Mother Teresa is credited with saying,“I know God won’t give me more than I can handle, but I wished He didn’t trust me so much.” If you’ve been a Christian for more than twenty minutes and have ever faced a time of suffering and felt like giving up, you’ve probably had a well-intentioned friend come along and try to cheer you up saying, “Hey, just remember God won’t you more than you can handle.” However, is that statement true? Is that really what the Bible says? Someone recently wrote in asking that very question. Well, the truth is, that this is one of the most misquoted, misused, and misunderstood Bible verses of all time. It’s right up there with the verse that says, “God helps those who help themselves.” I hope that was no one’s “life verse” because that saying is not a Bible verse that is a quote from Benjamin Franklin.
Now the Bible verse most people have in mind when they tell you God won’t give you more than you can handle is from 1 Corinthians chapter 10.
“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”(1Cor 10:13)
To adequately deal with this question, I will give a two-part answer. This week’s article we will discuss what this passage is really about. Then in next week’s article we will see what the Bible has to say about suffering.
Perhaps at first glance, if you just sort of “skimmed” over the passage you might be like “Boom, there it is right there in black and white, ‘God won’t give me more than I can handle.’” But when we dig a little deeper, and look at this passage in its original setting, we will see that it’s talking about temptation and not suffering.
First and foremost, we need to consider the context of who Paul was writing to, and why they needed to hear these words.
Paul was writing to a group of “new” Christians who lived on a Greek isthmus called Corinth. The Greeks living in Corinth literally worshipped hundreds of gods. However, they were world renown for their worship of Aphrodite the goddess of sex and love. On the tallest hill in Corinth was what was called the “Acrocorinth,” a hill with a massive temple to the goddess Aphrodite. Housed within that temple were a thousand temple prostitutes or priestesses. As a result, Corinth was famous for their sinful activities like drunkenness and sexual promiscuity. In fact, when you look up the city of Corinth in a Greek dictionary you will see that it’s pronounced “Las Vegas.” Okay, I may have made that part up, but it really was the ancient version of “Sin City.” So, these “brand new” converts to Christianity lived in a city filled with all sorts of temptations everywhere they looked.
Secondly, Paul then gives these Corinthian believers a lesson from history as a warning. In the first ten verses of 1 Corinthians chapter 10, Paul illustrates how the Israelites in the days of Moses fell into temptation. They had been living as slaves in Egypt for four centuries. In that time, they picked up the bad habits of the Egyptians and started worshipping their gods. Then under the leadership of Moses, God delivered them from their slavery to Egypt. However, many were still enslaved to idolatry and sin of Egypt. Which became evident when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. While Moses was up on the Mountain, the people were down below worshipping a golden calf. This golden calf was actually the Egyptian god of fertility called Apis. Just as the Greeks who worshipped Aphrodite by fornicating with the temple prostitutes, the Egyptians worshipped Apis the same way. That is what the Apostle Paul is referring to when he says, “do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play”(1Cor 10:7). The word “play” is an ancient figure of speech for sexual activity. That’s why Paul goes on to say, “Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell” (1Cor 10:8). After the history lesson, Paul applies this to the Corinthians in the form of a warning when he says:
“Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore, let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1Cor 10:11-12)
In other words, “If it can happen to them, the ‘Chosen People,’ then it can happen to you.” He was saying, “Be careful! If you think it will never happen to you, it’s gonna happen to you. If you think that you’re too spiritual, too grounded in God’s word to give into temptation, and fall into sin, you've got another thing coming.”
Now it’s with all this context in mind, the people who Paul was writing to, the lesson from history about how easy it is to give into temptation that he says:
“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” (1Cor 10:13)
In context, the Apostle Paul was talking about temptation, rather than pain and suffering. Now let’s make some observations about this well known, but misunderstood verse of Scripture.
First of all, notice he tells the believers living in “Sin City,” that, “no temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man.” This is simply a reminder of the human condition. We were all born with a common disease called a sinful nature. At conception, each of us are “S-I-N” positive. As such, every single one of us no matter how long we have been Christians, no matter how many Bible verses we’ve memorized, all of us are susceptible to temptation. There is no such thing as a “temptation proof Christian.” The second observation is that Paul says, “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able.” However, the problem is that’s where most of us stop reading the verse. We stop reading when it says, “He won’t tempt us beyond what we can bear.” But that’s not where the main thought in that verse stops. If you keep reading, you see that Paul goes on to say, “but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
The new Christians living in a city where temptations, constantly thrown in their face needed to know, there was a way out of temptation. No matter how hard it was to have every form of sin on full display day in and day out, there was a way of escape. They didn’t have to give into temptation. They didn’t have to go back to being enslaved to a lifestyle of sin. So, the question they were asking, and I’m sure you might be asking as well is, “What is it? What’s the way out of temptation?” The answer is in the very next verse.
“Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.”(1Cor 10:14)
My Taekwondo instructor Yun Sung Choi, used to say, “Self-defense lesson number one, ‘Front kick, groin, hard as you can.’ Self-defense lesson number two, ‘Turn and run, fast as you can.’” That’s not only good advice for a street fight, it’s also a good strategy for spiritual warfare. When temptation is surrounding you on all sides, the way out is to “flee!” Don’t put yourself in harm's way. Don’t try to stare temptation face to face trying to see if you make it flinch. Run. Flee. Your best battle strategy is your “exit strategy.”
So, in context, what does it mean when it says, “God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape”? It means that for every doorway of temptation, God will always provide a back door emergency exit. So, the next time you’re faced with a temptation that seems like it’s more than you can handle, remember the immortal advice that Jenny gave to Forrest Gump, “Run Forrest! Run!”
Now that we’ve sufficiently seen that 1Cor 10:13 is really talking about a way out of temptation, next week we will explore what the Bible has to say on the subject of suffering.