From June 23 to July 10, the eyes of the world were on the unfolding story of the twelve boys and their soccer coach stranded inside a flooded cave network in Thailand. A rescue team, made up of 90 divers from around the world, was created to find the boys and their coach inside the complex network. It took them ten days to locate them and another eight days to figure out a daring rescue. Once they got them all out they still had to rescue the medic and get the last divers out. Once out they all had to go into isolation for seven days. The whole soccer team made it out alive. One diver lost his life. One of the people helping to coordinate the mission said it was such a complicated and risky rescue that it was akin to getting these thirteen people safely down off of Mt. Everest.
We watched with eyes glued because this was something that couldn’t be accomplished without all hands on deck and everything going absolutely right. On the day that the last people were rescued, I was working on my sermon for today based on the saying, “God won’t give you more than you can handle”. I thought to myself, “Oh really?” These boys and their coach definitely couldn’t handle this situation on their own.
As I shared a couple weeks ago, I am doing a different kind of sermon series this summer. Instead of introducing you to things in the Bible you may never have heard before, I am making sure you know what isn’t in your Bible. After worship the Sunday I introduced this series, someone teasingly said at the door, “I would rather hear what is in the Bible.” Me too. But I do think it is important that you know what many, many people will quote to you as being in the Bible and not only isn’t in there but is often bad theology….and bad theology harms.
If you have lost a loved one or been critically ill or had financial problems or had a child stuck in a complex network of caves for 18 days, you have probably had a very well meaning friend say to you, “You know that God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I do have to say that almost all of the sayings that get attributed to the Bible but aren’t in it, come out of peoples’ good intentions. People don’t know what to say and so they say something trite that someone has said to them.
So if the Bible message isn’t, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” then what does it say to those who are suffering and those who are trying to comfort those who are suffering? Look no further than the Book of Job to find an example. Job is a very ancient allegoric writing that combats the idea that God is a cosmic Santa Claus, giving blessings to those who are good and punishing those who are sinful.
In the Book of Job, Job loses all of his children, all his wealth, and his health is destroyed but only to the point of deep suffering – not death. It is like the author of Job contemplates just how hyperbolic he can be to get across his point. The result is a Job that is covered in boils, sitting in an ash heap, with nothing left but some well-intentioned friends.
These friends visit Job in his misery and instead of comforting him in his suffering they try to make sense of why all of these bad things have happened. They haven’t been where Job is but they have all kinds of advice. We always want a reason for tragic things that happen, otherwise the world doesn’t make sense. “Surely,” they say to Job, “This must be punishment for all your sins. Just repent.” “No,” Job says, “I didn’t do anything.” “If you didn’t do anything, then why is this happening to you? There has to be a reason.” At one point they even encourage Job to curse God and die.
Job’s responses to his friends are some of my favorite verses of scripture in the Bible. Michael already read them to you. They went something like this:
Miserable comforters are you all.
Have your windy words no limit?
What makes you keep on talking?
I could talk at you if we switched places.
I could shake my head at you.
I think I could do a better job than you have done.
But what I needed most was your friendship and comfort…
And you couldn’t give me that.
When we come into people’s hospital rooms or visit them to hold their hand after a child dies we want to make something better that can’t be made better. So we blurt out something like, “God must have needed another flower in her garden” or “God’s ways are not our ways” or “Remember that God won’t give you more than you can handle”.
Obviously, Job had way more than he could handle. Mary watched her son be crucified. Think about the Apostle Paul who was jailed, beaten and shipwrecked. Think about those twelve boys and their coach watching the floodwaters creep up. Think about children in cages at our border. Think about citizens in Syria, being bombed by their own government. Things are constantly happening that are way more than people can handle.
“God won’t give you more than you can handle” is another way of trying to create God in our image. If you are a parent you know that you gave your children chores to do that matched their abilities, attention span and endurance. You didn’t have your five year old take the trash barrels out to the curb. You had them set the table. So we assume that God has the same way of dishing out things to us that we are capable of handling.
But if you play this saying out, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” it makes it sound like God looks down from on high and says, “Susan can handle having a spouse die of a massive heart attack in front of her.” “Shirlee is strong enough to lose a child.” “Mary Kay can handle having cancer…twice.” “Two year olds can handle being ripped from their mother’s arms.” I’m sorry but I don’t know this God.
If you play this saying out, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” it sounds like you are supposed to be proud of the level of your suffering. “Obviously, God thinks I can handle a lot.” I don’t think God rewards our strength by sending us a high level of hardship.
This is what I do believe. Life is wonderful and precious and life is hard and will have times of deep suffering. It simply is the way it is. All of us here have had wonderful moments of sheer joy and all of us here have experienced despair. All of us here have experienced triumph and all of us will have had moments of defeat. We want to make sense of how that works and since we give God the credit for everything that happens, we give God the credit for our suffering. But God doesn’t look down on us and decide that we need to be tougher so God will make us suffer by taking our child, or our parent, or our partner away from us. Life and death, first breaths and last breaths will happen to all of us.
Suffering is one of the realities of life. It is also a profound teacher. Hemingway wrote in his book A Farewell to Arms, “People bring so much courage to this world….the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” I do believe that suffering has the potential to bring with it a wisdom that can only be born in those broken places. Job understood what comforting truly should look like only because of his deep suffering and his friends’ inadequate responses.
Rachel Naomi Remen, an author and doctor of integrative medicine, writes:
“Everyone alive has suffered. It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our own experiences of suffering that makes us able to heal.” I am sure that the twelve boys and their coach have a deeper understanding and gratitude for the ordinary things of life. They have a new wisdom about their own resilience and the goodness of others. These things will help them heal from the trauma they have experienced.
Still with all of that being said, none of us wants to suffer or wishes it upon anyone else, no matter how much wisdom they might gain from the process. If Job and I could share anything with you today it would be this….don’t try to make sense of other peoples’ suffering. Just go to them and sit quiet in the room. Thomas Merton wrote, “…there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to the question.”
After losing her brother, Patricia McKernon Runkle wrote this poem called, “When You Meet Someone Deep in Grief”:
Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.
this darkened chapel
hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow
its gray stone walls
are here to listen
not to sing.
Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound,
let the candles
Friends, life is our teacher. We get in trouble when we look for easy things to say in hard situations. Your words are not your greatest comfort to others. Presence and love are what we need from each other. Stick those trite sayings of bad theology in your back pocket and when you pass a trashcan, throw them away. Bring yourself. I promise you, it will be enough. Amen.