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.

Lent

LentRecently I was having a conversation with one of my fellow student pastor seminarians about liturgy. I grew up in a church that did not follow the liturgical calendar very closely and that didn’t practice special days and seasons such a Ash Wednesday and Lent.  As I expressed to my friend, since I became a Methodist I have really enjoyed studying the traditions and liturgy and have a deep appreciation for them now. While I do not consider myself dogmatic, I do love the details of the different seasons and the major feast days on the Christian calendar.

One of the seasons I have really come to appreciate is Lent. As I mentioned above, I didn’t grow up observing Lent but since I have started I have found that I truly can focus more on God when I give up something that distracts me. I have come to realize that in order to get the most out of this season, I must give up something that is one of my biggest distractions. I love Facebook, Twitter and basically any other form of social media. I love the interaction, being exposed to different points of view than mine, and keeping up with events with people I have known all my life. I also realize that I spent a lot of time concentrating on these things. While they are great, they can be a distraction. Those area the reasons I decided to give up my social media (exceptions made for messenger, maintain church social media, and this blog) for Lent.

What do I hope to gain out of it? First, I want to focus more on my own spiritual development. This has been one of my major goals for the year in general and giving up social media for a season will allow me to more fully put new spiritual practices into practice as well as doing more of my current practices. I also hope to experience more peace. As much as I love social media, it’s often noisy and sometimes downright nasty. I find myself growing angry over things I find out about through social media; this is not something I like about myself. In short, I believe putting down my personal social media and picking up those things that draw me closer to God more often will be good for me.

I made a post to my Facebook page last night explaining that I would not be posting due to this Lenten fast and I closed with a thought that I will also close this blog post out with: What can you pick up in order to bring you closer to God? What can you let go of?

Sin

Who likes talking about sin? No one that I know of actually enjoys talking about sin. Well, no one likes talking about their own sin. We love talking about the sins of other people; maybe we just like talking about other people in general.

I’m getting ready to preach a sermon on Sunday at Shiloh about our belief in the forgiveness of sins. As i have been pondering that message, I think not so much about what is and isn’t sin but rather I’ve been thinking more about grace. Why you ask? Because, as an old hymn proclaims:

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.

It’s not uncommon for us to talk about all these “sinners” out in the world but we don’t talk enough about grace and forgiveness that God grants to His children through Jesus Christ. One thing that my fast from Facebook has helped me to understand that many posts – many of my own if I’m being honest – are judgmental. We love to point out the shortcomings – real and perceived – of other people. We love to talk about certain people or groups of people who are bound for Hell, all in an attempt to show off our own righteousness. We attempt to show the world that we are such good Christians that we are willing to condemn people who sin. Many of us think that our “fire insurance” (a term I’ve actually seen and heard) gives us a license to condemn.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that it’s wrong for us to want to remove the speck from someone else’s eye when we have a plank in our own. In other words, we have no right to judge someone for their sin when we have our own skeletons in our closet to deal with. It is not our job to condemn people for their sins when we are sinners ourselves.

You can’t fight sin with sin.

Southland Church is a multi-campus congregation in Lexington, KY and they broadcast their services on one of the local TV stations. I decided to record their service out of curiosity and as I have been watching this sermon I have found good food for thought. Basically we have three common responses to sin: One one side we judge; on the other we join; and somewhere in the middle we remain joyful in Christ. The right response to sin is actually pretty simple: We are to be light in the darkness of this world. Light drives away darkness.

Trying to fight darkness with darkness only brings more darkness.

I know that some might misunderstand me and think that I’m advocating Christians being weak and “tolerating” sin. On the contrary: I believe we should take action. I don’t believe that action should be in the form of protests, revolts or fire and brimstone sermons on the courthouse steps. Instead, we overcome evil with good by our living. Yes, we take action and instead of proclaiming condemnation for everyone except ourselves we instead proclaim the gospel by loving as Christ loves the world.

“Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good” Romans 12:21 (CEB).

Just some thoughts on my mind this afternoon. Perhaps this will take shape better by Sunday. 🙂

Jonathan