Wrong Words #1 – September 9, 2018
“God Will Not Give Us More than We Can Handle”
A sermon preached by Dennis Perry at Aldersgate Church on September 9, 2018
“So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”—1 Corinthians 10:12-13
I want to say the right words at the right time in the right way. That’s what Paul Young’s wife wanted her husband to do when she asked him, “Someday, please, would you write something as a gift for our kids that puts in one place how you think? Because you know you think outside of the box.”
Her husband Paul had grown up with missionary parents who brought the virtues of Christianity to a New Guinea Stone Age tribe. Now he brings a Western evangelical Protestant view to things. But not as you might expect. He does think outside of that box.
He made his intention to create that year’s Christmas present as this written gift for their six children. He wrote it in longhand on yellow pads while riding Metro to his three jobs. He printed it on photo paper at Office Depot, placed it in spiral binders with plastic covers. He made enough copies for his family and a few friends. That was his Christmas present to himself, this gift for the children. His wife was hoping for 4 to 6 pages, she was surprised because it was instead over 200 pages. When Paul Young was writing it he never imagined or contemplated publishing the work. It was just a gift. But when it was published under the title of The Shack it went on to sell 20 million copies worldwide.
His latest book Lies We Believe about God also wants to get our religious words right. The book started as a series of tweets, tweets that attempted to list the words you will never hear God say. Now he has a list of 125 things you will never hear God say. You could start your own list of “Things you will never hear God say.” Here are a few of the things Paul Young includes in his list of 125: “You are the child I never wanted” is something you will never hear God say. “I will let you keep your most precious lies” is something you will never hear God say. “You overestimated Jesus” is something you will never hear God say. “I need you.” Something you will never hear God say.
If these are the words we will never hear come out of the mouth of God there are words we wish we would never hear coming out of the lips of an adult to the ears of a child. The National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse has compiled a list of comments made by angry parents to children. “You’re pathetic.” “You can’t do anything right.” “Hey stupid, don’t you know how to listen?” “You’re more trouble than you are worth.” “Get outta here – I’m sick of looking at your face.” “I wish you never were born.”
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, tells the story of Isaac Asimov, who has written over 400 novels. In Asimov’s memoir he describes his relationship with the teacher of his English class when Isaac was 15. As part of an assignment he turned in an essay which the teacher chose to read before the class. Before the teacher could complete reading Isaac’s essay he interrupted himself and described how awful the writing was. A humiliatingly public putdown. Asimov concluded that the teacher might be right and so worked harder at his writing. He turned in another piece that the teacher later published at the school. Isaac waited after class to thank him. The teacher dismissed him by saying, “Oh that. All the other good pieces of writing were too serious. I was looking for something light. Yours would do. Over 50 years later, when Isaac is writing his memoir, he describes that encounter and the rage and hate that still smolder within him.
We don’t want to be the ones whose words do damage. We want to say the right thing at the right time in the right way. Don’t we? And we know how. Out in public at a restaurant or here at church we know how to say, “Hello, how are you? You look great. Have you lost weight? How was your summer? How are the kids? What are you doing these days?” All the words that become like oil in the culture and keep everything flowing. They aren’t offensive, and they give a chance for interesting conversation. We want to say the right thing at the right time in the right way. Until tragedy strikes. Then … then we fumble. We still want to say the right thing, but we aren’t sure what that is. So we look for other clichés, hoping they will keep the conversation going. So we say things like “I am sorry for your loss.” “They are in a better place now.” “Time heals all wounds.” “There is a reason for everything.” “God will not give you more than you can handle.” We often say it because it seems like it’s appropriate. It attempts to give some assurance, a bit of certainty in the midst of what is the most uncertain experience of someone’s life. The effect, though, is that it’s dismissive. I mean, it says that one day things will be better, therefore the pain you’re experiencing now is inconsequential. And that just isn’t true.
