(This first appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on November 14, 2014)
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you (Psalm 139:7-12, NRSV).
I am convinced that at the core of a person is a fundamental goodness. In Genesis, the Bible says that God made human beings in the image of God and then stepped back and examined all creation, saying, “It was very good.” Despite all of the ways that a life can go awry, I do have faith that God’s creation in humanity is profoundly good.
Furthermore, I have observed this goodness in people. I have seen the care and compassion that neighbors have for one another, even the most obnoxious of us. And this is perhaps most evident when someone is going through a crisis. I have seen the best in people when they reach out to a loved one or friend and try to offer comfort in distress. And for this reason, I admire the intention of a would-be comforter when she or he says to a neighbor who is carrying an enormous burden, “God will not give you more than you can handle.”
However, while I admire the intention, I completely disagree with what is implied about God in that phrase. This cliché is likely based on 1 Corinthians 10:13, in which Paul says, “[God] will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” Clearly, Paul means that there is no temptation or testing that a person can go through which is not accompanied by God’s providential guidance. Our cliché, however, implies not only that whatever we are enduring is a test or temptation, but that God is doing it to us. I, for one, do not believe that cancer is a test that God inflicts on people. That’s not the God I serve. I don’t believe that divorce or heartache, discrimination or abuse, disease or disability are tests from God. When a parent loses her child in a car accident, that’s not God’s doing.
Better than clichés is true Biblical comfort. This is the good news in the midst of bad news: the Bible is full of comfort. In Psalm 139, the Bible says whether we ascend to heaven or descend into the underworld, God is there. There is nowhere we can escape God’s presence. The familiar words of Psalm 24 say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Even Jesus says “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Better than clichés is true knowledge of what God does. God is not the one that inflicts pain, suffering and heartache upon us. God is the one that meets us in the midst of our pain, suffering and heartache, and is able, willing and ready to bring us through. Jesus heals the sick, comforts the afflicted, empowers the outcasts, forgives sinners, raises the dead. The gospels are full of examples of Jesus going to extraordinary lengths to end unnatural suffering and to bring wholeness to a fragmented world.
Better than clichés is true listening. I think we forget how incredibly isolating pain or distress can be. When someone is really going through a valley, it can feel very lonely. No one can literally feel someone else’s pain. But we can listen. We can let someone name for one’s self what her or his experience in the valley is like. And rather dismiss it with a phrase like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” we can demonstrate that we truly hear the other person. And we can give assurance that we believe God is there with her or him in the midst of the valley because we are there with that person in the valley. It is a powerful act of compassion to allow someone to weep, complain, get angry, and not leave her or his side. It is a powerful witness to the God we serve who never leaves our side.
And for those of us who profess Jesus as the Christ, what better bedrock for such a witness than our faith in a God who so cared for the very good creation of humanity, that the Word became flesh, dwelt among us, lived a human life, bore our infirmities, cried human tears and even walked through the suffering and death of the cross, in order to reveal God’s closeness to us. And what better hope do we have than the empty tomb, which proves once and for all that what the world crucifies, God resurrects. Better than clichés is the true love of a God like that.