'God must have known...'
There are a myriad of ways I could have approached an article on suffering. I thought I would start this one with the phrase, ‘God must have known… ’ This phrase is normally said by a spectator to someone’s trial or suffering. It generally goes something like this: ‘God must have known how strong you were…’ or ‘God must have known you could handle this…’
While you are trying to clarify the philosophy behind their comment, the speaker completes the phrase with, ‘That is why God wouldn’t do that to me, because I wouldn’t be strong enough to handle that,' thus exposing their fearful heart of self-preservation and self-protection. It exposes a faulty Christian worldview. It is a wrong view of God and a wrong view of man. This thinking lends credence to the idea that God will somehow allow us to stay within our comfortable boundaries without challenge.
The phrase, ‘God must have known how strong you were’ or ‘God must have known you could handle this,’ is their 'lucky charm,' their unsaid talisman.
The thinking is that God gave you a specific trial or allowed certain suffering to come across your path because you are strong enough to handle it. Hot on the trail of this phrase is its partner in crime, ‘God will never give you more than you can handle.’
I am aware that the confusion around this has arisen from 1 Corinthians 10:13: ‘No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. 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.’
Greek scholars tell us that there is only one Greek word for temptation (peirasmos) but that this word is also sometimes used for trials/suffering/ testing.
The KJV consistently uses the word temptation in all the passages. Our modern literal translations [such as the NASB and the ESV] however, have done the exegesis for us and used temptation or trial depending on the context and the surrounding verses.
One of the foundational principles in studying God’s Word, is that you never just read a verse. Context is key. In James 1; 2, 12, 13, and 14, the same Greek word is used, yet the context in verses 2 and 12 is different to the context in verses 13 and 14. James 1; 2; 12 refer to trials and James 1:13-14 refer to temptation. Most commentators will agree on that.
So when one looks at the context of 1 Corinthians 10:13, consistent exegesis tells that that the intended meaning is temptation and not trials. 'God will not tempt us beyond what we can bear.' The preceding and subsequent verses have all been about idolatry and Israel’s falling into sin and temptation in the wilderness.
Surely that verse cannot be speaking about trials and sufferings? And if it were, what would be the way out that is provided?
What would have been the way out be for our daughter’s 14 month cancer trial? A faith healer? More faith to ensure her physical healing?
The psychology behind this is subtle and dangerous, but the conclusion is that God wouldn’t let this happen to me as I am not strong enough to handle a breast cancer diagnosis, or to watch my child die with a terminal illness - therefore, it won’t happen to me.
OT examples of Joseph, Gideon, Ruth and Naomi, Hannah, David, Job and Nehemiah would tend to illustrate God giving more than they could handle. In all the narratives we have their examples of relying on God and trusting in Him and God displaying His glory through their weaknesses, trials and sufferings. In the NT, Paul is an example where God’s strength is made perfect in his weakness, trials and sufferings. In 2 Corinthians 1:8, Paul confesses that 'We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself'.
Do we think anyone is strong enough?
Do we think anyone is strong enough to handle watching their child die?
According to the natural way of things, children shouldn’t die before their parents. The hymn writer, Horatio Gates Spafford, who wrote ‘It is well with my soul’ after the drowning at sea of his 4 daughters when the ship on which they were sailing sank, was quoted saying:
‘When a child loses their parents, they are called an orphan. When a husband loses his wife or a wife loses her husband, they are called a widower or a widow. But when a parent loses a child, there is no term for that, because it is not supposed to be.’
So when we sat beside our 8 year old daughter’s death bed after watching her suffer through cancer treatment and you think this happened to us because we were somehow strong enough to handle this, you have removed God from our testimony.
When someone is suffering or going through a trial, semantics are important. Words aren’t neutral or meaningless.
Terminology matters. Please don’t use that language to the mom standing at her child’s grave, or to the teenager watching her parent waste away from cancer, or to the young woman recovering from her miscarriage, or to the father who has been retrenched and is in anguish over failing his family as the provider, or to the parents loving and caring for a disabled child, or to the parents standing in shock at the fatal car crash of their son hit by a drunk driver, or to the wheelchair bound athlete after a sports injury.
No-one is strong enough to handle these things. That is the point!
The psalmist was not confused when he wrote
‘For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.’ [Psalm 103:14]
We are frail. We are incredibly weak.
Jesus was not mistaken when He said in John 15:5 that apart from Him we can do nothing.
