You all know the telephone game. A bunch of people sit in a circle, whispering a sentence from one person to another, until the last person announces what he or she heard. The results are usually hilarious.
This can happen to the Bible, with tragedy instead of hilarity. We run the risk of distorting Scripture if we are not cautious stewards.
Unlike players of the telephone game, we get to check with the original source. If we read with open eyes and honest hearts, there’s little risk of deception. But when we operate on memory, things get messy. Occasionally, those messes go viral and become embedded in our churches – churches that are quite happy to win your attendance by telling you that God will grant your requests. Our hearts are tricky. They want to listen to the “taglines” they’re hearing – common distortions of Scripture that seem to guarantee he’ll say yes.
God is good. Bring your requests to him.
But don’t quote these taglines at him if you don’t want spiritual egg on your face. This isn’t the way to go about things.
#1. God won’t give you more than you can handle.
This verse is often used in the sense of, “A no to this prayer would be too much for me to handle, so…he’s going to say yes!”
Problem is, this verse isn’t in the Bible. Yes, He will. God will indeed give you more than you can handle – intentionally. And it will be thrilling and awe-inspiring.
You already want to walk away. Don’t. I pray God secures your heart against fear of disappointment. Keep reading.
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:9-10)
Paul describes a trial that left him and his companions with their lives flashing before their eyes. Sounds like something they couldn’t handle.
And that was the point. God allowed Paul’s trial for a greater purpose. It wasn’t cruelty; it was training. He was teaching Paul and his crew, and us, that it’s not about what we can manage; it’s about what God can manage.
So how did we end up with the idea that it won’t happen? By a small tweaking of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which actually says:
“God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.”
Temptation. He’s talking about temptation. Temptation is what he will guard you from. Take that detail out and you’re left with a verse that seemingly addresses any variety of trial, but cannot accurately be applied that way. (Is it true to life? Really?)
And that’s okay; God is with us even in trials that press us beyond our limits. That’s a powerful promise.
#2. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
This one isn’t misquoted – it’s Jeremiah 29:11. But it’s worrisome how many folks quote it without knowing the story around it.
Jeremiah spends Chapter 28 writing to the exiles of Judah in Babylon, countering false prophets who are going around telling them that an early reprieve from exile is coming from God – returning home after only two years. But Jeremiah says God is sticking to his original sentence of seventy years – meaning two whole generations will die in captivity before the nation returns home.
…seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:7-11)
God is saying, “Yes, there’s a plan – but it’s not the one you wanted.”
God is always out to prosper us. The catch is, he has a much different idea of what prosperity looks like. The Bible teaches that poverty can be good for us, as it raises our eyes daily to God. It teaches that a path that gleams before our eyes might conceal hidden dangers that only he can see. It even teaches that martyrdom – the rare but real calling to give up our very life (the epitome of “what we can’t handle”, by the way) for the sake of the cross – carries one of the heaven’s highest rewards.
That’s the true lesson of this passage. God is out for our good. But we have to “hold on loosely” to our definition of good, and let him bring it to us.
#2. “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
This is also a correctly cited verse – Psalm 37:4.
The way it’s constructed doesn’t really suggest that “desire of our heart” refers to God. Of course, he should be our greatest desire. But the verse seems to refer to other desires. And it’s often used to teach that God will give us whatever we want, as long as make Him first.
That’s asking for a manipulative, false-motives relationship with God if I’ve ever seen it.
Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.
Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.
And on the rest of the Psalm goes with a very clear theme: justice.
Now, can verse 4 have wider application? It can. A good first step of Biblical interpretation is learning that context matters. A good next step is learning that sometimes a verse is indeed a broader principle being applied to a specific issue. Obviously, Judah’s exiles weren’t the only people for whom God has a plan, and we cannot shout “CONTEXT!” in order to suggest that they were.
The simple reality, though, is that this verse does not cancel out the New Testament’s overriding theme of suffering in this life. That means that some prayers are going to get a no.
While I wholeheartedly believe that God welcomes our desires in prayer (as long as they’re not blatantly sinful), he doesn’t make many promises regarding how this life will turn out. So many of us think that high school or college will be our last great trial. Sometimes poor theology seems to back up their optimism – “It glorifies God for you to be successful and happy!” They are jolted to their core when life decides otherwise. Too many sincere disciples are staring up at the ceiling tonight in distress over what has happened to them. The false expectations they were given? Not something they can handle.
So I offer a lesser jolt: knowing in advance that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33a). Scripture nowhere suggests we can escape it all. I mourn that the church sometimes tells you otherwise.
Honestly, the fact that people feel the need to seize Scripture and twist it like veal to get God’s attention suggests that they do not understand their true worth to God in the first place. That might be the real tragedy of all this. We are citizens of God’s kingdom, children adopted into his family. Just come before him with your requests, lay them before him, and trust him.