by Roger McCay
5 January 2020
Sermon Passage: 1 Corinthians 10:9-14
Link to Audio Version
You have heard it said, “God will not give you more than you can handle.”
A dear woman I had the privilege to know for a few years, who was a member of the chapel I was pastoring at the time, once asked me a question. She had been suffering from illness for many years—decades, even. She had survived cancer, but she had so many different problems plaguing her that she lived a life of misery. She was a constant prayer request in chapel, for she was often in the hospital. Indeed, her suffering was so constant that it was just a regular aspect of our congregation. Her walker, as she trudged along with great labor, and the breathing machine, that had become a part of her, these were disturbing to many along with her hunched form and her pitiful state. Often, she would grab my arm or the arm of another chaplain, desperate for prayer concerning the terrible pain, the physical and mental suffering she was enduring. And we would pray with her right there. And then she would go home. Yet, her cancer returned on top of all the other ills she endured. And it was too much. So, one day, as we sat together in her home, she asked me, while weeping, “Why do I suffer so much? What did I ever do to deserve this? What did I do?” She had completely broken—worn down to where she had no internal strength whatsoever, and her misery defies words.
What a horrible sin it would have been to lie to this broken woman, and tell her, “Don’t worry, God will not give you more than you can handle.”
I’ve heard this statement, this false hope, repeated in various forums and locations from Christians with all sorts of backgrounds. It has become so engrained as a staple of conventional wisdom, that people actually believe that it is a Bible verse; or that, at least, the Bible teaches it.
However, it is not a Bible verse. It is a dangerous, terrible saying—a distortion of the true promise of the Scriptures. It is a lie. Its focus is all wrong. And among its many problematic assumptions, it tells us that we must rely on our own strength to get us through. This plays into our sinful tendency towards prideful self-reliance. For there is a tendency to rely on our own strength, not only in times of trouble, but also, when it comes to living in obedience of faith, as we follow Christ. Yet, this prideful, pull ourselves up by our bootstrap approach sets us up for a terrible fall.
The passage generally considered to be the one that has been so evilly twisted is 1 Cor. 10:13. Here it again:
13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Taking a single verse out of context has led to many a heresy. So, we must consider the context of the statement. The context is that the passage occurs in the midst of Paul’s harangue against those in the Corinthian church who would wilfully eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He goes on about this issue staring in ch. 8 all the way through ch. 11 v. 1. The problem was that these people had so much confidence in their own knowledge and sufficiency, in their being part of the church, and in their partaking of the sacraments, that they confidently flirted with idolatry expecting all to be just fine. After all, they had partaken of the spiritual blessings of Christ,so why would they fear of the power of idols?
Therefore, Paul removes this delusion from them in no uncertain terms, warning them that they risked God’s wrath in their hubris. Paul’s statement in v. 12 warns against the self-sufficient arrogance of the Corinthians, stating:
12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
Paul’s point is that it is foolish to knowingly and deliberately flirt with idolatry or engage in sin. Such hubris, arrogance before God, risks destruction as the consequence of sin.
Now, the problem for the Corinthians was that if they heeded Paul’s warning, hence, refusing to eat of the meat sacrificed to idols, great difficulties would likely fall upon them in the idolatrous society of Corinth. Without going into all the details, it is safe to say that avoiding any overt association with idols would invite hostility, possible financial loss, social ostracism, and even hatred from friends, neighbors, and family. This put tremendous pressure upon them, and it made the temptation to flirt with idolatry and its trappings all that more difficult.
However, Paul didn’t just leave them with the warning. He assured them that despite the difficulties they would incur by living a life so different from the world, God would see them through and help them stay faithful.
And so, v. 14: “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.”
It just does not do to put ourselves in a position to flirt with idols of any sort and their demands of us and expect it to all be okay. For, at the heart of sin is idolatry, something we have put above God—whether the idol is our career, our position, self, comfort, riches, entertainment, our family, or what have-you. In many cases, if the idol is something such as “self,” or even “our children,” the only option is to first recognize that we have raised an idol, then repent, denying it as an idol and so, therefore fleeing idolatry and the sin that comes out of engaging in idolatry. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 10:9, “We must not put Christ to the test.” We are to flee from idolatry and the sin that accompanies it.
We are not on our own in this. God will always provide an out, so that his people might stand in the face of temptation. God is faithful, and he would see us also be faithful. Even more, he gives us his Spirit to help us in such times, and to give us his strength so we might resist sin (Phil. 2:13). With the Spirit you can resist, standing strong in the Lord in the strength of his might (Eph. 6).
Remember my friend, whom I mentioned earlier? You may wonder how I answered her question. Clearly, I did not answer her by saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Such would have appealed to the idol of self and the sin of self-sufficiency to deal with the temptations she faced in her misery. If she didn’t know better, and clung to such a lie, in her failure to handle her situation, she may have fallen, succumbing to despair and temptation to just “curse God and die”—in the words of Job’s wife.
Rather, as I looked into her eyes, I only had the promise and teachings of Scripture to rely upon in my reply. So, I told her, “You have done nothing to bring this on yourself. But I don’t know why he allows you to suffer.” And then we discussed the case of Job, for she knew the Scriptures. In further conversation, I told her, “Although I don’t know why God allows you to suffer, what I do know is that in your suffering he expects you to be faithful to him, to trust in him. Call upon his strength to help you through.” She knew the promise of Christ, and in her hope called upon the Lord. She held onto the Lord’s promise so tightly, in desperation. So it was, she could say with Job, “I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.”
We prayed together. She prayed for the Lord’s help, his strength, to see her through. And sure, we prayed for healing. But we also prayed that if God chose not heal her that she would be enabled to remain faithful to him, resisting temptation to turn from him, whatever might come—until the end.
Just a few short months later, she died. I believe God answered her prayer.
Every day we are tempted. Temptations come in by the means of media, computers, interactions with our co-workers and friends. Even driving down the road temptations come in various forms (such as the temptation to curse at someone who cut you off in traffic, or simply to drive at a reckless speed because you are running late). Yet, God is faithful, and he provides us an out to resist the temptation.
Let us take pains to refuse the deliberate flirtation with sin, putting God to the test.
One man, whom I’ve heard of, would have the TV removed from his hotel room when he went on business trips so that he would not be tempted to watch sexually explicit movies. Seems a good idea.
And if you struggle with the temptation of drunkenness, then it’s probably a bad idea to hang out with your friends drinking late into the night.
Identify those things that would tempt you, think upon the underlying idol that would lead you astray, and resist – flee the idol and flee the sin. God is faithful, and he will provide a way out, so that you might live to his glory following Christ on the path of righteousness.
To rely on our own strength, when it comes to living in obedience of faith as we follow Christ, is to set us up for a fall. We simply do not have the strength to succeed in this. Yet, God himself will provide what we need to remain faithful to him, for he is faithful. Call upon God, our ever-present help, whatever may come. Keep him first, and deny the idol. Because we are tempted constantly in this life, we must trust in God to give us the strength to overcome temptation.