We have all heard the saying. We have probably used it ourselves or had it used upon us. No doubt you have had one of those tough moments in your life when a well-meaning and concerned individual said it to you. When you were overwhelmed with grief or pain or hardship which just seem to be too much for you to handle. Into your despair and trauma, into that moment of your life, you hear the old familiar saying Christians throw around so carelessly, “Don’t worry,” they say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I do not know of anyone who has actually found comfort in this saying. But I do think we know why people say it, why they revert to these old words. It is usually because they do not know what else to say. When you are faced with a friend who is going through unimaginable suffering or hardship, you want to assure them that their faith is not vain, their God does in fact care about them, they will endure, they will make it through and so you cite these old words.
They sound like good and true words. They are repeated often enough most people believe them even as they struggle to apply them to their own lives. For quite often it seems God has, in fact, given you more than you can handle. Now, this is a saying from the Word of God. Well, sort of. The actual text is a bit different. It is found in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, where he is talking about idolatry and resisting temptations which most certainly come to all believers. What he actually says is this: “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” (1 Corinthians 10:13). The promise made to you is your temptations will not overcome the gifts God has given you. The argument he makes is that the lure of the various forms of idolatry which tug at man’s heart is not more powerful than the living Word of God, which is the great escape from temptation.
Over time, this promise has slid a bit out of place, if you will. It has moved from a promise about temptation and been applied to the other trials and struggles of humanity. That is, we begin to think the life of a believer will be one where you will always possess a certain reserve of energy to overcome the trial, whatever it is, you are currently facing. The shift is to believe you have the requisite strength and endurance already because of your faith to overcome whatever it is you are facing. Therefore, if you think you cannot make it, if you cannot see the path forward, all you need to do is dig a little deeper. The promise is you already have the right stuff, you just need to trust it will be there when everything feels overwhelming.
Now, this all sounds rather good. It is the sort of stuff which would make a great self-help book, the sort of encouragement our world could use these days. But the reality is, this is not the way the rest of Scripture speaks about the human condition. In fact, it seems quite clear on many occasions God gives His creatures far more than they are capable of handling, and intentionally so. One of my favorite stories about this is found in 1 Kings. It is the story of a worn out and exhausted prophet of God, as he sits under a broom tree in the wilderness and asks that he might just die. Elijah is out of options, out of energy, out of drive and hope and encouragement. The whole situation is dire and more than he can handle. He finally cries out, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” You can feel for him, can you not? Can you not recall ever being there at the end of the rope, the task of going forward is simply too much? It is enough; now, O Lord.
How did poor Elijah end up here? That is a fascinating story we will have to dive into another day. For now, let us just summarize that Israel had become corrupted. The wicked queen Jezebel had polluted the worship of God’s House and Elijah was the lone prophet to stand against her hordes of idolatrous priests. On Mount Carmel, he challenged them to a feat which would prove who was the true God. When Yahweh demonstrated His power, the people flocked to Elijah. He had the evil priests rounded up and slaughtered at the brook of Kishon. Jezebel is enraged and bends all her power to see this prophet destroyed. So, Elijah runs. He flees for his life. He is all alone, no one to defend him, no one to help him, no one to offer comfort or peace. As he collapses a day’s journey from the city, we find him sitting under the broom tree confessing it is all too much for him. He prays God will just take his life, let it be over, let it be done. It is enough.
Every time I read this story, I see the faces of people I have known who have been in a comparable situation. Not that they were being pursued by an evil queen, but those saints of God who are at the end of their rope. The look on their face is usually marked by tearful eyes and that distant gaze of pure exhaustion. Their life is dogged by their own sinfulness. They have been faced with great suffering, some sort of tragedy, and they have tried to look within for the enduring faith that will get them through, the assurance it will not be too much for them to handle. But what do they find? They find the doubts and the sins which have always accompanied their life. They find their failures and shame and so the fight is taken out of them. Perhaps they deserve it. Perhaps this is how it was meant to end for them, with tears and heartache.
How often have you seen these people in your life? How often have you been there yourself? Exhausted and tired, the hand you have been dealt is simply too much to endure. Would it not be nice for someone to just say the truth, to not give you a “pie in the sky” wish dream about not worrying because God will not give you more than you can manage? Just once, it would be nice for someone to say, “Look, you cannot do it. God has given you more than you can handle. This is beyond your ability.”
This is exactly what unfolds for the prophet Elijah. An angel comes to him and strikes him as he seeks the comfort of sleep. “Arise and eat,” he says. Elijah turns to see bread baked on hot coals and a jar of water. He sees heavenly food but what good will it do him? Another day? Another moment of misery? What is the point? He rolls back over and seeks the forgetfulness of sleep. But the angel strikes him again. And this time he says what we long to hear, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you” (1 Kings 19:7). The journey is too big. The journey is too much. You cannot do it. It is more than you can handle.
Elijah was turned away from what was inside, away even from his own understanding of faith or his own working out of how to go forward, how to endure. It is too much. You cannot do it. So, take and eat this gift for it will see you through. This gets back to the original word Paul gave us. The temptation is to trust in yourself. The idolatry is to believe that by your own reason or strength you can overcome your sin, your separation, your opposition to God. God provides a way of escape. That escape is the Gospel, the free gift of life and salvation secured by the precious blood of Christ. This is sure. This is eternal. This is everything.
So where do we find such things? Where does God strike us and turn us outside of ourselves to the gifts He provides? It is in the gathering of the Church, in the place where His Word is preached, and His sacraments administered. Over and again God declares to you the journey is too much for you to handle so believe and be baptized, take and eat, and hear the Words which will carry you to the Mountain of God. You are not forgotten and abandoned under your broom tree. You are loved. You are forgiven. The journey is too big for you, but it is not too big for your God.