I came across a quote a number of years ago that is often (erroneously) attributed to Mother Teresa: “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.” I’ve used it in the past when I’ve presented or answered questions on suffering – largely because it’s a comforting quote.
Everyone suffers, so the problem of pain is one of the most obvious impediments to faith in God. The above quote (whoever said it) emphasizes not only God’s nearness to us in our suffering, but also a belief that God only tries us to our limits and no further. And it would seem that this understanding of suffering is strongly supported in the writings of St. Paul:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus ‘sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” -2 Corinthians 4:8-11
The only trouble here is that I’m not convinced that it’s actually true that God only tries us to our limits… and I don’t believe that this is what St. Paul meant, either.
Don’t get me wrong here: I firmly believe that God has His hand on each of us through whatever circumstance that we face, and that He leads us through and beyond all of our most difficult moments. I’m not questioning God’s love, faithfulness, or His presence in our day-to-day lives. What I am calling into question, is both God’s reasoning for allowing us to experience difficult traumas in our lives, as well as whether he pushes us beyond our limits.
For several months, I’ve been following the story of Tommy Tighe (Twitter’s “Catholic hipster”) and his family as they’ve lived through an agonizing experience. As they were expecting their fourth child this spring, the 20 week ultrasound revealed that their son had a terminal kidney condition – one which meant that this child would only survive a few minutes after birth.
For 19 weeks, he and his wife waited for Luke’s birth both hoping for a miracle and dreading that it would never come. In Mid-May, Luke Tighe was born and lived for about an hour. Tommy has been very open in sharing this experience with articles at Aleteia and Catholicmom.com. While the devastating experience of this family is one I can barely begin to comprehend, his insights have challenged my understanding of faith and suffering. And it was something he tweeted a few weeks ago that really got my attention:
God always gives you more than you can handle.
You become a saint when you finally give in and realize you can’t do it without His help.
— Tommy Tighe (@theghissilent) June 23, 2016
It’s the second part of Tommy’s tweet that reveals the shortcomings of the first quote. If God only ever tried us to our limits – and not a step further – would we believe ourselves to be self-sufficient? Suffering has a unique way of drawing us beyond ourselves to think about eternal things – if we aren’t pushed beyond our limits, would we ever reach a point where we’re willing to admit we can’t make it through this life on our own, and we ask for His help?
One of the stories that makes this clear more than any other is John 11 – the death & raising of Lazarus. The Gospel account tells us that, upon learning of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus waited two days before going to Lazarus’ house. By the time he arrives at the house of Lazarus, he was dead and already in the tomb four days. In what may be one of the most beautiful moments in the Gospels, Lazarus’ sister Mary takes Jesus to the tomb of her brother and there Jesus weeps (John 11:35). There are no parables to be told, no beatitudes to be spoken, or great sermons to be given. Jesus is standing beside the tomb of a dear friend, crying along with Mary and Martha. It’s hard to make any sort of argument that Lazarus was not tested beyond his limits: HE DIED! But that experience of suffering was one meant to glorify God (John 11:4) and to point towards eternal life (John 11:25-27).
So where does this leave all of us? The most obvious fact is that each of us suffers. The fact that is less obvious – but is still true – is that for many people, suffering seems to be overwhelming – and, it would seem, justifiably so. God allows each of us to suffer far more than any of us can bear on our own – but thankfully, God never leaves us alone in our pain – Tommy and Lazarus’ story make that clear – Jesus comes to us and He weeps right alongside us.
But the pain is never the end of the story. Lazarus’ resurrection foreshadows for all of us the fact that this life with all of its pains (intense as they may be) are the beginning of something so much more. And while it may be trite to say this to someone who is suffering – they may need our weeping more than our words anyway – the rewards of sainthood and the joy of Heaven will put these moments in their proper context:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” -Romans 8:18