“God never gives us more than we can handle.” “God’s testing me, or you, or us.” “What lesson is God trying to teach me through this awful thing?” “It’s God’s will.”
I hear those phrases so often, and every time I do, I want to shake the person offering them until their teeth rattle. It’s a way of offering comfort, to ourselves or to others when we don’t have anything more concrete and reassuring to say. But they’re not true. They trivialize people’s suffering, and they give a completely mistaken impression of who and what God is.
“God never gives us more than we can handle”
Oh, really? Try telling that to the parents whose children died at Sandy Hook. Or to the nuns in the monastery of St. Theckla in Syria. Or my friend, who, in the midst of raising three teenage boys and caretaking her father as he descended into the hell of Alzheimer’s, had to watch her brother sicken and die in two weeks, from causes that no one could find.
What does that say about God and His purpose? God makes awful things happen to us, so He can step in and rescue us? Send us help and support at unforeseen times and in odd ways? That He’ll beat us and pummel us, give us misery and tragedy and hardship, but then help us out so we’ll know how much He loves us? Really?
If that’s God, then I want out, because that’s an abusive parent. I do not believe God is abusive. Why? Why would God “give” us any suffering, when He has constantly, ages after ages, shown how much He loves and cherishes us and suffers when we do?
“Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.”
To which some people answer: God’s testing me. God sends suffering and pain, temptation and evil so He can test us. When did life become a school? When’s recess and why can’t I have your snack? Is this on the midterm? If I pass the final, do I go to heaven? And if I get an A+ can my halo have gilding?
God knows us through and through. He knows the best and the worst in us. “Testing” us, so that we pass or fail, get an “A” in steadfastness, but a C- in patience and fortitude, and really blow it by getting an F for humility doesn’t make any sense.
Why would He test us, when He already knows every hair on our head, every thought in our hearts and every unspoken wish we ourselves aren’t even aware of? Why would He test us when He can see the whole scope of human history and already knows how we responded, because He is outside of time, and inhabits eternity?
More to the point, why would a loving, merciful and kind God put us through a test that could break us, destroy us and irreparably separate us from Him, when He’s told us again and again how much He wants us with Him?
“Life is a school. Hardship is a lesson.”
So that we can learn, I’m told. People keep saying that God’s trying to teach us a lesson through tragedy, senseless violence and overwhelming events. But He’s not. There are no more lessons to be taught. School is out.
God gave us all the lessons we need, and it’s up to us now to put those lessons into practice. That’s what daily life is for. That’s what the small frustrations, daily temptations and innumerable stumbling stones in our everyday round are for. That’s what fasting, prayer, liturgy and confession are for. The practice of the lessons that God taught and the Fathers expounded on.
The lesson that He summed up: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s the lesson.
“It’s God’s will.”
God is so tired of evil, of (fill in your favourite outrage) that He sent war, famine, earthquakes, death, illness, random violence and cruelty to punish us, or to punish those evil, nasty people doing (fill in your favourite outrage). Horse pucky.
God doesn’t need to punish us. We’re more than capable of punishing ourselves and others with no help at all from Him. And He promised us that the days of punishment were over, remember? That’s the reason for the rainbow. If He wanted to punish us or others, then why did He die, horribly, on a cross, at the hands of frightened, broken men who were no better and no worse than we are, in order to save us from death and eternal separation from Him, the worst fate of all?
Disasters, tragedies and suffering aren’t God’s will for us, they aren’t lessons to be learned, they aren’t tests that we’ll pass or fail and they aren’t carefully designed to fit within our breaking point. They’re the result of living in a fallen, broken world with fallen, broken people, created by a God who had such love for us that He gave us free will, so we would choose Him over our own weaknesses and failings, submit to His love for us and become more like Him.
If there is a lesson to be learned from human suffering, it is that God is there, in the trenches, bleeding and hurting with us. That every natural disaster, every terminal disease, every man-made tragedy, from war to terrorism to drunken driving happen because the physical world fell when we did, death entered the world in painful, drawn out and humiliating ways, and people too often choose to follow their own fallen, broken will and inflict pain on others rather than follow Christ’s narrow, joyfilled path.
The lesson is that He loves us in spite of what we do to ourselves and each other. The lesson is that we are to be His arms and His heart in the world, reaching out to each other in love, humility and pain, to suffer with each other and love each other through it all. The lesson is that His love and forgiveness and healing are within our grasp if we choose them. The lesson is that He loved us so much that He became one of us and allowed us to torture and kill Him, so He could rise again, defeat death and once and for all reconcile us to Him in love and mercy and joy.