What would you say? Imagine you are me. Walking the halls of a hospital in Richmond, Virginia. I’m there because a young couple had their first birth. Twins born prematurely —4 1/2 pounds. Everyone is exhausted from 36-hour labor and delivery. We offer prayers of gratitude and relief. The mom goes to her room at the hospital and the dad goes home for the night. When we arrive at the hospital the next morning we learned that one of the boys did not make it through the night. Do you find any of the phrases I just read to you satisfactory? “He’s better off now.” “Time heals all wounds.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “God will not give you more than you can handle.” Even if the words are true they are dismissive. They attempt to close off conversation, to put an end to the questions we don’t know how to answer.
Imagine on September 11, 2001, after the planes have exploded in the twin towers and the Pentagon. Imagine seeing firefighters and ordinary citizens rushing into the buildings attempting to save those who are screaming in terror and pain. Imagine saying, “Stop. They’re better off now. Everything happens for a reason. God will get not give you more than you can handle.” Just as inappropriate, they don’t match there—these are the wrong words at the wrong time. This morning we begin a sermon series examining four of the phrases, clichés, that we all use when we don’t know what to say. It isn’t so much that they’re wrong as it would be nice to practice some other words that might be even better. The one we look at this morning is the one that seems the most religious of the four. Because it has the word God in it. “God will not give you more than you can bear handle.”
It comes from First Corinthians, the 10th chapter. So I want to look at Paul’s writing to the Corinthians. Then I want to come up with an alternate way of hearing what Paul has to say. Then I want to tell you some ways I’ve watched you respond to each other in times of tragedy. Are you ready to go?
Look at the First Corinthians 10 passage with me, would you? As you open your Bibles I want to give you some context for Paul’s words. Corinth is a large, popular port city, filled with people from all over the world. Its population is sophisticated and educated. There are temples on every street corner to a variety of deities brought by the people of the world to the city of Corinth. If you were to take meat home from the local butcher for the family’s dinner that evening the meat would have been part of daily prayers in an offering to an idol. Many of the temples would have temple prostitutes to make their religion more attractive to part of the population. The culture of Corinth supported a lifestyle that was different from the life Paul had invited a group of Christians to emulate. He started the Corinthian church on one of his missionary journeys. Word comes back after he leaves that some are tempted to leave the Christian community and return to the lifestyle and ways of the culture. That’s why he writes that the struggle they face is a temptation that is common to everyone. And that along with the temptation God will provide a way of escape so that you might endure. Endure is not about bearing pain, but it is about remaining faithful in the face of temptation. Paul is not portraying God as having a list of the 125 burdens and calamities to hand out to test people’s endurance. If there are things you will never hear God say we also might want to make a list of the things we will never hear of God doing. Paul Young says that if Jesus writes about the golden rule—do onto others as you would have them do unto you—then we can imagine applying it to God—that God would not do unto us what we would not do onto others. Paul’s point is that God is faithful, endures. So too, do we remain faithful. It is God who gives us strength, who causes us to endure.
Adam Hamilton preached a sermon on this text and called it, “God will not give you more than you can handle.” A woman later wrote to him and said, “If one more person tells me that God will not give me more than I can handle I will hurt them.” She went on to say God did not cause my husband to beat me. God did not cause my brother to commit suicide. God did not plant the IED that blew off my nephew’s leg. And God did not give my best friend cancer. It isn’t about me and how much I can bear.
Adam Hamilton suggested a replacement for the words “God will not give you more than you can handle.” It comes from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. He describes the God who helps us in times of trouble. The psalmist said our help is in the name of the Lord. It never occurred to me once when I thought of the valley of the shadow of death to imagine that God was the wolf with teeth. Instead God is the good shepherd with the rod and staff that comfort me. That is why Jesus describes himself as the good Shepherd. That is why Jesus, in Matthew, says, “Come to me all who are heavy burdened, and I will give you, more burdens?” No. “I will give you rest.” With that in mind Rev. Hamilton suggests that we say, God will help us handle whatever life gives us.
