Misquoting Mother Theresa

There are things we say about God and faith that do not come from the Bible itself and that are true nevertheless.  Think about the lyrics to our worship songs or good writing on faith-related topics, for instance.

There are also things we say about God and faith that do not come from the Bible itself and are not true.

(Then there are things we say that are from the Bible and yet we make them untrue, but that is for another post.)

At times, when we say this second category of things, we may perpetuate a view of God that can cause us greater pain or confusion as we try to navigate life.  And can I just tell you guys, there’s one that’s been irking me lately.

God never gives you more than you can handle.

This is an attempt to distill 1 Corinthians 10:13 (and is probably influenced by Philippians 4:13, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.)  I don’t think it works though, because in its attempt to condense the verse, it gets the meaning wrong.  The passage is talking about resisting temptation, and God’s providing a way out for us when we are tempted.

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. 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 endure it.

In its original context, God is faithful and good to us in temptations.

But the condensed version is generally more widespread and popular.  There is even a quote attributed to Mother Theresa, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”

The problem with boiling passage down to God will never give you more than you can handle is that it implies that God has brought the negative things into our lives that we are now left to handle.  (With him? On our own? ‘Handle’ sure is a defeated sort of word. What about joy, and peace, and life to the full?!?)  But living in a sinful world means that terrible things happen.

My own theology makes me seriously uncomfortable with anything that calls into question the infinite goodness of God.  I don’t need the world or my life to be free of pain and tragedy for God to be good.  But I do need those things to be the product of brokenness and the ‘not yet’ of the redemption, not the direct action of a God I’m supposed to trust my whole life to.

Sorry Mama T, if you really did say that.  I promise never to disagree with you theologically again.  You’re one of my favorites.  Always.

Right now, some people I care about a lot are going through terrible things, to say nothing of my own family healing from losing my daughters.  Two families of friends, one friendship very new and the other very old, have children with cancer.

And I’m just bein’ real here friends:  if God gave them this disease because he knew they could handle it, then I’m peacin’ out.  I’ll take the God who became human like us, died and rose for us, walks and weeps with us, has and will save us.

But I won’t take any god who is not good.

Fortunately, I don’t think I have to make that choice.

Also on the topic of non-scriptural platitudes:  When God closes a door he open a window.

This is not from the Bible.  It is from the Sound of Music.  Don’t even get me started…

16 thoughts on “Misquoting Mother Theresa

  1. Thank you for articulating what I felt, but couldn’t quite name, about this quote. I have a friend with whom I share lots of humor as a way to cope with life’s absurd or difficult trials. There is also an element of pure delight in our friendship, which also brings laughter and peace. I was going to send this quote, attributed to Mother Theresa, engraved on a paperweight, as part of a love/thinking of you/sympathy gift on hearing she had taken her much-loved dog to the vet for the last time. I’m glad I didn’t send it. I’m glad you helped me to understand why.

  2. I LOVE this phrase! It tells me that with God, I WILL see the other side. My daughter was in the NICU for a month after her birth. We trusted God to carry us through and He did. We weren’t in the pit of despair, although there were times, that we weren’t sure how she was going to respond. We knew that we could handle anything with God. It all depends on interpretation. The first book of the Bible I ever read was Job. The man who God told the devil, he could do anything to, except take his life, and time after time, Job was faithful. He lost his children, his possessions, and even had painful boils. God allowed the devil to attack him. His faithfulness resulted in him regaining his health, having more children, and even more possessions than he had before.

    • Thanks, Tara, for sharing some of your story. I agree there is value to expressions like this that draw us to trust God, and I’m glad it did that for you. Even in Job, though, God didn’t ‘give Job’ those circumstances, Satan acted against him. I still think it’s a troubling framework (and an unbiblical one) to imply that God directly gives us each and every detail of our circumstances, as opposed to recognizing that evil is still fighting in the world (for now.)

  3. Perfectly said, Meredith. Another phrase I “love”… when people pray and ask God to “join us in this place”…He’s already here!!!

  4. I am counting on a good God who will be there for my son to help him endure the next several weeks and not one that would give this crap to him because he can handle it.

    Great blog Mer.

  5. Preach it sister!!!! I cannot tell you how many times I heard that after our miscarriage and now with the cancer. I want to shout from the rooftops that I DO NOT serve a God who would ” give” me cancer to see how I might ” handle” it! Or take our 20 week old baby to be with Him because ” he needed another angel in heaven.” I instead serve a God who has held me in my darkest nights and gives me the strength to get through these trials in life.
    Love reading your thoughts 🙂
    Tammy Anderson

    • Oh, the angel thing. Yeah, that one is tough. There are plenty of people who use ‘angel’ figuratively, for dear or loved, etc., which I find sweet. But implying God stocks up heaven with literal angel babies…can’t go there.

      Thanks for sharing, Tammy!

  6. Totally agree and just had this same convo with a friend this week. After Brian got hurt I heard this a lot and knew it was not from scripture. Besides the fact, as you stated, that God does not bring bad stuff our way, we do live in a world where crappy stuff happens to good people. There have been days when I felt I couldn’t handle stuff but I did know on those hard days, I could go to my heavenly Father and ask him to help me through. Great point on the door and window thing too….very funny! Love your musings!

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