There are many popular sayings that are circulated within Christian culture. These sayings are well intentioned, but can have unintended theological consequences. As Christians, our theology should be deeply rooted in a biblical worldview and not from popular Christian phrases. Here are three well-meaning sayings that should be examined more closely through the lens of Scripture.
1. “The Lord never places on you more than you can handle.”
There are many people who believe this phrase is found in Scripture. However, it appears it is a slight variation of a quote from Mother Teresa. She stated, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”
Some suggest 1 Corinthians 10:13 as the basis for this saying. It reads, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
The distinct difference between this saying and the Bible passage is the Scriptures are focused upon resistance of temptation, while the saying seems to reference trials and life’s circumstances. The phrase seems to imply that God has placed this hardship upon you because He believes you can “handle it.” Let me be clear, the Lord will be with you through the darkest of life’s circumstances but He does not bring those things into your life simply because you can “handle it.” I can think of many of life’s circumstances that are seemingly unbearable… rape, loss of a child… and I’m sure you can think of many as well. The Lord does not place these things on us. We live in a broken world and life’s circumstances can be extremely difficult. Christ is our source of strength during those moments. So when we are faced with the trials of life we can face them with confidence… not because God believes we can handle them… but because He can handle them and He will see us through.
2. “God needed another angel.”
On occasion I hear this well-meaning phrase quoted to a grieving family. The Bible identifies humans and angels as two different created beings (cf. Psalm 8:4-5; Hebrews 12:22-23). Humans do not become angels upon death. Nor do people “earn their wings.”
It is likely this phrase comes from Mormon influence. According to the Book of Mormon “holy people” become angels. Mormons suggest that Adam is now the archangel Michael and Noah is now the archangel Gabriel.
The phrase “God needed another angel” is not even a comforting sentiment. Use of this phrase can make God to seem selfish and uncaring for the grieving family.
3. “Heaven helps those who help themselves.”
The phrase is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin. However, the phrase can actually be traced back to ancient Greece. In his Greek tragedy Philoctetes from 409 BC, Sophocles wrote, “No good e’er comes of leisure purposeless; And heaven ne’er helps the men who will not act.” Algernon Sidney is credited with the most popular phrasing, “God helps those who help themselves.”
The sentiment of this phrase is not found in Scripture. In fact, it is quite contrary to the concept of grace. Grace is unmerited favor. Grace can be understood as receiving something we don’t deserve. Ephesians 2:8-9 states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” In contrast, the Muslim’s Quran, Chapter 13:11 states, “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”
Perhaps the well-meaning phrase is intended to motivate believers to take initiative and to discourage laziness and apathy. Consider the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
Also He (Jesus) spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like the other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
It might be better stated, “God gives grace to the humble” rather than "Heaven helps those who help themselves."
Perhaps these verses on humility are a better alternative to this well-meaning phrase…
“Surely He scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble.” Prov. 3:34
“But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” James 4:6
“Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” 1 Peter 5:5
We must be careful not to embrace phrases simply because they use Christian words (e.g. The Lord, God, angel, and heaven). Instead, we must consider the phrases in light of Scripture. As I was researching each of these phrases I came across a number of bloggers who listed “Christian clichés.” I was disappointed to read that many of them listed actual verses from Scripture as “clichés” that we should avoid in our Christian language! Scripture should never be dismissed as merely cliché. There are many Christian phrases that contain strong theology, but our theology must rest upon Scripture not a collection of popular Christian sayings.
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Dr. Chris Dortch has been in vocational ministry since 1993. His blog is aimed to "equip the saints for the work of ministry."