When we describe God as a helper, we describe a God that submits to us. Think of that. A God who attends to us, waits upon us. Who knows that we need help. That in this world there is trouble. It is a description of Jesus who attended to the people of Galilee. Jesus was never portrayed as someone who went from village to village spreading leprosy and disease and violence and death. He was instead the one who helped when those things showed up. He even submitted to—attended to—our mortality, becoming one with us in our death. God is our help in times of trouble.
So, when we hear of somebody who’s been diagnosed with severe depression or cancer or has lost somebody they love, we too can help. What can we do? Here are some of the things I have observed you doing well. You say the right word at the right time in the right way. Which reminds me of a young couple who went on a romantic hot-air balloon ride. They rose high enough to see for miles. Suddenly the wind changed as a storm blew in and they were thrown off course by dozens and dozens of miles. Once the storm calmed down they had no idea where they were. They lowered the balloon, trying to find somebody on the ground who could help them. They saw someone as the balloon dipped. They screamed, “Help!” The man on the ground looked up and said, “What do you need.” They said, “We’re lost. Where are we?” The man on the ground put his hand on his chin and look at them and said, “You are in a hot-air balloon.” The woman said, “You must be a minister.” With a surprised expression the man said, “Well yes, I am. How did you know?” And the woman said, “What you told us is absolutely true. And completely useless.” I don’t want to be that minister. I don’t want to be content to say things that are true but completely useless.
Having the guide of God as our helper, I want you to remember a story out of the book of Exodus. It is the story of Moses after he grew up as a Prince in Pharaoh’s palace. After he commits murder. After he’s run away and joined Jethro, his father-in-law, and become part of a new family. After he has led the Hebrew people out of slavery. Moses becomes a judge. People from the region stand in long lines waiting for his adjudication of what’s right and wrong. The father-in-law observes this exhausting process and says to Moses, “What are you doing?” He observes that both Moses and the people are worn out. And he suggests that Moses expand the circle. Appoint more judges to help more people more quickly.
So, with Moses in mind and the idea of God as a helper I want you to imagine expanding the circle. That is what I’ve watched you do, and you’ve done it like this: first you may contact the person who has bad news. Call them, or write them a note, email them or text them or simply show up and become presence. Rather than allowing them to suffer in isolation you expand the shrinking circle of their life to include you. It’s bold but it’s exactly right.
The second thing I’ve watched you do is you simply ask how they’re doing. You don’t assume you know what it’s like to go through whatever it is that is happening to them. The fact that you had a similar experience does not mean that we understand what this experience at this point in their lives is like for them. The best we can do is ask a question that leaves room for them to fill in the quiet with their own words. And we learn what it is like for them to live in their skin. Third thing I’ve watched you do is when you ask how they’re doing you ask about others as well. Like siblings and parents and neighbors and friends. You expand the circle.
You also ask about the person who has died—tell me more about Patrick. Get out of the way. Part of the work of grief is recovering other memories to go along with the deep sadness of their departure. And people often long for somebody to hear the stories of the person they love.
I’ve also watched you take food to people in crisis. Casseroles and covered dish dinners and desserts and gift certificates to restaurants. Practical help. I watched you mow lawns and water plants and take care of pets while people are out of town. I watched you pick up people from the airport have people spend the night at your house or arrange for a nights lodging at a hotel. You offered real tangible help when people needed. You’ve shown them that they are not alone, and that God’s help is tangible and visible in the help that you offer.
And I have listened as you sit with people who are hurting, and I have heard you say, “I love you, we love you, the church loves you.” It is simple and powerful. It expands the circle. In the same letter to the Corinthians where Paul encourages the Christians to endure in the face of temptation, he writes in the chapter 13: “If I have such faith that I can move mountains, and if I understand all mysteries, but I have not love, I am nothing.”
These are the ways I have witnessed you enlarging the circle, embodying the help that God offers us. We want to say the right words at the right time in the right way. I offer this to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.