As some of you know I’m currently working on a unit of the Clinical Pastoral Education program this summer. I have the privilege of visiting with patients in Halifax, learning from some amazing spiritual care providers, and doing a lot of reflection. This piece has come out of a number of conversations I’ve had with very similar themes. So, without further ado, let’s talk about suffering and faith.
There is a harmful adage that has been floating around forever, and it goes as follows:
God will never give you more than you can handle.
I was visiting with a patient in the hospital who parroted that to me when we were talking about how overwhelming her diagnosis was. I asked her “Do you really believe that?” She stopped for a moment and laughed, she said: “No, I don’t”. I told her “I don’t either. I think that’s bullshit, frankly.” We both laughed together at that, and she turned to her roommate, who sat in his chair by the bed next to her, saying, “I like this girl.”
I have a whole list of problems with this adage, which I believe promotes just plain-old bad theology. Some of them I’d like to share with you.
God gives you the suffering, pain, heartache and horrors that you need to endure.
How did we get from the God of love to this god? A god that doles out horrors to his children? Who is this abusive, vengeful God who punishes? It seems so inconsistent with the parent Jesus speaks of.
“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit[f] to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13, NRSV)
The pain you’re experiencing should, and can, be endured.
This particular part makes me furious and leads to comments from others about how weak someone’s faith must be if they are overwhelmed. As if God did not hear the cries of the afflicted. As if God did not see fit to end people’s suffering because it was too much.
Part of the reason why folks end their lives, why they kill themselves, is because they are trapped in worlds they cannot endure. The same goes for self-medication and other escapist coping strategies. By believing this adage we minimise the suffering of others, trivialise their experiences, by claiming that the situation–one that is not our own–was endurable.
When we quip about “all things being possible” through God, we seem to forget that Jesus, in Matthew, was speaking about how we are able to enter into the sovereignty of God despite our humanity (Matt. 19:16-30). This wasn’t a teaching on suffering quietly, but one about people who claim piety. It is not a call to suffer unbearable pain happily, but for those who live in privilege to truly sacrifice in the name of God’s vision for creation.
The fact of the matter is, people across the globe are given more than they can handle. Earnest people of faith across the globe are given more than they can handle.
Hearts fail. Lives are taken. Minds break under the weight of trauma.
So, let’s stop trivialising, minimising and erasing the very real experiences of people–ordinary people–who are suffering. Let’s stop using grotesque clichés that warp our theology and lead us to victim blaming.
Instead, let us respond to one another in kind. As reflections of the God of steadfast loving kindness. A god who does not bring suffering, but comfort to the afflicted, and rest to the weary. Let us be God’s hands and feet, helping to alleviate the suffering of others; offering our companionship so that they not to carry their burdens alone.