'Everyday is more than we can handle. Without Jesus we can't do anything, certainly not bear the unbearable in front of us. We will regularly experience more than we we can deal with, which is why we need God to be our refuge, our shelter , our dwelling place.' [J.A Medders]
God gives us more than we can handle, so that we can abandon our self-reliance and completely rely on Him and trust in Him. That is what trials and suffering do – they redirect our hearts upward.
When things are more we can handle, we have to surrender our self-sufficiency, and turn to the all sufficient One. We have to lean in to God instead of leaning on ourselves.
There is no suffering class that you take where you get a higher grade which then qualifies you or makes you strong enough to handle such suffering or trials.
‘Suffering doesn’t ask if you’re ready. It may come slowly or with a vengeance, but it doesn’t ask permission, and it doesn’t care about convenience.’ [Mitch Chase]
Katie Davis, who adopted 13 Ugandan orphan girls by the age of 23 writes: ‘I believe that God totally, absolutely, intentionally gives us more than we can handle. Because this is when we surrender to Him and He takes over, proving Himself by doing the impossible in our lives.......I have learned to accept the craziness, even ask for it, this "more than I can handle". Because in these times, God shows himself victorious. He reminds me that all of this life requires more of Him and less of me. He gives us more than we can handle, so that we may have no doubt of who is in control.’
Suffering and trials strip us of everything.
Paul Tripp explains that suffering reminds us where life is to be found – not in our child, or in our spouse, or the health of our body. Life is a person and His name is Jesus. Suffering and trials cannot take that away from us.
Suffering and trials refocus us on Jesus, the One who suffered for us.
Suffering is like a kaleidoscope. As you look into the dark tube of suffering, beautiful and colourful patterns slowly come into view and dance before your eyes, and each time you look, there is a different pattern, all beautiful. That is what God does in our suffering. That is how He gets the glory.
Suffering and trials, experiencing more than we can handle, result in us having a ‘BUT GOD’ as part of our testimony.
We could not handle the death of a child, ‘but God.’ The cancer diagnosis bowed her low, 'but God.’ The alcoholic, abusive father crushed her spirit and made her want to give up, ‘but God.’
When God gives us more than we can handle, the suffering or trial becomes more about God and less about us. It becomes the stage where God’s glory can be acted out in a beautiful script of grace and compassion and love. And the world is watching. They have front row seats.
‘Few things depict the Gospel more clearly than moments of suffering.’ [Paul Tripp]
What does the world see?
It sees you still standing after the death of your child and watches as you mourn differently. It doesn’t get it. It doesn’t get your joy amid the tears. It doesn't get your hope amid apparent hopelessness. The world becomes fascinated with the ‘but God’ in your story. Your ’but God’ can be the start of their fascination with God. They don’t see how strong you are. They see God in your weakness. He is the only One you can point to.
Suffering may bow you low, but it raises the Gospel high.
Suffering rearranges our theology and refocuses our hearts.
I am not strong enough. I am weak and frail. But God is strong enough.
‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ [Psalm 23:4]
'He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.'[Isaiah 40:29]
God gives us more than we can handle so that we can rest in Him, so that we can experience aspects of His character we would never otherwise experience, so that we can testify to His daily sustaining grace, so that we live with the view of eternity before us, so that we can comfort others with the comfort we have received from God, so that we can be conformed to His image and so that we can have our faith tested and proved genuine and be assured that He is our Father and that an inheritance is awaiting us that is imperishable. That glorifies God.
Let me end with a personal story.
Our daughter Laura was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 7 and had to undergo chemo, surgery, radiation and several blood transfusions. There was one occasion when we were waiting for results from scans and blood tests. As Dr Charmaine [the oncologist] walked into her room, Laura said this to us: ‘If Dr Charmaine has anything scary to say, she must say it in Afrikaans.’
Laura realised there might be stuff that was too much for her little mind and heart to handle, but she realised that we, as her parents, were strong enough to handle the scary news. We would carry that burden for her and comfort her and be with her and make the wisest decisions we could. She fully trusted our love and care. We would carry her. We wouldn’t leave her.
What a simply humbling and precious picture. We have a heavenly Father who does that for us but in immeasurable ways. May we rest in Him and trust in Him when He allows trials and suffering to come along our path which are more than we can handle. He has sovereignly chosen each one for our ultimate good and His glory.
I recommend you read the article below by Mitch Chase for more encouragement on this topic.