God never gives you more than you can handle, right?

I’m not so sure. Not now. Not anymore.

It’s my point of view that some people get more than they can handle. Some people lie in bed laughing with that crazy-person laugh because they have lost about as much as they thought they possibly could and are still pushing forward with an unseen strength. They lose their home, their health, their jobs, their loved ones. When I think, for example, of Job—he whose wife told him to “curse God and die!” and who then went on to lose his children—I think, “Brother, how didn’t you curse God and die?” I think of David hiding from Saul in caves near the Dead Sea, spending years as a fugitive in fear for his life, later losing his son, and crying out to a God that he loved with the whole of his heart but may have thought for a moment wasn’t hearing his desperate cries.

We’re never promised we won’t “get more than we can handle.” The closest promise we receive in this regard is 1 Corinthians 10:13, which speaks of God giving us an escape from temptations so that it’s not too much to bear. But when it comes to pain, trial, heartache, woe—not once does the Bible say that we’ll be spared from more than we can handle.

Instead we are admonished, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33). Not only is our life not a rosy garden path, we are told outright to expect tribulation. The rain falls on us and on everyone else (Matthew 5:45); sometimes in a whispered sprinkle, sometimes in a downpour that soaks our beleaguered bones.

Paul writes in Philippians 4:12-13, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”   There will be times that fleeing it all seems easier than dealing with it and muddling through. But getting more than we can handle forces our gaze upward for some help. If we could handle the mess on our own, we’d never have to seek God’s help in managing it.

“Your brother’s gone”

I was sitting in our bedroom next to my napping husband, Matt, waiting for literary inspiration. I surfed the news and looked outside at the glittering landscape and the squirrels on unsteady footing. I had a strange, surreal moment of prescient peace. I smiled out the window at nothing in particular, and at everything in our lives. How funny and strange and wonderful this journey of ours was. How vast the things we’d seen and survived and learned.

The phone rang. I set it to ignore, not wanting to wake Matt. Then a text showed up from my mom: “Sarah—it’s urgent that you call us right away.” Yikes, I thought. I left the room and dialed her number. Dad answered.

“Sarah, we were on the way to North Carolina. Is Matt there?”

“Yea, but he’s napping.”

“I need you to wake him up, honey.”

A softball of anxiety started to mount in my chest. I sprinted down the hall in my socks, nearly upending myself on the hardwood floor. I shook Matt awake.

“It’s Mom and Dad. They said it’s urgent.”

He sat up, and I put Dad on speakerphone. The phone lay between us like a deck of cards, small, unobtrusive. It was quiet on the other end of the line. Then Dad began:

“I got a call from Ally this morning. She had let Sam sleep in the bed, while she slept on the couch. He needed the rest.”

My brother Sam, the one who had survived bacterial meningitis, and an accidental gunshot to the head, and lymphoma. My brother, who had undergone chemotherapy and developed an accompanying set of symptoms that caused excruciating head pain. My brother Sam who was always sick, but always recovered. My brother Sam who had just called me a few days ago, wishing me a happy birthday, and reminding  me I was older than him, joking  I was just “old” in general.

“Sarah, I’m so glad you were born,” Sam had said, just a few days before.

My dad went on. “Ally went in to check on him this morning. And honey…”

My dad, always articulate, paused here. There was a catch that interrupted his cadence. I knew he was struggling to say something that was going to change everything, for all time.

“Your brother’s gone.”

“No!” I yelled into the phone. “No, no, no! You’re wrong! You’re wrong! I began shaking.

“I’m so sorry, honey.”

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I had fled to the bathroom and fallen face down on the floor, sobbing. Matt finished a conversation with Dad somehow, and then came over and wrapped his arms around my prone body.

“Baby, it’s okay. I’m here. I’m so very sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

I curled myself into a ball, crying that ugly cry where everything in your face is leaking. At that moment, I very much hated God for what seemed the incomprehensible decision to take a 36-year-old man away from his wife and three young daughters. This, to me, was the ultimate severance from the Lord whom I had loved and followed my whole life. Matt and I had weathered difficulty—even thrived in its wake—and yet I had still fallen from a cliff I hadn’t foreseen. I felt very much like everyone else in the world who has raised their fists at heaven in a fury of earthly misunderstanding and finite knowledge.

Matt pulled me off the floor and into his arms. “I am here. We will get through this together. I promise.”

In the following 48 hours, we managed to book five airline tickets, a rental car, and six nights in a California hotel with my parents and youngest brother. We crafted care instructions for our kids and our animals, wrote medical releases in case something should happen, notified their teachers, packed for a week, and stocked the house with groceries. I will look back on this brief period and then wonder how it was all done so quickly and correctly, as if it can be said there is a “right” way to course-correct an entire family in the onslaught of grief. And then I will remember that is was God. Other explanations evade me.

The funeral ceremony came together in similar perfection, with an availability of musicians and a pastor and a chapel that wouldn’t have made sense to anyone else but those who knew the Lord was behind it all, even the tragedy that no one could explain. My parents were insistent that the gospel be preached above all. Because, as my mother said, “This is the definition of why Christ went to the cross! So that death” (pointing to my brother laid out in the funeral home) “would not get the last word!”

All those who spoke about him remarked on Sam’s unwavering faith and his commitment to the belief that God was both the Author of all things and the only possibility for their success. A number of co-workers of Sam’s were in attendance that day, some of whom were atheists, some of whom had ribbed Sam for his stalwart Christianity. On the day of his funeral, they were exposed to the very gospel message itself.

Yearning for contentment

Who can know why the Lord blesses some and stays His hand from blessing others; why He permits hardship for the one, and ease for the other. What do I have? Blessings and hardship both, knit tightly, flowing side by side, some so close that they succeed one another in a single day. I have learned, as Paul wrote, to be content in all things: in plenty and in want, because my earthly portion includes both.

William Henry Channing, a nineteenth-century clergyman, summed up his philosophy of life like this: “To live content with small means; to see elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable; and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard, to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common.” I aspire to live this way. I seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). I yearn for the contentment that only comes from stripping away the things that once seemed to matter most: money, health, houses. Even a brother.

My family and I, our portions include burdens and comforts, tragedies and tragic-comedies, failing flesh, but the power of God. We have plenty of one to deal with the other, and a growing contentment in all things. We have lost much, failed grandly, hurt often. But we are newly content.

These cracked jars of ours, they overflow.

Adapted from Sand in My Sandwich  © 2015 by Sarah Parshall Perry. Used by permission of Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved.