Rector's Blog: More Than You Can Bear
The phrase “God will never give you any more than you can handle” is a particularly nasty bit of bad theology that has infiltrated our lives and made them measurably worse. The problem is it’s in the Bible. Well, it’s sort of in the Bible. Like all the most damaging fake news, it has just enough connection to some inherited truth that it can pass for true under minimal scrutiny. We end up telling ourselves that God would never give us more than we could handle, or worse, telling others that, in an effort either to console them or just to shut them up when their fear and sorrow threatens to shake us.
But make no mistake: “God will never give you any more than you can handle” is garbage.
“But you said it was in the Bible, Phil. What gives?” I can hear you say. Good question, friend. I’m glad you asked.
Imagine for a moment that you came to believe in Jesus. Someone you knew had told you that this mysteriously divine Jesus person had come into the world to save us from ourselves, and to liberate us from evil so that we could finally know our belovedness, our beauty, our essential belonging to God. This Jesus saved us by living and dying and living again and was now primarily working in the world and in your life by the power of God’s Spirit. Imagine you believed that. And you asked the person who told you all this the simple question, “What now?”
And this person, let’s call him St. Paul, responded, “Build a community where you act like this is true. Build a community centered on the love of Jesus, a sacrificial, mutualistic, honest life-giving love. Build a community where you bear one another’s burdens, where you take care of each other. Do this in the real world with real people. Then you’ll know what salvation feels like.”
And then you did that. Or you tried, anyway. And you called it church. You gathered with others you would never have never known if not for Jesus, and you mostly loved them. Sometimes you even liked them. In moments of utter grace, you felt truly loved and cared for in this big blessed overwhelming mess of a world.
But it was hard. And this you don’t have to imagine, because you know this world is hard. This world is overwhelming and I’m not sure we are always willing to acknowledge that. It seems the pandemic is breaking down some of our defenses and allowing us to say it – that we are overwhelmed, that things are hard, that we don’t know what to do. We tend to judge ourselves for not fully grasping what is currently happening to us. We are capable of beating ourselves up for giving into trauma. There is some great force chipping away at us, suffocating us with the expectation that we could all just get back to normal if we just willed our way to it. We feel weak for being overwhelmed right now.
We are not weak. This is overwhelming. It has been overwhelming for a long time, and it is not done being overwhelming. I remember sitting in Bible Study in early March of 2020 hearing a parishioner saying, “it’s not a matter of if but of when” this COVID epidemic would become a pandemic and change our lives. I did not believe her. Not because she was unintelligent or uninformed. Not because she seemed dishonest. I did not believe her because I did not know how to. I was not ready to be overwhelmed. It was more than I could bear.
When the church St. Paul had helped found became overwhelmed by this world, he consistently and emphatically urged them to hold on to one another, to find strength in their community – a community that had the capacity to embody hope. He believed that the greatest gift God gave them was one another, and that together they could faithfully follow Jesus in the way of Love and forge a new life in the beautiful, overwhelming world.
It was in this context that he wrote to them, “God is faithful. God will not let y’all be tested beyond what y’all can handle.” And that y’all is everything – because it tells us the truth of our lives: God means for us to share this life, and to get through it together. When you think this life is something you are supposed to do in the singular – on your own, to be tested and proven individually, you are placing a burden upon yourself that is too great to bear.
Your inability to grasp all that is happening to you is not a sign of weakness. The world God has given us is inherently overwhelming. We cannot bear it all and we were never going to be able to. And I have to admit I find grace in this. I do. Because if the world was going to be overwhelming no matter what it makes no sense to judge ourselves for being overwhelmed. It was never going to be easy, or even uniformly manageable. We were always going to need help, need rest, need redemption, need healing, need God, need each other.
You are not a failure for being exhausted.
God is not disappointed in you for being human in this world.
We are church. You do not need to imagine much of what I described above because you are living that too – you belong and are beloved right here and now. You and I are seeking to follow the Jesus who is saving us. Together we are becoming beloved community. There is a way forward for you and for me – for us. That way is a way of love and a way of hope, laid down by the God of this overwhelming world. We are sometimes scared to accept the challenge of walking this way because it means we will be changed. But one thing that has become inescapable for us now is that we are all being changed, whether we walk the way or not. This is scary to consider, and impossible to grasp. But we are not alone. God gives us hope. God gives us each other. And this is not more than we can bear.
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