Religion is a human-made construct. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” In our quest to understand the nature of the universe and our place in it, we turn to others who are like-minded, decide together what we believe, and find strength and community among kindred spirits.
Faith and spirituality spring from within the human soul. In our quest to connect with the unseen Spirit that inhabits us all, we cling to what we believe. Sometimes, in our worst moments, we attack the validity of the beliefs of those who see God through a different human lens. And even in our best moments we are often confused by why anyone would believe what others believe.
Today’s post is the third in a series that explore what I think people misunderstand about the religion I’ve chosen to help me understand my own spirituality, my own place in the universe. I don’t pretend to be a theologian. These posts will simply offer my own thoughts and my own understanding as I’ve come to see God through Christianity—and, in particular, through Presbyterianism.
I invite you to respond—to help me understand what I might not about your own religious community and practices.
Part 3: “Does God give us more than we can stand?”
I’d been looking forward to spring break for weeks. My husband and I planned to spend Easter weekend with my sister, and then we would spend the rest of the week focusing on one another and on the things that are important to us. I packed up drafts of a book I’m working on with plans to get much of the editing done during our week at the beach.
But our plans took a detour outside the Life is Good store when my sister, who had knee replacement surgery a few months ago, tripped over a curb. I reached forward to steady her, and we both tumbled to the ground. She landed on the outside of my left knee, and a trip to the Outer Banks Hospital confirmed what we already knew—that my knee was badly broken and would require surgery to repair. My husband packed our things, which had only been unpacked the day before, while I sat in the back seat of the car in a leg brace among a sea of pillows.
At the direction of my primary care physician, he drove six hours home to our local emergency room, where an orthopedic surgeon pronounced the break too complicated for a small hospital’s resources. They put me into an ambulance and sent me to a specialist at Washington Hospital Center in DC, my third emergency room in less than 24 hours. I was admitted on Easter morning—not exactly the kind of “break” I’d been planning to have.
I spent the next eight days in the hospital and four days more at an inpatient rehab facility, learning how to compensate for the leg that wouldn’t be able to bear weight for twelve weeks after the surgery. In the days since I’ve been home, my husband and I have received an outpouring of support from family, friends, neighbors, and our church family.
Not everyone I encountered in the hospital and rehab had been so fortunate. I met a number of people who were facing even greater challenges than mine alone. I have no idea why I am one of the fortunate ones. But I’m grateful that, as in every crisis of my life so far, I’ve seen the face of God in the people who love and care for me.
Among the cards I received was one that pictured a fisted hand in brass knuckles with the inscription, “God only gives us what we can handle.” When I opened the card, I belly-laughed. It read, “…apparently God thinks you’re a badass!”
Shortly afterward, I received an email from a friend on the same theme. She wrote, “Supposedly, God does not give us more than we can handle,” and then she admitted, “I’m not real sure I believe that line.”
I’m often intrigued by how people misunderstand verses from holy texts that have been taken out of context. The verse these two friends referenced is a perfect example. From what I can tell by comparing translations, the Apostle Paul isn’t talking about pain and suffering. He actually says, “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” (I Corinthians 10:13, NRSV translation). The verse comes in the middle of a chapter that warns against idolatry and immorality, reminding us that we have the choice of whether to give in to temptation. Nothing in the chapter focuses on the pain and suffering that are a part of every human being’s existence.
And yet a version of this verse has become one of the most often spoken clichés when people don’t know what else to say to those who seem to endure more than their fair share of tragedy and pain. Why we suffer is one of the greatest questions people ask in every faith, and the question defies platitudes and easy explanations.
I don’t know why people suffer. But what I do know is that suffering is made more bearable when those around us follow Christ’s commission to minister to those in need.
May it be so for all of us.