An acquaintance recently said to me: “You know how everyone says that God won’t test you beyond your strength? That is total nonsense.” By this, I think he meant that God sends us many trials that overwhelm us and frankly seem like they are just too much for us to handle. My family has had its share of trials the last few years and it is amazing how many people have said this to us. When you’re really suffering, it’s actually frustrating when people repeatedly say it. But it is a quote from Scripture, right? Even with the suffering my family has gone through, we know we haven’t suffered nearly as much as others (to say the least). When your child or spouse dies, when mental illness overwhelms, when you’re trapped within a war (like so many in Syria), can’t feed your family, or are devastated by a natural disaster, aren’t you being tested beyond your strength?
Let’s look at the original text from Paul in First Corinthians 10. The Greek word in question, peirasmos, can be translated as both test and temptation. In this chapter, Paul discusses the wonders God performed for Israel during the Exodus and the time of wandering in the desert. In spite of God’s miraculous care, Paul says: “Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (v. 5). Paul acknowledges that we too might go the way of the stubborn and rebellious Israelites who were overwhelmed by the challenges of the desert. It is in this context that he teaches us about enduring trials and temptations:
Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation [peirasmos] has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (vv 11-13).
Right before he speaks about being tempted beyond our strength, he acknowledges that we may indeed fall. We may be overwhelmed by trial and temptation and cave in due to our weakness. Then why does he speak about our strength? What kind of strength do we have? Jesus makes the limits of our own strength pretty clear: “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). On our own, we do not have the strength to endure every trial and temptation.
Rather, I think the passage means that there is no temptation or trial beyond the Lord’s power. Paul explains elsewhere that when he was overwhelmed by a trial, which he called a thorn in the flesh, he needed reassurance from God: “Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12). We are weak in the face of hardships, but our strength is from the Lord.
In the Our Father, when we pray, “lead us not into temptation,” we use the same word, peirasmos. According to Strong’s Concordance it can mean any of the following: “trial, probation, testing, being tried, temptation, calamity, affliction.” If Jesus told us to pray to be spared of temptation, then why does God allow difficulties to confront us? We see an answer in Acts of the Apostles: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” God allows us to be tried, and facing our own incapacity to deal with them, we must trust in God all the more. In the end, in order to enter the Kingdom, we will face an ultimate trial, death, which will overcome our earthly strength. Yet through it, God brings us to our true homeland.
We can also flip the question on its head. I think it is significant that Paul also speaks about us putting God to the test, referring once again to the rebellious Israelites in the desert: “We must not put the Lord to the test (ekpeirazomen), as some of them did” (1 Cor 10:9). We see a linguistic link to peirasmos here, showing us that we should not tempt God (as Jesus answered Satan in Luke 4:12; both Jesus and Paul are quoting Deuteronomy 6:16). Tempting God means doubting God’s power and seeking to make a trial of God to show His power. As Aquinas says: “It is a sin to tempt God in order that the tempter himself may know God’s power,” as if God had to prove Himself to us (ST II-II q. 97, a. 2). Rather, we have to prove ourselves faithful to God. The key is, when we tempt God we put the focus on ourselves. Will God do what I want or need? Will He prove Himself faithful to me by doing what I want?
When we are overwhelmed with suffering, what should we do? Rather than testing God by seeing what He will do for us (insisting on what we want), we have to increase our trust and reliance on God, knowing that He will be with us no matter what happens. I often remind myself of the beautiful words of Jesus to the English mystic, Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.” We have to remember, of course, that this message does not mean that things will be easy, but that God is with us even in the midst of suffering. As Mary said to St. Bernadette: “I do not promise you happiness in this world, but in the other.” God does not promise us that everything will be easy, but that He will give us the grace to endure, with hope and joy, the trials that He sends us to perfect us. These trials definitely will be too big for us to handle without Him. In that sense, my acquaintance was somewhat correct in saying that we can’t misuse Paul’s passage to downplay trials. Rather, our trials are opportunities to grow in our faith, hope, and love of God, putting the focus on Him and off of ourselves.
If we follow God’s prompting, we can say with Paul: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” If we focus on getting out of suffering primarily, we’ll imitate the Israelites in the desert. Paul warns us against this. He says, do “not desire evil,” do “not indulge immorality,” “nor grumble” (1 Cor 10: 6, 8, 10). God wants to make us into saints and the way that this will be accomplished is by suffering, which keeps us humble and reliant on the help of God. This is why God does allow us to be tested beyond our own strength. He lets us know that we are not strong enough on our own, and that the strength we need comes from Him. We are never tested beyond the strength He wants to give us.