Puritan Sayings (4)
February 27, 2018
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Is there a Christian out there who hasn’t heard this saying? Surely not. Despite its popularity, this saying is not universally loved. There are many people, of course, who believe it is true. Others are more cautious and hold it be true so long as it is properly understood. And there are some who don’t like it at all and believe that it is unbiblical. A google search led me to a sermon on this very saying, but I knew where the speaker stood on it before I started listening because the sermon was part of a series entitled, “God Never Said That.”
Some Puritans, however, did believe that God said it, or at least said something similar to it. William Bates (1625-1699) was a popular puritan preacher and after 1662 he became a prominent leader among the nonconformists and English Presbyterians. He was close friends with Richard Baxter, Thomas Manton, John Howe, Thomas Jacomb and David Clarkson. In his sermon on Hebrews 12:5, entitled "How to bear Afflictions," Bates makes the point that God afflicts believers for their sins as their loving Father. God chastens his children in love and for their benefit. “The Devil usually tempts Men in a Paradise of Delights, to precipitate them into Hell: God tries them in the Furnace of Afflictions, to purify and prepare them for Heaven.”
Bates also points out that God’s love in correcting his children is not like that of human fathers. Human love is tainted with “irregular Passion, mixt with Ignorance, and prone to Error in Excess or Defect.” Consequently, parents may spoil their children or discipline them unnecessarily or improperly. God, however, disciplines perfectly because in him “there is a perfect Union of Wisdom and Love.” His wisdom is displayed in part by administering afflictions according to what each individual is able to handle, or in the words of Bates, “according to the degrees of Strength that are in his People.” After citing 1 Corinthians 10:13, Bates writes, “As a prudent Physician consults the Strength of the Patient as well as the Quality of the Disease, and proportions his Medicine; so all the bitter ingredients, their Mixture and Measure, are dispens’d by the wise Prescription of God, according to the degrees of Strength that are in his People.”
Two other Puritans make similar points. First, Matthew Henry in his comments on 1 Corinthians 10:13 writes, “He is wise as well as faithful, and will proportion our burden to our strength. He will not suffer us to be tempted above what we are able. He knows what we can bear, and what we can bear up against; and he will, in his wise providence, either proportion our temptations to our strength or make us able to grapple with them.”
Second, Anthony Burgess in his book on justification addressed the antinomian argument that the teaching that God afflicts his people for their sins greatly troubles them and makes their lives unbearable. In response, Burgess notes that God wisely afflicts his saints so that they will not fall into despair. He writes: “We give many Cordials and Antidotes against despair, while we say they are afflictions even for sin, for we add further that they are all bounded within a due measure; God considers our strength, and will lay no more then he will inable to bear.”
The saying, “God won’t give you more than you are able to handle,” does capture an important biblical truth. Certainly, God may give us more than we think we are able to handle. Moreover, God will give us the strength to handle what he brings our way. Nonetheless, it is also true that God takes our ability and maturity into account when providentially dispensing temptations and trials. As John Calvin says, God “regulates our temptations” according to “the measure of our power, which he himself conferred.” In other words, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
Previous Posts in this Series
- "What would Jesus do?"
- "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all"