Saturday, February 19, 2011

God Gives Us No More Than We Can Handle...



A temptation facing anyone with some study of theology is to look down on those with a less…sophisticated…notion of God. I usually have to remind myself that people generally do not care a lick about Karl Rahner’s writings on the supernatural existential or about the saturated phenomenon of Jean-Luc Marion. While I might care about these things and derive enormous joy from studying and reflecting upon them, most people go about their lives blissfully unaware of either author. What I find, generally, is that people have very basic questions about God: Is there a God? What does God do? Why is there so much evil in the world if God is supposed to be so good?


One refrain that my theological ear gets snagged on is this: “God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle.” While I seldom wade into theological controversies with folk, this is one that really seems to invite some comment.



When I hear “God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle” I bristle because this paints a horrific picture of God (an act which, by the way, is idolatrous). Think about it: My daughter has cancer…but God doesn’t give me more than I can handle. My son committed suicide…but God doesn’t give me more than I can handle. My husband just lost his job and the house is being foreclosed and he has turned to drinking to numb the pain…but God doesn’t give me more than I can handle.

Do you see the problem with this? It’s as though God is some spigot dispensing pain and suffering. “Well, it seems like a lot, “ God appears to be musing as He dishes out new woes and tribulations, “but I never give more than anyone can handle.” If this is a common image of God, I suspect, it goes a heck of a long way in explaining why people chuck the whole God business: if God is more of a cosmic sadist than a benevolent Father or Mother, then I’d rather take my chances with the vicissitudes of nature rather than a capricious deity!

Now, I am not even going to attempt to respond to the question or mystery of evil in this blog. I’m not smart enough to even try. Yet, if I may, allow me to suggest the failing of this chestnut is that it does not grasp what God does at all. I think that the anodyne bromide “God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle” is a very human way of short-selling God. God, I would like to suggest, gives us far more than we can handle.

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus tells us the truth about God. By word and by deed, Jesus spoke and embodied what God’s Kingdom looks like. As Jesus planned out the new kingdom and showed what it might look like – inhabited first and foremost by the formerly blind, formerly deaf, wholly unrighteous – we, sinful humanity, killed him for it. Rather than re-shape our lives or re-think the way we go about business, we silenced Jesus because he offered us something more than we could have imagined: a society built neither on exclusion nor violence but, instead, on inclusion and embrace. So we executed him. The resurrection, in turn, is God’s ratification of Jesus and his mission: this is my Son and this is who I am, which is very much unlike the way you are...so get with the program!

My suggestion is that God gives us far, far more than we can handle: he gave us Himself, and we killed Him. Our sinful, impoverished imaginations cannot fathom what it is that God is doing. So, rather than trying to tune our lives to God’s creative activity that threatens to re-create us, we close ourselves off and dwell in the stuffy confines of our own limited hearts and minds. Rather than turning our eyes to the Resurrection as the source of Hope, we close ourselves off and begin to look for reasons within our own limited horizons...when we are insufficiently satisfied, we blame God for "doing this to me." In our rage and anger, we ossify God, turn God into a thing, and then reject God in our blind pain and fury.

So what? What difference does this make? Well, it seems to me that Jesus’ action was to be the Constitution of a new people gathered into the Kingdom. This living Constitution of the Kingdom is not now enshrined in a museum: it’s the crucified-yet-resurrected body that dwells at the right hand of the Father and who comes to us in the Eucharist. Jesus is the Constitution that invites us to live with one another in a new way with Him as our charter and our foundation. So when we face the Mystery of evil and suffering in our lives, the icy terror of loss and suffering, we must resist the temptation to think that this is something that God has done and commit ourselves to what God is doing. This latter insight isn’t meant to take away the pain stemming from fear or the sorrow from loss…but it is to say that we are always being offered more than we can imagine: a relationship with the God of the Resurrection, the God for whom life, and not death, is the meaning of the human story.

I do not want people to think I am gainsaying the rage and sorrow of loss or suffering. I am not. I am saying, though, that we should be wary of thinking that God is actively giving you pain or or making you suffer as though He wanted you to suffer. This seems totally antithetical to what God seems to be doing – creating or making things to be – and is equally out of step with the Resurrection. Terrible, awful things do happen (the Crucifixion was pretty bad, I must say) but this does not conquer or triumph over God. The Resurrection gives us the Hope that seems almost impossible to bear, the Hope that we will rejoice as Mary Magdalene and the Disciples did on Easter Sunday.

God does not give us just what we can handle. He gives us more. The tricky bit is that we, our eyes smeared and blurred with sin, have a dickens of a time sorting out just what it is that God is doing. As hard as it is, it is the wound of faith that our prayer must always turn to the Mystery at the very heart of our existence and say, both in times of joy and agony, “What is it that you are doing, O Lord?” This by no means explains or anesthetizes the pain of human life…but it does set it against a much larger horizon: the horizon of a God who knows suffering, who knows the atrocity of satanic violence, the horizon of the God who creates and who ratified in and through the Resurrection the words and deeds of Jesus in whom we are called to create the Kingdom of God.

7 comments:

Robin said...

This is truly excellent, and I plan to link to it in the next day or two - but I do think that you reversed words in the parenthetical in the second to last paragraph!

karen gerstenberger said...

This is an illuminating piece; thank you for it. Robin called my attention to it on her blog. I wrote sometning about the crucifixion part of the story yesterday; your words about the resurrection are important and helpful (and I also wonder if perhaps you meant "crucifixion" in the parentheses in that para). Blessings to you.

Michelle said...

Thanks for being willing to wrestle with this...

pendean said...

great stuff--I'm sharing it on facebook. (I think we have a mutual friend in Patrick Hornbeck who was trying to put us in touch ...

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

Hello Philip!

I'm a great fan of your work on Rahner - I've both the edited volume of his Spiritual Writings as well as your book on his relationship with Ignatian Spirituality. Top drawer. If there is an opportunity for us to meet in person, I should very much like to seize it. According to your website, you are in Boston this year?

Robin, Karen, and Michelle: Thank you for visiting and for your comments. Please be assured of my prayers.

Peter G said...

I really like this piece. More than "God gives us no more than we can handle," the related common phrase I find hard to deal with is "everything happens for a reason." I find this such a smarmy, naive view of the world. I've had an easier life than some, but having to deal with cancer in my 30s or a retinal tear before that, or things I've seen in others' lives, just makes me want to throttle people who say that.

Yes, everything happens for a reason, but we need to acknowledge the reality of evil, that human beings are flawed, and that often the reason things happen is human stupidity or greed or whatever--or, in the case of something like cancer, caused by such a complex set of factors that we can never hope to unravel them all. Does God want me to have cancer? I'm not willing to lay the blame for him on that. If I believed that, like Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov, I would be forced to "return the ticket."

Rather, I prefer to know that God can turn evil to good. If I open myself up to His grace, I can take the bad things in my life and make good come out of them. It doesn't mean that God wanted them to happen to me, but that He can turn them to His purposes and use them as a conduit for grace in the world.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of all the truly unfortunate things I've heard various ministers say in the face of someone's tragedy, such as, "God took your child because He needed another angel in heaven".

Thank you for addressing this in such a compassionate manner!