I am richly blessed in the community department. Not everyone is so lucky. Like others who are in the throes of crisis, autism parents often seek comfort from friends, but all too often, they get inspirational platitudes instead. Those platitudes aren’t malicious, of course. Just unhelpful.
Here’s the most common example: “God never gives you anything you can’t handle.”
This phrase is not biblical, despite what people think. It is, at best, a hopelessly flawed paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which assures us that God “will not allow [us] to be tempted beyond what [we] are able” (NASB). Paul is giving a straightforward maxim about sin and temptation in that verse, not waxing eloquent about life circumstances. In order to interpret those words in such a way, you have to squint your eyes hard and look through the verse, like one of those magic-eye pictures that haunted shopping malls in the 1990s. No . . . I don’t see it either.
Besides the biblical butcher-job, I hate the implication that God serves up such hardships like a waiter, carefully delivering only the best, tailor-made life-dishes that will correspond to but never exceed our appetites. Life is not like that, and we know it.
Hardships often exceed our ability to “handle” them. The little boy who’s been raped by his own grandfather; the Somali mother who lost her five children to starvation; the Syrian refugee who just lost not only her family but also her home, city, and heritage. Are such troubles really within the victim’s power to overcome?
As extreme as these examples might sound, they aren’t so far out of our reach. The reason people turn to drugs, to alcohol, and to suicide is precisely because they cannot handle the difficulties that have come their way. In this world, we will have troubles—remember?
When people in crisis hear, “God never gives you anything you can’t handle,” they often receive the inverse message: “Why aren’t you able to handle this? What is wrong with you?”
Such a phrase could only come from the modern West, where we worship the self above all things. As individuals, we believe we are unique, we are creative, and we can overcome anything. We are strong, we are resilient, and we believe in the enduring power of the human spirit.
And this is exactly our problem.
Remember when Moses stood barefoot at the burning bush? He was wide-eyed and terrified, not so much by what he was seeing—though a fiery bush that is burned but not consumed would be unnerving enough—but by what he was hearing. There was a strange voice emitting from the flame, and it was telling him this:
“I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.” Exodus 3:10 (NASB)
Can you see the face of Moses? His jaw is moving up and down, but no words are coming out. His eyes bounce around the cave in search of something to hide behind, but he knows there is no escape from The Voice.
At last, he finds his words: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11, NASB)
Who am I?
It is tempting for today’s Western Christian to try to laugh off the question. Who is Moses? Who indeed! He was the long-lost prince of Egypt. The adopted grandson of the king. The legend of his birth and rise were the stuff of timeless lore. He went to the finest schools and received the best training in all the land. The hopes of a slave nation were pinned to his chest. He was the one they had been waiting for. He would fulfill the promise of the God of Abraham. Was there anyone in all the world more equipped to do this job?
In this light, we might imagine God rolling his eyes at such a protest. And then we see the shape of a smile forming in the center of the flame. The bright light dims to a softer shade of orange, and the temperature in the cave cools to a mild seventy-seven degrees. Then come the words, backed by heaven’s best inspirational soundtracks. Angel voices in major keys propel the soft whispers of the Creator God as he says, “It’s all you, buddy. You can do this. All you’ve got to do is believe in yourself. After all, I never give anyone anything he can’t handle!”
That’s not how God answers, of course, but follow the scenario out one more step. How does Moses feel when he hears those fictitious words?
It might be just the thing, I suppose. After all, any sports movie worth its salt hinges on such motivational speeches. Moses might, like a high-school linebacker, grit his teeth, jump to his feet, and sound his barbaric yawp.
I don’t think that’s quite right, though. There is nothing in this passage that would indicate Moses is fishing for a compliment or a little pick-me-up. He seems legitimately distressed.
No, I don’t think he reacts well. I think he gets even more anxious. You know why? Because he has a good head on his shoulders, that’s why. Halftime speeches are flimsy when you know you’re outmatched.
Yeah, sure, Moses had been the golden boy once, but that was a long, long time ago. In the subsequent decades, he had been living the life of a Bedouin shepherd. Even if anyone could remember him back home, it wouldn’t help him much. The Hebrews would likely view him as a failure, and the Egyptians knew him as a fugitive. He had no assets, no connections, and even his language skills had deteriorated so much that he needed a middleman who could better communicate to the world around him. Indeed, many scholars have suggested that his brother Aaron might have served more as a translator than as a spokesperson.
