I have been watching reruns of the seminal late Eighties/early Nineties television show thirtysomething. At one point in season three, the character Nancy goes through treatment for ovarian cancer and along the way meets a fierce fellow cancer victim who is dying. One evening over a glass of wine, Nancy asks her new friend if she believes in God. Her friend tells her a story. As her mother lay dying – losing her own battle with cancer – their parish priest tried to comfort her by saying, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Nancy’s friend remembers wondering, “Does that mean if I had been a weaker person, my mother would still be alive?”
“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” is one of those religious sayings that I just can’t abide. The statement implies that God is a puppet master visiting various calamities upon us. Indeed, many people believe this is how God works, and it makes them bitter and angry. But if you believe that God is love, that God is merciful, you must agree that He does not give us illnesses or cause us misfortunes. A better way for that priest to have comforted the sorrowful daughter would be to assure her that God is there to give her grace and enable her to survive the terrible loss of her mother.
Another saying that really bothers me is often uttered when a child dies. “God just wanted her up in Heaven with Him,” people will tell the grieving parents. Or “God just needed another angel up in Heaven.” Again, how is that a comfort? It implies that God is selfish and willing to rip a child in an untimely fashion away from his or her parents so He can have her around. And it makes no sense. God is everywhere, so He doesn’t need to rush us to Heaven. He is literally dwelling within us.
I’m convinced that people mean well when they utter these religious platitudes, but what they are ultimately trying to do is reassure themselves. But sometimes bad things just happen to people. What faith offers us is a way to bear our suffering by believing God is with us always, even in the depths of our pain and despair. What human beings can offer the suffering is the same: their presence, their willingness to hold that person up when they are about to fall. The only words you really need to say are, “I’m sorry” and “I’m here.” No platitudes necessary.