More than you can handle.
The story of Gideon and the God whose faith eclipses our doubts.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
Of all the so-called “Christian” mottos that I wish would die a cruel death and disappear forever, number one on that list is, God won’t give you more than you can handle. The motivation behind this slogan is understandable, perhaps. This saying is something you might whip out whenever a friend is enduring an especially rough patch of life. “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is, in that context, meant to be an encouragement. “You can make it through because you’re made of tough stuff!” In fact, one very famous Houston-based preacher put it like this: “God will not give you more than you can handle. If you have a big challenge today, that means you have a big destiny.” As uplifting and encouraging as that may be, though, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is, perhaps, the most untrue thing you could say to someone who’s suffering.
You won’t find that message anywhere in the Bible. While you might be quick to reference 1 Corinthians 10:13, that verse actually has nothing to do with suffering and everything to do with temptation. “God won’t give you more than you can handle” simply doesn’t hold water, both biblically and experientially. There have been a slew of seasons in my own life where it felt as though God was pouring it on, where I was given way more than I could handle. I’m sure you could say the same. This, I think, is one of the reasons we have the Bible — namely, so that we can see that this experience of being “so utterly burdened beyond our strength” (2 Cor. 1:8–9) is not at all rare or uncommon to the faith. Rather, it is part and parcel of our faith in God. And there is probably no better example of this in all of Scripture than the Old Testament character of Gideon.
Gideon’s story is a familiar one. His feats of strength are the stuff of legend. You’ve undoubtedly heard the tale about Gideon “the mighty man of valor” on numerous occasions. But if you’ve ever left hearing or reading about Gideon impressed with Gideon, you’ve missed the point. The story of Gideon isn’t really about Gideon and his stellar leadership which led to Israel’s deliverance from Midianite oppression. Actually, it’s about Gideon’s timid, faint-hearted faith being met and eclipsed by God’s tireless faithfulness. It’s about how God often gives us way more than we can handle so that we “rely not on ourselves but on God” (2 Cor. 1:8–9).
Before getting to Gideon, it’s crucial to understand the circumstances in which he served as a judge over Israel. For seven years, Midianite raiders ransacked Israel’s farmlands (Judg. 6:1–5). This would become a cruel annual holiday, of sorts, with Israel’s farmsteads regularly being “laid to waste” by enemy invaders, leaving them with nothing and bringing them to their wits’ end. The people’s cries “to the Lord” are answered in the form of a prophet, sent by Yahweh with a rather uncomfortable message (Judg. 6:7–10). In short, Israel’s current state of affairs were self-inflicted. The ravaging of their homes and their lands was a direct result of their rebellion against the One True God. And yet, it is in this state of desperation and devastation that God raises up the most unlikely deliverer.
When we are introduced to Gideon, he’s participating in the covert operations to which Israel had resorted (Judg. 6:11). This is a sign of things to come with Gideon, who, as we’ll see, is “a most unheroic hero” (Davis). As Gideon threshes wheat in a winepress, the “angel of the Lord” appears in front of him and strikes up a conversation with him — and right away Gideon reveals the doubtful dude he is. “Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” Gideon hopelessly inquires. “But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian” (Judg. 6:13). Greeted by a messenger from heaven who seeks to encourage him with God’s presence, his gaze is focused on all the apparent evidences of God’s absence. “The Lord’s not with us!” he exclaims. “Look around, he’s forgotten us! He’s forsaken us!” This, of course, was more than just Gideon’s opinion; this was the common sentiment within Israel, he just gave voice to it. Israel was in disarray in those days, ravaged not only by enemy raiders but also by its own propensity for sin and idolatry. They had been “brought very low” in every which way (Judg. 6:6).
The angel, though, disregards the questions and goes right on affirming Gideon’s calling: “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” (Judg. 6:14). Gideon protests yet again, this time pointing to the apparent weakness, obscurity of his family (Judg. 6:15). “You’ve got the wrong guy,” he moans. But, yet again, the angel repeats the same set of words (Judg. 6:16). To every one of Gideon’s protests, the angel offers the same promise: “Yahweh is with you.” Indeed, from the very beginning of this conversation, the angel has made it clear what force would propel Gideon to fulfill such a daunting task — namely, the “with-ness” of the Lord. “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor” (Judg. 6:12).