When Moses finally asks, “Who am I?” he doesn’t want a pep talk. He wants an escape.
I know how he feels. You probably do, too. Sometimes we don’t need encouragement as much as we need a reality check. Sometimes our fears tower around us, and we just want people to understand what is happening. We’re not looking for pity; we’re looking for deliverance.
My son’s severe regression forced me there, next to my old friend Moses. We stood in the cave together without shoes, feeling helpless and misunderstood. Who are we to tackle these circumstances? Why would God give such missions to us?
Many people have told me, “God knew what he was doing when he put Jack with you.” It’s a compliment, I know, and sometimes, when skies are clear, I can almost agree. But then the storm starts all over again, and all I can do is shake my head. Do people think I know how to deal with these new developments? Do they think I have the key to disarming his self-injury and panic attacks? Does my family have an unlimited supply of strength to make it through the long bouts of sleeplessness, and the emotional capacity to ride the swells and regressions of hope and despair?
The land of unanswered prayer can be a confounding place when the flood waters come. The conditions are too harsh, and I’m not strong enough to stand, let alone to navigate my way out of it. I’m not convinced you can, either.
I understand that sounds demotivating, but hear me out. The Bible is not a modern Western document. Rather than telling us we are invincible, Scripture continually stresses the opposite. As individuals, we are frail. Heartache abounds far above inspirational anecdotes because human weaknesses abound far above our ability to overcome them.
The human spirit is futile, feeble, and flawed. “The heart is deceitful above all things,” Jeremiah 17:9 says. And even when human spirits are willing, human flesh is often weak (Mark 14:38).
I’m not saying we have no strength. We do. I’m not saying we aren’t resilient. We are. I’m just saying we don’t have enough resilience to do any of this on our own.
Moses was all too aware of that fact, but he misunderstood the situation. He didn’t realize what God was actually saying.
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Exodus 3:11. Now note God’s glorious response: “I will certainly be with you.” Exodus 3:12 (NASB)
Does God answer the question? No. He shrugs it off. Who is Moses? That’s beside the point. This has almost nothing to do with Moses. The answer is God himself. In his presence, the strength comes.
Moses keeps looking for a loophole in this conversation, but each time, God tells him the same thing: “I will certainly be with you.” God didn’t pick Moses on the basis of his competence. No. The only reason this washout shepherd can face a mighty king is because a mightier King walks beside him.
That King walks with us, too. How else could we world-weary saints of earth stand against the floods of hell and circumstance? “I will certainly be with you.”
God reiterates this theme all throughout both the Old and New Testaments. The pages of Scripture are soaked with the assurance of God’s presence. Look, for example, at what he says to Isaac:
I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake. Genesis 26:24 (ESV)
His presence, God says, is grounds enough not to fear. He says something similar when he commissions Joshua on his impossible quest: Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the sons of Israel into the land which I swore to them, and I will be with you. Deuteronomy 31:23 (NASB). . . and to Gideon on his: “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you.” Judges 6:15-16 (ESV)
You see? There is no arguing with God when he gets like this. He simply insists on putting the weight of the world on his own shoulders, not yours. He promises to hold us tight and see us through, as he did to Isaiah and Israel: Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10 (ESV) Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. Isaiah 43:1-2 (ESV)
The violence of the trial won’t affect the outcome. God will not change his mind based on the severity of the flood. He has decided he will be with us, and that is that. His language on the matter is unmistakable: I will never leave you nor forsake you. Hebrews 13:5
And isn’t this the very reason why he came to earth in the first place? Didn’t Christ come in order to be near us? Jesus walked with his disciples, and even when he left, he assured them, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20 (ESV)). And even when the end of the age arrives, he will take us to his Father’s mansion, where we will dwell with him forever (John 14:1-2).
Even the name of God trumpets the same message. He is called Immanuel, which means, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
“I will be with you” isn’t just a promise. It is the promise. It is both the rationale of the Abrahamic covenant and the goal of God’s great rescue mission. For what did he save us from if not our self-sufficiency?