Sermon – Half Truths: God Won’t Give You More than You Can Handle

Continuing the series based on Adam Hamilton’s Half Truths, today I talked about the popular platitude that suggests that God will shield us from more life drama than we can handle. Anyone who has ever had a nervous breakdown knows that this isn’t true. While I didn’t outright address it in the course of the sermon, mental health issues are often looked at as a lack of faith or a sign of sin in one’s life. I want to emphasize that this is not true! Our problems don’t come from God. I hope you will receive a blessing from this sermon and know the way that 1 Corinthians 10:13 is often understood is not quite accurate. A note: I spend some time talking about my battle with anxiety and depression so be warned.

Half Truths: God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
August 28h, 2016

1 Corinthians 10:1-14 (NLT)
I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. 2 In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. 3 All of them ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

6 These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, 7 or worship idols as some of them did. As the Scriptures say, “The people celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry.” 8 And we must not engage in sexual immorality as some of them did, causing 23,000 of them to die in one day.

9 Nor should we put Christ  to the test, as some of them did and then died from snakebites. 10 And don’t grumble as some of them did, and then were destroyed by the angel of death. 11 These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age.

12 If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. 13 The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.

14 So, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.

“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I have heard this statement many times and I’m sure we have all said this statement at some point in our lives. One of the times I can recall most vividly hearing this phrase was about ten years ago. I was living in Fort Wayne, Indiana where I was working for one of the radio stations in town. The station wasn’t doing great. Advertising was down and some tough decisions had to be made by the management of the company that owned the station. Unfortunately, the status of my employment was one of the hard decisions which was made. I went home and tried to process everything that had occurred. I had lost a job that I mostly loved, lost the opportunity to work with people who I considered my family away from home and I was also faced with the reality that I had bills to pay. Obviously I was uncertain and upset.

I finally reached out to the leader of the small group that I was part of through the church I was attending at the time. Mike was fairly wise and I trusted him to give me advice. I left a voicemail and eventually he called me back to hear the story. After he offered to pray for me and my situation, which he did. And as he was about to hang up he sprang the Half Truth on me: “Remember that God will never give you more than you can handle.” I tried to remember Mike’s words as things progressed. I soon found another job and eventually I ended up moving back to Mississippi where I was so stressed by a lot of things that I had a mental breakdown. I was overloaded and simply could not cope. When this occurred Mike’s words seemed like utter hogwash.

Obviously these words are said with good intent. But in that instance, I found out the hard way that this Half Truth simply did not stand up to the practical test. I had more on my plate than I could handle. My ability to cope with everything going on at the time, both tangibly and mentally, were just too much for me to handle and I hit my psychological and spiritual rock bottom. There was a part of me that blamed God because I felt like He was punishing me because, in my mind, he had broken a promise made in scripture. I had more than I could handle and it took me a while to recover from my issues, my anger, and my crisis of faith which happened on top of everything else. I was a mess, a hot mess at that.

We want to think that nothing bad will ever happen to us or that we will never have more stress on us than we could conceivably handle. To state it simply, the idea that God will shield us from more trouble, stress, or drama than we can handle just is not true. 1 Corinthians 10:13 is often cited as the basis for the idea that God will somehow not allow us to be stressed out beyond what we can cope with. A plain reading of the scripture, however, does not reveal such a saying. This passage is not even dealing with everyday stress – more on on that in a moment. I will daresay that 1 Corinthians 10:13 is one of the most misquoted and misunderstood verses in the entire Bible. It’s one of those verses that we might think says one thing but really says another. This is also an example of how cherry picking scripture without regard to context is simply a poor way to read God’s word.

I think it’s safe to say that every single one of us have experienced times in our lives when we felt that the world was caving in all around us. We have all experienced times when we could not handle one more thing on our plates or we might just snap. I have some good news for you if you have ever felt that way: You’re not alone. Life teaches us that things are going to come at us, sometimes one thing after another, and that we will indeed, at some point, have more on us than we can handle. Such is part of the human condition. As I have mentioned before our troubles do not come from God. Let me say that again: The bad stuff in life, whether we’re talking about a major tragedy or even the everyday stresses of life, do not come from God. God does not give us troubles. But what he does is be present in those moments, ready to comfort, provide mercy, and healing to our souls. He loves us that much and he wants us to cling to him.