Calling Gideon a hero is a bit of a misnomer because all of his bravery originates in the word of promise given to him by the angel. He had no valor of his own of which to speak or in which to trust. It was precisely the presence of the Lord that would enable Gideon to realize a sweeping triumph over Israel’s oppressors. And yet, despite all the assurances of divine presence and power, Gideon has his doubts. His first response to the angel’s words was to ask for a sign (Judg. 6:17–18). Apparently, a heavenly word from a heavenly messenger was not sufficient to quell his fears; he required something more, something “miraculous” even.
The angel agrees to wait around while Gideon prepares a meal for him, complete with roasted goat and freshly baked bread. When the last pinch of garnish is in place, the meal is brought before the angel, who proceeds to touch the table setting with the staff that was in his hand, vaporizing everything! In a flash, a fireball consumes the entire entrée — even the angel has disappeared (Judg. 6:19–21). Suddenly, Gideon has an epiphany: “Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord” (Judg. 6:22). He realizes that his dinner guest was no mere messenger from heaven. This was “The Angel of the Lord,” Mal’āḵ Yahweh, a pre-incarnate appearance of the only begotten Son of God (Judg. 6:22–24). Now the weight of Gideon’s calling comes into full view. Though he was a weak and insignificant nobody, he’d been summoned by God himself to bring about Israel’s deliverance. And he wouldn’t set out to accomplish this feat on his own. He had God’s word of promise: “I will be with you.”
The Lord, then, gives Gideon his first test, charging him with destroying the altars of Baal and Asherah that had been erected in his own hometown (Judg. 6:25–32). What’s fascinating about Operation Idol Destruction is that it plainly identifies where Israel’s biggest problem was. Word on the street was Midian was mobilizing its forces for yet another raid. But prior to dealing with that threat, God’s first assignment for Judge Gideon was Gideon’s own backyard. Israel’s biggest enemy wasn’t Midian, it was Israel’s own idolatry and iniquity. What would it matter if they were free from enemy oppression if they were still enslaved to sin? Nevertheless, with the Midianites marauders on the move, the time had come for Gideon to march out and face them (Judg. 6:33–35). This brings us to Gideon’s second request for a sign from God with his infamous request concerning the fleece:
Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.” And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.” And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew. (Judg. 6:36–40)
Notwithstanding what you’ve been told about this moment, make no mistake: “fleecing God” is not a sign of faith. This isn’t a “go and do likewise” event. Actually, this is another example of Gideon’s weak and faint-hearted faith. Even after all the assurances he’s already been given, with Yahweh himself coming down to single him out as Israel’s chosen deliverer, Gideon doubted. The Lord’s unconditional promise did little to galvanize Gideon’s courage, as he responds to God’s calling with a series of conditional requests: “If you will save . . . If there is dew . . . Then I shall know” (Judg. 6:36–37). Gideon, you see, is searching for the assurance he’s already been given.
Perhaps the most stunning part of this whole “sign of the fleece” ordeal is the fact that God answers Gideon’s requests without reprimanding him. Now some take this as an indication that God approved of this double-request for a sign. But, I say, this whole scene is an unmistakable example of God’s grace. “And it was so . . . And God did so” (Judg. 6:38, 40). To each of Gideon’s quaking petitions, God graciously answers. That’s just who God is: “God is not ashamed to stoop down and reassure us in our fears,” comments Dale Ralph Davis. “God doesn’t mind humbling himself in order to bolster our fragile faith, our wavering grip on his word” (100). Ours is a God who is unashamed to condescend to our places of doubt and dread in order to remind us of his word of promise for us. Yes, even if that means he has to take on flesh.
With that, you might be given to think that God was through with testing Gideon. With such a “Herculean task” ahead of him, what good could possibly come from putting more of a strain on his already weak and wobbly faith? “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” right? Try telling that to Gideon as he strolls through the Israelite encampment with 32,000 men alongside, knowing full well that Midan’s forces more than tripled that number. Such is when God has the gall to tell him, “That’s too many guys” (Judg. 7:2). An allowance is given for those who were “fearful and trembling” to walk away and return home without any judgment (Judg. 7:3; Deut. 20:8). Suddenly, 32,000 looks a lot more like 10,000. “That’s still too many guys,” God tells his judge (Judg. 7:4–8).
