By Marshall Scott
I’ve been thinking about another of my frequent conversations at the bedside. It begins with, “How are you doing?” And while it might wander a bit, frequently it comes back to this: “I’m having a hard time with this, Chaplain; but they say that God won’t give you more than you can handle.” My initial response to this is, “Perhaps; but I often find myself wishing God didn’t have quite so much faith in me!”
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” This is another of those axioms that most folks think is found somewhere in Scripture. It’s like “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” a saying so pervasive in our culture that it has its own aura of authority. Everyone says it, so it must have an authoritative source; and since the subject is God, the source must be Scripture.
Like to many other common sayings about God, though, this one doesn’t really paint God in that good a light. Perhaps we wrestle with the second half of the saying, “more than you can handle;” but I have a great deal more trouble with the first: “God won’t give you.” It continues that belief (and, honestly, one that can be based in Scripture) that God is directly and personally responsible for each event in our lives, both the blessings and the injuries.
Now, often we rail against this, we chaplains, as do others. “What does that say about God?” we ask. “Do we really want to believe in a God who ‘tests,’ who does harm?” We find it more attractive to think of Lamentations 3:33: “for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone;” even if it means that we have to ignore the verse just before, 3:32, which begins “Although he causes grief….”
I can see, though, why the image of the God who tests, the God who causes grief, continues to be attractive. In a time when people feel out of control – and few people feel more out of control than hospital patients – there is some comfort, some security in the thought that this is all managed. Even if I am not in control, God is; and so this time of trial and confusion has meaning.
Even more powerful, perhaps, is the sense that the suffering person has God’s attention. Even if God has afflicted me, it is at least a sign that I have God’s attention. It may not be undivided, but it’s certainly clear. I have sufficiently held God’s interest for God to decide to test me.
Still, many of us, and not just chaplains, would resist this image of God. We would look, for example, to the lessons for Lent III. We would look at God as Moses encountered him at Sinai. “Then the LORD said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey….” He has seen suffering and has come to deliver. The suffering isn’t some kind of test, some affliction from God; but that doesn’t mean that God isn’t interested or concerned for his people.
Granted, the Gospel lesson for Lent III might not seem so helpful. Well, perhaps we might consider it a mixed bag. Certainly, Jesus calls for repentance; but neither the murdered Galileans nor the victims under the Siloam tower were identified as worse sinners, worse offenders.
And then there’s that parable of the unfruitful fig tree. The owner of the vineyard has expected results, results that haven’t come despite years of waiting. It is not the owner of the vineyard but the gardener who shows patience, even if that is limited.
But, I wonder if we read this right. It seems obvious to read this and think that the vineyard owner must represent God. But what, I wonder, if this isn’t so obvious? What if there’s another way to read this? What if Jesus is more subtle than we expect?
And Jesus is really central to this question. Which character is more like Jesus? Which character is more like God as God has revealed himself in Jesus? Which character seems better to reflect forgiving seventy times seven? Which character seems in all things to do good for those under his care? Which seems more like a high priest who intercedes for us unceasingly? Isn’t it the gardener?
How, then, shall we account for the tests, the challenges? Well, certainly there are challenges in life. Some we can even attribute to God, without making any suggestion of personal animus on God’s part. There are circumstances of the world as we know it, not least of them our free will, that present us with tests and challenges and setbacks. So we read in Paul the passage that I think lies behind our problematic maxim: “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.” Suddenly, the point is not that God won’t test us beyond what we can bear. The point is that when we are tested by all the things that flesh is heir to, God will be with us, and will provide us what we need to endure.
And, really, that is the focus of the passages from Lamentations: “Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” It isn’t really about God putting us to the test, for “he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” Rather, in the face of pain and grief, even if it seems God has some hand in it, his compassion is with us and his love is steadfast.
“I’m having a hard time with this, Chaplain; but they say that God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Well, I can’t endorse the thought that God has brought this affliction; much less that God has calibrated it to the individual limitations of this patient. Still, I’m less interested in teaching patients the right theology than I am demonstrating it myself. So, my call isn’t to challenge or to correct. Rather, my call is to reflect by my care the steadfast love and compassion of God in Christ. I am called, I think, to be like the gardener, providing resources for health and wholeness so as to give the patient the best chance. Then I, and all of us caring for the patient, staff and volunteers and family alike, take our part in God’s providence. We can become for the patient the extra care, the extra strength, the extra love: we can become for the patient “the way out” that God intends, so that the patient can endure.
The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.