People are surprised to find that at no time in the movie Casablanca does Rick ever say, “Play it again, Sam.” It is also surprising to know that in over 79 Star Trek episodes and 6 movies, no one ever actually says, “Beam me up, Scotty.” But people all assume that those clichés—and many others, too—are from the films and movies they attribute them to.
|About This Sermon|
Part 3 of the series “9 Lies You Hear in Church”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
September 23, 2012
1 Corinthians 10:6-13; Matthew 11:28-30
It works the same with the Bible. There are all kinds of things that people assume the Bible says but it actually doesn’t. At the top of that list is “The Lord helps those who help themselves” with something like 80% of Christians believing that quote is from the Bible. (It’s actually from the Ancient Greeks by way of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.)
But in a close second is the statement: “God never gives you more than you can bear.” It is frequently “quoted” to people in times of distress with great certainty. Everything will be alright—the suffering one is told—God wouldn’t have given you this trial if you couldn’t get through it.
Right off the bat, however, there are two basic problems with that quote.
II. THE TEXTS
First, it’s not in the Bible. There’s a quote like it; but there is nothing that says “God will never give you more than you can bear.” The quote that is frequently used to back up the idea, from 1 Corinthians, doesn’t really say what people assume it does:
No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities. Instead, with the temptation, God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.1 Corinthians 10:13
Paul is reminding his readers that God will not allow people to be tempted beyond their abilities. That is, there is no temptation that you should feel you are powerless against, because God would not allow you to be tempted by something you couldn’t resist. If temptation has come to you , in Paul’s thinking, it’s something you are strong enough to resist.
When We Bear More Than Temptation
But that is a far different thing from claiming that nothing will happen to you—that you will not have to bear a burden—that you cannot bear. In fact, in addition to that quote being absent from in the Bible, we can find plenty of quotes that mean the exact opposite that are in the Bible, including one from Paul himself where he writes:
Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles that we went through in Asia. We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive.2 Corinthians 1:8 CEB
“We were weighed down with a load of sufferings that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive.” That is quite different from saying “God didn’t give us any burdens we couldn’t bear.”
And elsewhere in scripture we find similar sentiments. In the Psalms:
I’m worn out, completely crushed; I groan because of my miserable heart.Psalm 38:8 CEB
My wrongdoings are stacked higher than my head; they are a weight that’s way too heavy for me.Psalm 38:4 CEB
“Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 1 Kings 19:7
Throughout scripture, we encounter people overwhelmed by what befalls them. And lest we forget, this applies to Jesus, too, who dies in agony on the cross, crying out “My God, My God, why have you left me?”
III. THE REALITY
But the second problem, apart from the fact that this “verse” is not in scripture is that our life experience doesn’t bear it out either. There are all kinds of things that happen that we cannot bear. We contract fatal illnesses. We suffer the death of loved ones. Sometimes our lives come crashing down around us.
This is the problem I have with what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “Sentimental Christianity.” It’s a religion of trite platitudes that are designed to make people feel better with quick, bumper-sticker length snippets of theology. This theology is usually of the self-help variety (remember, the Lord helps those who help themselves!) and while it is long on optimism it’s short on the ability to confront the real brokenness of the world. For it’s almost as if people never consider the contexts in which such insipid theology fails altogether.
A. The Failings of Sentimental Christianity
Could you imagine saying to an inmate at Auschwitz, “Don’t worry; God never gives you more than you can bear!”?
Or a woman whose children are killed by a long buried landmine while they were playing? Or a refugee who survived the massacre of her entire village? What about someone who has just been given a diagnosis of a terminal illness? Or someone overwhelmed by grief and loss? Someone who through no fault of their own is crushed by depression, anxiety, or other afflictions? Sentimental Christianity is entirely useless in these circumstances. And if all we’re prepared to say is “God never gives us more than you can bear” then in situations where such a platitude is clearly false, we are left with nothing to say.
Maybe part of the problem is a problem with Protestantism. See, unlike the Catholics, we don’t have Jesus on the cross. It’s just a pretty little shape (and easy to draw, too!). It’s harder to remember that it is an instrument of torture, and death, and injustice. A method of death whereby the victim’s own diaphragm collapses and the person suffocates to death on the cross; his body literally unable to bear its own burden. A crucifix at least has the virtue of reminding us of that. Because while our faith is driven by the hope and the promise of the Resurrection, we live very much in a world defined by the Crucifixion. The shadow of the Cross is large in the world and it is not chased out by sentimental statements that do not jibe with our experience of the world.
IV. BEARING THE BURDEN
As with all the ideas we’re looking at in this sermon series, this one has the potential to do great spiritual violence to the believer. Because there is a great level of cognitive dissonance among the faithful, many of whom profess belief in this idea but who themselves are being crushed under their burdens. If God never gives us more than we can bear, they think, and I am being crushed, then what is wrong with me? What am I doing wrong? Why isn’t God helping me?