So what is it that Paul is talking about and what is the truth behind this Half Truth? Borrowing heavily from Adam Hamilton’s book Half Truths in addition to my own study, I will explore that.

The short version of the story is this: Paul is talking about temptation to sin, not about sparing us from stress. Paul was on one of his missionary journeys when he established Christianity in the Roman city of Corinth around 51 AD. Today we call Las Vegas “Sin City” but I would argue that Corinth is the original sin city. If you were a citizen of Corinth during this time and you went to buy meat, you may likely be eating meat from an animal which was sacrificed at one of the numerous pagan temples around the city. While some cities have a gas station or a Starbucks on every corner, Corinth had pagan temples on every corner. Within the walls of the temples occurred pagan worship. What we would call sexual immorality was one of the ways in which the Corinthian pagans worshiped and this even occurred within the walls of the temples. The reputation of the Corinthians was so pervasive that if someone was considered to be fast and loose with their morals they were said to be “living like a Corinthian.”

The new Christians of Corinth were trying to overcome these old habits but, as the old saying goes, old habits die hard. The temptation to give in to these pagan ways were literally everywhere they went. The could not escape the pagan temples because there were so many. They could not escape the temptations of the pagan ways because this was also all around them. By using the struggle of the ancient Israelites as an example, Paul was reminding the Corinthian Christians that their giving in to these temptations had spiritual and moral consequences. And then he states in verse 13, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.”

Paul was giving the Corinthians encouragement and a good reminder that sin has consequences. He gave them an example of their spiritual ancestors (remember that he was dealing with mostly Gentiles). He was also reminding them that when God sees that we are tempted to commit some kind of sinful act, he will give us a way out even if it’s reminding us of who we are and whose we are. Do we always make the choice to take the way out and therefore not sin? Of course not! But it’s there and God provides it.

Paul was not saying that God tempts us but only a little bit, he was saying that God provides us a way out of the situation when we are tempted. But here’s what we really need to know about this verse of scripture: Paul was also not saying that God will not allow us to have more stress, chaos, and tragedy than we can handle. Unfortunately, these things will happen. But here is what we can count on from God: He will be present in the stress, chaos, and tragedy. He will be ready to provide relief. He will be with us through the storm. One of the things Paul is emphasizing here is not our human will prevailing but instead of God’s faithfulness. God is faithful to us in the midst of life.

Dr. Ben Witherington, a prolific author, theologian, and professor of New Testament at Asbury uses this phrase a lot and, as I like it, I do too: “A text without a context is merely a pretext for whatever you want it to be.” This is the case in 1 Corinthians 10:13. When we pick and choose bible verses and try to make them fit an idea that we have about God or perhaps just an idea that we like because it sounds nice, we miss the greater message of God’s word. We really do a disservice to ourselves and to our discipleship when we take what we consider to be the best parts and leave the rest. The result is a Half Truth.

Unfortunately, God does not promise that he won’t allow us to have more from life than we can handle. God does, however, promise that he is with us. When someone is struggling, I want us to remember that God is with them and us. Perhaps next time we want to use this Half Truth we can say something like, “God has not give this trouble to you but he is with you and loves you. And so do I.” Let’s turn this Half Truth into a whole truth. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… Amen.

Sermon – Half Truths: “God Helps Those who Help Themselves”

Here is part two in the Half Truths series. Yesterday we looked at this popular saying, which many people are convinced is in the Bible. Spoiler alert: It isn’t! But, this does not mean that it doesn’t have an element of truth. As you will see, we are called to take some responsibility for our lives and not to just simply wait around for God to do something. Often God does things through us and through other people. Christians are people of action, not of sitting around and waiting for something to happen. I hope you gain some meaningful insight from this sermon. As always, feel free to leave any feedback you would like. A note: There is a portion where I quote from a scene from “The Help.” I chose to play the clip of the scene for the congregation. If you would like to watch it for yourself, you may click here. – Jonathan

Half Truths: “God Helps Those who Help Themselves”
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
August 21, 2016

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 (NLT)
And now, dear brothers and sisters, we give you this command in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Stay away from all believers[c] who live idle lives and don’t follow the tradition they received[d] from us. 7 For you know that you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you. 8 We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We certainly had the right to ask you to feed us, but we wanted to give you an example to follow. 10 Even while we were with you, we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.”

