although the Bible doesn’t say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” about life in general, it does say something like that when it comes specifically to temptation.
And I imagine that original quote is a slight misquote of 1 Corinthians 10.
So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 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.
1 Corinthians 10:12-13 (NIV)
Enduring temptation is quite a different promise than “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” but you can see how they are similar.
When it comes to temptation, you should never feel like you are too weak or too sinful to resist (even though we make excuses for ourselves all the time). God knows you and loves you and won’t let temptation arise in your life that is “more than you can handle…”
But there are times (at least, there were for Paul), when God allows life in general to be such a burden that you are overwhelmed, that you actually do have more than you can handle, that you come to the end of your rope.
If you feel like that, don’t add the burden of trying to be a “good Christian,” as if “real Christians” are never completely overwhelmed. God’s people are completely overwhelmed sometimes; that’s a normal part of the journey.
God’s Promise for God’s Overwhelmed People
God doesn’t promise that you won’t have more than you can handle; he just promises that when you do–when you are overwhelmed beyond your ability to endure, even when it feels like you have received a sentence of death, Jesus is right there with you.
When you have more than you can endure, you are invited to trust the God who raises the dead.
When you come to the end of your rope, you find Jesus waiting for you there.
Followers of Jesus know the burden of being overwhelmed; and they also know the joy of needing Jesus (sometimes specifically because they are in over their heads).
So, my dear friends, it’s OK to be overwhelmed.
It’s OK to feel like you have more than you can handle. You probably do.
And Jesus is right there with you, no matter what.
Jesus, sometime I feel so overwhelmed! How am I supposed to keep all these plates spinning, all these balls in the air??
Sometimes I feel like I can’t go on, and I just want you to stop the world so I can get off. It’s too much, Jesus; it’s too much.
Honestly, I sometimes wonder if you have forgotten all about me. Sometimes it feels like I am a failure at being your follower. If my life is so underwater, I must be doing something wrong!
Jesus, send your Spirit into my heart. When I am so overburdened I feel like I am going to die, bring your resurrection power to my heart, to my relationships, to my workweek, to my life.
Jesus, teach me to delight in needing you. Teach me dependence, Lord, even if it means being overwhelmed.
I just can’t do this by myself. So I guess I am going to need you in my life after all. Funny; I think that might be what you wanted all along…
Thank you, Lord, for your presence in the midst of my need. Amen.