Now, some preachers have made a big deal about the way in which these men drink at the river’s edge. All kinds of conclusions and principles have been drawn from differentiating between the “lappers” and the “kneelers.” But don’t get distracted by those details. The point of this scene isn’t for us to see how Gideon whittled his battalion to a “mighty 300.” This isn’t Leonidas and his Spartans the night before Thermopylae. In short, this entire sequence is yet another test of Gideon’s faith, setting the stage so that God’s strength might be the only thing remembered (Judg. 7:2). This, of course, was way more than Gideon could handle. It’s as if God was putting his faith through the wringer to find its breaking point.
After 31,700 armed men walk away, Gideon’s timidity is bolstered by yet another offering of assurance. This time, God tells him to disguise himself and venture down to where the Midianite army is encamped. “I want you to hear something,” the Lord tells him, “and if you’re too afraid to go by yourself, you can have your servant tag along” (Judg. 7:9–11). Gideon takes the offer and goes down to the Midianite barracks, where he’s immediately inundated by a vast, sprawling army that looked “like locusts in abundance” (Judg. 7:12). But God knew what he was doing, though, as he leads Gideon and his partner to a tent where two enemy soldiers are talking about a dream one of them had:
When Gideon came, behold, a man was telling a dream to his comrade. And he said, “Behold, I dreamed a dream, and behold, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian and came to the tent and struck it so that it fell and turned it upside down, so that the tent lay flat.” And his comrade answered, “This is no other than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given into his hand Midian and all the camp.” (Judg. 7:13–14)
God, you see, was using pagan superstition against them, as these Midianite infantrymen understood this fearful dream to be nothing short of a fateful omen which spelled their doom. Gideon, though, walked away immersed in the great faithfulness of his great God and led his 300 comrades to victory (Judg. 7:15–22). Gideon and Israel were made to share in the triumph Yahweh had given to them. Indeed, the victory over Midian had nothing to do with Gideon’s military prowess or Israel’s courage. Rather, it had everything to do with a God who proves himself strong and mighty and faithful wherever we are weak.
Whatever ability or aptitude, power or potential we think we have in and ourselves, that’s what God aims to expunge. “You think it’s about pedigree?” an affronted God might ask. “Let me have Gideon from the weakest and the least of the tribes. You think it’s about your abilities? Let me show you what I can do through a weak and wobbly servant. You think it’s about numbers? Let me show you what I can do with a mere 300, armed with nothing but trumpets and torches!” God, you see, has a fondness for whittling down whatever we might rely on that’s not him. His agenda is concerned with ushering us to the point where he and his Word are our only hope. And more often than not, that means giving us way more than we can handle so that we are forced to fall on him.
God wants his word of promise to be the only thing we bank on, the only thing we have confidence in. He wants our full weight of trust to rest on him alone. We don’t need to doubt him. We don’t need more “signs.” We have all the signs we need in his Word of abundant assurance. “We have Christ and the Spirit,” writes Alexander Maclaren, “and so have a ‘word made more sure’ than to require signs” (2:1.234). But even when we doubt, God doesn’t chide us or belittle us. “He does not ridicule us for our fears,” Davis writes, “he never mocks us because we are fragile” (106). Rather, he meets us in the midst of our doubting and questioning and trembling with the promise that he is with us and for us.
The words of the angel are still true: “The Lord is with you,” sinner and sufferer. This is no platitude. This is no fable. This isn’t even something that was merely said in the past. This is the present-tense good news of God for you. In grief, in confusion, in sorrow, in weakness, in loss, in it all, “the Lord is with you.” You and I don’t have to try to get through life’s harrowing days on our own. When you are weak and faint-hearted; when you feel like you’ve been given way more than you can handle, God’s word of promise is still true: “I will be with you.” “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). In the gospel, the Lord embodies this promise in flesh and blood. He comes all the way to where you are to give you a blood-soaked reminder that he didn’t leave you at your worst, so he’s not gonna leave you when you’re at your weakest.
Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation, Focus on the Bible Commentary Series (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2015).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).