11 Yet we hear that some of you are living idle lives, refusing to work and meddling in other people’s business. 12 We command such people and urge them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and work to earn their own living. 13 As for the rest of you, dear brothers and sisters, never get tired of doing good.

A while back I was watching one of the TV news shows and they were polling people about things that are in the Bible. They would read something that either was or was not in the Bible and the person had to answer true if it was in the Bible and false if it was not. Out of five people the interviewer read “God helps those who help themselves” to, four answered true, indicating they believed it was in the Bible. Let’s do a show of hands: If you believe this saying is in the Bible, raise your hand… Ok, now if it’s not in the Bible, raise your hand.

If you guessed that “God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible, you’re correct. To say that this saying is in the bible is completely false because it appears nowhere in the scriptures. It does sound kind of biblical though, doesn’t it? It’s not unusual that when we hear a saying like this and especially when it catches on and becomes popular, we like to think it has some authority behind it. This is exactly what happened with this saying. The Greek philosopher Aesop was the one who coined, “The gods help those who help themselves.” About 2300 years later, Benjamin Franklin appropriated it and changed it “God helps those who helps themselves” when he published Poor Richard’s Almanac. The expression became widely popular and eventually people began believing that it was found in scripture.

While the saying is not found anywhere in scripture, this is one of the sayings that we will look at which I believe does have some truth to it. Let’s explore some ways that this saying does have some truth to it:

Adam Hamilton gives several examples in his book Half Truths: Hamilton states when he says grace before a meal he thanks God for giving us a planet where such bounty can grow and survive, he thanks God for the farmers who grew the vegetables or raised the animals, the people who harvested and processed it, and even the truck drivers who delivered it to the store. If one of those components was not there, we would not be able to go to the store and buy our food. Because they did their part and we did ours by obtaining money with which to go buy food and actually took the time to go to the store and cooked it, we’re able to eat a delicious meal.

Another example would be with employment: It’s alright to pray that God gives you guidance as to a job you should apply for. However, it’s not going to likely be very productive if you just stop there. Without building a resume, filling out applications, going to interviews, you’re going to have a hard time finding a job. God will certainly give us guidance if we ask him to but he also expects us to not just sit around and let him do all the work. We have to take some ownership of our situations and we have to take some action. Otherwise, all the prayer in the world is not going to do us any good. Prayer is certainly talking to God but it is also listening. And when we pray, we also have to be prepared to move and to act. This is God helping us.

While I do not believe that God’s help comes with strings attached, I do believe that God does not call us to simply wait on him to do a miracle. As I mentioned a moment ago, Christians are not called to just simply sit and wait for God to do something, we are called to accept some responsibility for what happens to us.

When Paul started the church at Thessalonika, he taught the converts there that they should trust Jesus and trust that he would return someday, possibly even soon. Paul eventually left but apparently some of the converts took Paul’s telling them to “trust Jesus” a little too literally. Eventually word reached Paul that many of them had actually quit their jobs with the idea that God would just provide for all of their needs without their needing to work. This is why Paul wrote the scripture we had above, because he wanted to be clear that trusting Jesus did not mean quitting our jobs and waiting for manna and money to appear out of the sky. In other words, Paul was wanting them to exercise their common sense. Yes, God will provide and he will send help. However, this does not free us from the responsibility of doing our part for securing our provision.

Perhaps you heard the story of the man who was caught in a flood. The waters were getting deeper and deeper, inching closer and closer to his house. He had ignored the pleas from the media and others to evacuate before the waters because he was convinced that God would help him. The flood waters were up to his porch and some men on a boat came by and offered to take him out of there. “No, I’m not leaving. God will help me.” They pleaded with him and he continued to refuse so they left. Soon, the water had gotten much higher and driven him to the roof of his house. A helicopter searching for victims flew overhead. The crew saw him and lowered a rope, shouting on the loudspeaker, “Grab the rope and we will pull you in!” Again, the man refused. “God will help me.” The helicopter left and soon the man was overcome by the water and died. When he appeared before God the man was upset “God, why didn’t you help me?” God looked at him and said, “Son, I sent you a boat and a helicopter with a rope dangling from it. What more did you want?”

We must help ourselves, at least to some extent. God did not call us to be robots who just wait for a push and a shove toward something or to be told to do something. God expects us to be able to idenity our needs and to accept his guidance for how he intends to provide for them. The man in the flood example was expecting God to perform some type of miracle which would save him from his plight. Perhaps the reason he did not accept the help that was given was because he had a misconception about how God works. Perhaps he wanted a solution to where God would come down in a cloud and restore everything to the way it was, his home, his stuff still intact. Instead, God sent help in the form of a boat and a helicopter with a rope which would mean that he would lost his stuff but still have his life. Because he did not help himself with the help offered to him, he lost his life.

God’s help does not always come in the form of a big miraculous spectacle that is the lead story on CNN. Often, God’s help is found in subtle ways, often in ways that we never expected. God often uses other people in order to help us and we see this time and time again in scripture with God using people in the course of his work. The biggest example I can think of is medical providers. There are some very wonderful and well meaning believers who think that God’s healing only comes from him, that doctors and other medical professionals are not necessary because God will heal. I believe that God’s healing is done through doctors, nurses, and countless other types of medical providers. The knowledge of the human body and the know how to figure out which treatments will work or others that can be tried if one fails is nothing short of astonishing. I believe God works his healing through their hands. But in order to receive it, we have to do our part and go to that clinic or to the hospital in order to be healed. In this sense, we have to help ourselves.

So far we have spent our time this morning talking about how the idea that God helps those who help themselves has some truth to it. But not I want to shift gears and talk about how this saying is untrue. To give away this part of the sermon: It’s often used to justify abuse of the poor.

Our scripture from 2 Thessalonians 3 is often used to justify not helping the poor, particularly verse 10 where Paul writes, “Even while we were with you, we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.” Let’s say you’re down on your luck. You have tried all you can do. You’re starving. Your family is starving. You go to your best friend and ask for help. Instead of helping, your friend simply tells you, “No. God helps those who help themselves. And remember what Paul said about not working and not eating? That’s you.” Those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ know that this simply is not acceptable. Even in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, there was instruction for people to leave part of their fields unharvested so that the poor could glean from them for their survival. On and on in scripture we see instruction to help the poor, how the poor have a special place in God’s heart.

When we apply “God helps those who help themselves” in this manner, we are shrugging off the responsibility that we have been given to care for the poor in our midst. We are called to show compassion. I recall a scene from The Help in which Yule May is talking with the family she works for and is asking for a loan of $75 so that she can send both of her twin sons to college for the upcoming school year. The lady she works for, Hilly, is particularly mean. She listens to Yule May’s request and replies like this: “As a Christian, I’m doin’ you a favor. God doesn’t give charity to those who are well and able. You need to come up with this money on your own.” Hilly had an opportunity to show compassion and to help two young men start on a path to a better life but, instead, she invoked “God helps those who help themselves” as a way of using God as justification for not helping.

Later on in the movie, the main character Skeeter who has written a book based on the stories of the African American housekeepers working for Caucasian families in Jackson, Mississippi receives her royalty check. She chooses to split the money between all of the housekeepers in appreciation for their stories and for their help in writing her book. She did not have to do this but she chose to and the housekeepers were grateful to receive this blessing.

God does indeed help everyone. We do bear a certain responsibility for our own lives but God will show us a way. The rub is, we have to be willing to take it. And likewise, we are called to have compassion and be a blessing to those who need a little hand every now and then. Invoking “God helps those who help themselves” to justify our own stubbornness or unwillingness to help is simply false. In this world of contrasts, do you want to be the person who trusted God to help them find a job and thus applied for jobs or do you want to be like the man who had chances to get to safety and refused because he was so sure that God was going to help in another way? Likewise, do we want to be like Hilly who had an opportunity to be a blessing and chose not to or do we want to be like Skeeter who chose to be a blessing? God does help those who help themselves but he also helps those who can’t. Perhaps he will use you in this work. May it be so in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – amen.