In one online forum, another pastor was taking on this exact belief and challenging it as bad theology. In the comments section of that post was the following:
I have been having a very hard time with that scripture and feeling like a failure as a christian because I felt like I am not strong enough. I lost my sister to cancer and then my baby sister in a wreck and this June I lost my oldest child and everyone kept saying God would not put more on me than I could bear. Tonight I decided to start searching to see if it was scripture and I know that God led me to your page and it has helped to take away the guilt of feeling like a bad christian because I am having such a hard time dealing with the loss of my child.
A. Suffering Because of Suffering
How many people are suffering great burdens and then on top of that, suffering because they’re suffering? What cruelty to tell people that they should be able to bear all their problems, else God would not have given them to them and then for those same people to realize that they are outmatched, that they cannot bear what has come their way. And as with the woman above, the only conclusion they come to is that they are bad Christians, or bad people, or lack proper faith. Ultimately, in the minds of the faithful, if they’re suffering what has come upon them then it’s their fault. They have screwed up, because God would certainly never allow this kind of burden to fall on someone who couldn’t bear it. So the failure to do so must be their own.
This, then, raises yet another problem in addition to the two noted earlier. In addition to this verse not being Biblical and not being an accurate reflection of our experience, it has one other major failing: it places all the focus in the wrong place.
B. Who Bears the Burden
The sentiment that God never gives you anything more than you can bear makes it about what you can bear. And as I am fond of saying, if I could add a line to the creeds or to the commandments, it’d be “It’s not about you.”
That is precisely the point that Paul makes in his second letter to the Corinthians. In the verse that follows immediately after his statement that they were weighed down with a load of sufferings that was so far beyond their strength that they were afraid they might not survive, he writes:
It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty. This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves.2 Corinthians 1:9 CEB
Note what Paul is saying. We thought we were finished. Dead. We knew that we couldn’t handle it because it was beyond our strength. But all of that is to remind us that we should have confidence in God and not in ourselves. What Paul reminds us is that our trials and sufferings are not a measure of how much we can bear. Indeed, we may often encounter sufferings that are very much more than we can handle.
What Paul does is remind us that the sufferings are not something apart from God. They are not tests sent by God to us, but rather places in which we encounter God.
C. The meaning of the cross
And that’s why the cross is such an important symbol for us. And not the empty cross. The cross with Jesus still on it. The Cross on which we see the Son of God suffering pain, humiliation, injustice, and violence, to the point of death.
The cross reminds us not only of the brokenness of the world—a brokenness that is glossed over by Sentimental Christianity—but also reminds us that in those times of suffering and pain, we are not alone. We encounter a God who stands with us in the suffering. A God who is not apart from that burden and pain, but one who is in it with us. As Jesus himself says in the Gospel lesson we heard earlier:
“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”Matthew 11:28–30
Our faithfulness is not demonstrated by how easily we are able to bear the burdens that come our way. Our faith is demonstrated by our recognition that we cannot bear the burdens ourselves and trust in the grace of God who bears them with us.
But there is yet one more point to note. For just as we proclaim that God is made known to us through the person of Jesus Christ, we maintain that Christ is made known to the world through the Church that is to be the Body of Christ in the world. And what that means is that so long as the Church exists, so long as the faithful gather in community to pray, to worship, to reflect, no one has to bear their burdens alone.
The church is not an everyone-lift-yourself-up-by-your-spiritual-bootstraps community. It is not one that says that the Lord helps those who help themselves or that God never gives you more than you can bear. Well, it shouldn’t be, anyway. The whole point of this sermon series is that it all too often is those things.
But the church should be a place where you can come and say, “I have a burden that I cannot bear” and instead of being judged for having a weak faith, you are surrounded by a network of love and support that will bear that burden with you. Just as Christ takes upon himself the burdens we cast upon him, so too do we, as the Body of Christ, take upon ourselves the burdens of those who come to us.
Together in Bearing the Burden
Faith is not some kind of contest of worthiness. It is not a simple system of incentives and rewards, of challenges and payoffs. It is a lifelong journey of facing the struggles of the world and moving forward with hope. But that kind of faith cannot thrive in a context where you’re told that your faith is judged based on what you’re able to do. Down that path lies self-doubt, loss of faith, and pain upon pain. Down that road comes not simply the suffering of the burdens of the world, but the suffering for the fact that we’re suffering in the first place.
But the Gospel reminds us that while our problems do not magically disappear because we have become followers of Christ (in fact, as Paul suggests, they may increase!), we are promised that in those sufferings we are not alone. God does allow us to suffer things we cannot bear… alone. But we do not have to bear them alone.
For we are surrounded by a community of love and welcome that accepts us in our brokenness, that comforts us in our afflictions, and that stands with us in our times of need.
And in so doing, the Church witnesses to the God who stands beside us in our times of trouble, the God whose very message of salvation is wrapped up in solidarity, and the God who says to us: “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.”
1 Corinthians 10:6–13
These things were examples for us, so we won’t crave evil things like they did. Don’t worship false gods like some of them did, as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink and they got up to play. Let’s not practice sexual immorality, like some of them did, and twenty-three thousand died in one day. Let us not test Christ, like some of them did, and were killed by the snakes. Let’s not grumble, like some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer.
These things happened to them as an example and were written as a warning for us to whom the end of time has come. So those who think they are standing need to watch out or else they may fall. No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities. Instead, with the temptation, God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.
“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”