Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hardship? Yes. Temptation? No.

Will God give you more hardship than you can handle?

Indiana pastor Nate Pyle wrote a provocative article for his blog earlier this year based on that question.  Since then, it's been making the rounds of social media, attracting a considerable audience among people who are struggling with various crises.  Along the way, a couple of other Christian bloggers have ruminated on the topic, including Pennsylvania pastor Stephen Altrogge in an essay dramatically entitled "There's a Good Chance God Will Almost Kill You."

For his part, Pyle says he's "confronting the lie," popular in Christian circles, that God doesn't push us past the limits of our endurance.  In other words, He doesn't give us more bad stuff than we can reasonably be expected to survive.  Generally, that concept is used to comfort fellow believers who are going through something we think is really, really bad.  We hardly every use the "more than you can handle" consolation regarding the times we're overdosing on pleasures and material success.  The phrase is based upon the assumption that there's a benchmark of normal pain and pleasure in our lives, with experiences we interpret as particularly negative being some sort of test from God, and experiences we interpret as positive being some sort of reward, or even something we're due.

Of course, being spoiled by goodness, luxuries, and happy vibes can be as detrimental to our faith walk as being burdened, pained, tormented, and even persecuted.  But we work far harder at trying to figure out why bad stuff happens to us, than good stuff.

Which is where Pyle comes in, challenging the notion that God doesn't allow His children to go through something negative He knows they can't survive.  Just look at the Holocaust victims, he writes, or victims of rape.  Truly horrible stuff happens to God's people through no fault of their own.  And a lot of it is going to seem unbearable - and would be, without Him.  Pyle points out that even the apostle Paul tells the Corinthian church that he was once "utterly burdened beyond strength" and that he "despaired of life itself."

So... what about the Bible passage from which Christians have derived the idea that God doesn't give us more than we can handle?  Well, by simply reading it, we can tell that it's talking about temptation, not hardship.

It's from 1 Corinthians 10:13:

No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he 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 stand up under it.

Technically, therefore, Pyle is correct.  God never promises His children that He won't allow them to experience things that could tax their emotions, undermine their faith, or even cause them to despair of life itself.

And Pyle attempts to reconcile that uncomfortable fact with the reality of another fact:  that we need to quit banking on false theology to sustain us through challenging times.  Instead, we should ask and expect God to redeem whatever situations confront us.  He believes that such "expectant waiting can only happen when we exchange our feeble platitudes for an authentic faith that engages God with the full brunt of our emotion and pain."

Altrogge then takes it a step further, shifting the emphasis from ourselves to God, Who "burdens us beyond our strength so that we will be forced to utterly and completely depend on Him."

Which is all true enough.  But is it enough, in terms of how we deal with these extraordinarily bad situations?  Might that verse from 1 Corinthians 10 still apply, except this time, with a Biblical focus?

In other words, what happens when bad stuff happens to us?  Are we tempted to do anything wrong in response to it, during it, or in avoidance of it?  Of course we are!  Questioning God is not a sin, nor is being confused about what He's doing, or even a little bit frustrated with how He's doing it.  But how often are we tempted to try and fix bad situations by lying, or being deceitful, or sinning in some other way?  How often are we tempted to complain?  We can be angry about something in a righteous way, but how often are we tempted to sin in our anger?  To seek retribution?  Or even deny God's ability to help us through whatever it is we're facing?

The apostle Paul tells us that all of these temptations are common to humanity.  But that's no excuse for us to cave in to such temptations.  God won't tempt us to sin in response to either the good or the bad that happens to us.  He may not provide a way out of the challenging situation, but He won't cause us to be tempted - TEMPTED - to sin.  If we sin, we do it on our own, in response to Satan's glee over our predicament.  God doesn't force us or trick us to do anything in any way that does not honor Christ.

Which still leaves us with the reality that some really bad things might happen to us.  We may be forced to face some incredibly challenging situations.  Look at Hebrews 11, and all of the things believers have undergone for the sake of God's Kingdom.  Things like being forced to live in caves, or being flogged, or stoned to death, or sawed in two.  Yikes!

Does any of that put our own problems into a different perspective?

Finding misery in difficult circumstances is not a sin.  Trying to protect ourselves from exceptionally difficult circumstances isn't necessarily a sin, either.  But exceptionally difficult circumstances are part of mortality.  Some people seem to flit through life from one happiness to another, but sometimes, don't you wonder if those people are somehow denying their own reality?  Meanwhile, for the rest of us, it seems we're either emerging from a crisis, taking a breather between crises, or heading into a crisis.

To the extent that Pyle's exhortation to stop misquoting scripture is a valid one, there's at least comfort to be found in the fact that, even in what we think are the worst of times, God will not tempt us towards anything detrimental.

And in those worst of times, consider the Psalmist's eloquent soliloquy of comfort and cheer from Psalm 121.  To be sure, these references to "slipping" and "harm" aren't referencing any momentary afflictions, but the lack of assurance suffered by people who do not believe that God is their eternal hope.  For those of us who are in Christ, however, receive this reminder with gladness and assurance:

I lift up my eyes to the hills - where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot slip - He who watches over you will not slumber.  Indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The Lord watches over you - the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all harm - He will watch over your life.  The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

So how about the next time we're tempted to hope that God doesn't stretch us beyond what we think we can take?  Why not try simply lifting up our eyes?  No, we may not see the hows or whys of the situation, and we may not feel God's watchful care, or the shade He's providing from the solar fire of our discontent.  And no, we won't necessarily sense the moral virtue of what could be considered God's "refining fire."  Bad stuff usually hurts, and usually we learn our lessons or marvel at God's sovereignty through our trials only in hindsight.

But the Lord knows.  Let that sink into you.  He knows it all.  And even if we're not watching, and seeing, He is.

Both now, and forevermore.

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