1 Corinthians 10:13 and Suffering

I had an email exchange with a friend earlier this year that I thought was very valuable. With his permission, I have included it here. I hope it might be interesting to others. It has to deal with the tests and challenges of life.

The most penetrating question came late in an email exchange from my friend:

What about a Rohingya woman, fleeing from murderous persecution in Myanmar, and then thugs took her baby boy and threw it (alive) into a fire? This is a true story from 2017. Her life has been ripped up, inside out. But she has no faith because she knows no God. Her pain is exquisite. She has been tried or tested beyond her ability to endure. How do we apply this to her?

You’ll have to keep reading to see my response. I think it’s important to understand the background of this penetrating and critical question. So I start at the beginning.

The email exchange started this way:

Have you ever studied the Greek word “peirasmos”, its applicability to temptation, tests, and trials, and its intended usage in the New Testament?

My first response was this (and lest you get bogged down in these paragraphs, realize that the ‘meat’ of this conversation is below, but this short study helps set the stage; skim through to the next section, if needed):

Peirasmos itself is found twenty times in the Greek NT and fourteen times in the Greek OT (Septuagint), mostly in the Apocrypha, and as a noun has as its primary meaning a test or trial, God’s examination of man, but also a temptation or enticement. I’ll give a full list below of where you can find it in English, so you can see the context of each usage. It’s related to several other words with similar meanings (peira, peiraō, peirazō, etc.) that add dozens more references (peirazō, the verb form, is probably the most common, with nearly one hundred occurrences; I’ll also include that below). In secular Greek, this group of words generally mean ‘to put to the test,’ such as finding out just what a man can do, or testing a city’s defenses before an attack. It was also used as a test to assess the value of something or in a medical situation, such as testing someone’s prognosis. There is often a sense of hostility: the test may assume that the person or thing is going to fail, which the test is designed to substantiate.

In the scriptures, the meaning is similar generally without the anticipation of failure, at least on God’s part. The testing, though, works both ways: God tests men and men test God (and other people). Abraham’s faith is tested in this way in Genesis 22, when he is commanded to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, a test that he passes with flying colors. The ten commandments are such a test (Exodus 20:20), as was Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden. In the OT is the notion that man can also test God, such as the people complaining in Exodus 17:1-7; in v. 7 the name given to the place in Greek is a form of this word (peirazein). When man tests God, it does not usually end well (Numbers 14). We’re commanded to do the opposite—to trust God, have faith in his commands, and be obedient in all things. So Ahaz told Isaiah would not tempt the Lord, not because he was righteous but because he knew these stories in the Torah and was compelled to thus refuse the sign out of fear (Isaiah 7:12).

In the NT, Luke uses the noun form the most (six times), usually referring to Jesus’ dealing with a temptation or trial, while Matthew prefers the verb (6 times), typically associated with people tempting or testing Jesus’ claims of Messiahship. Acts uses the verb 5 times and Paul 6 times in his letters. The most famous scripture, likely, to use it in the NT is 1 Corinthians 10:13, where it is found twice in noun form and once more in verb form (all bolded in the quote):

“No testing (peirasmos) has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested (peirazo) beyond your strength, but with the testing (peirasmos) he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (NRSV).

Most of the uses are about avoiding temptations and trials, whatever their source. James has a somewhat unique perspective when he says, “Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations” (or “when you encounter various trials,” James 1:2, NASB), implying that such temptations and tests are blessings. Peter may have been saying something similar: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6, NIV). We would add D&C 122:5-7 to the discussion. It’s not that such trials come because of God, but how we respond to them says something about our faith in God. Jesus taught that prayer can help us avoid many such tests and trials (Mark 14:38). Jesus is the model for coping with such testing in Matthew 4:1-11, which is noted in Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15. But he faced additional testing in Gethsemane (even as he told the disciples to pray to stay out of trials, Luke 22:40, 46) and throughout his life, which he acknowledged in his words of gratitude to disciples who stood by him as he dealt with these trials (Luke 22:28).

Noun (peirasmos)

  • Exo 17:7
  • Deut 4:34; 6:16; 7:19; 9:22; 29:2
  • Psalm 94:8
  • 1 Macc 2:52
  • Ben Sirach 2:1; 6:7; 27:5, 7; 33:1
  • Matt 6:13; 26:41
  • Mark 14:38
  • Luke 4:13; 8:13; 11:4; 22:28, 40, 46
  • Acts 20:19
  • 1 Cor 10:13
  • Gal 4:14
  • 1 Tim 6:9
  • Heb 3:8
  • James 1:2, 12
  • 1 Peter 1:6; 4:12
  • 2 Peter 2:9
  • Rev 3:10

Verb (peirazo)

  • Gen 22:1
  • Exo 15:25; 16:4; 17:2, 7; 20:20
  • Num 14:22
  • Deut 4:34; 13:4; 33:8
  • Judges 2:22; 3:1, 4; 6:39
  • 1 Kings 10:1
  • 2 Chr 9:1; 21:31
  • Judith 8:12, 25, 26
  • Tbs 12:13
  • 2 Macc 2:23; 11:19
  • 4 Macc 9:7; 15:16
  • Psalm 25:2; 34:16; 77:41, 56; 94:9; 105:14
  • Eccles 2:1; 7:23
  • Wisdom 1:2; 2:17, 24; 3:5; 11:9; 12:26; 19:5
  • Sirach 4:17; 13:11; 18:23; 37:27; 39:4
  • Isa 7:12
  • Daniel 1:12, 14; 12:10
  • Matt 4:1, 3; 16:1; 19:3; 22:18, 35
  • Mark 1:13; 8:11; 10:2; 12:15
  • Luke 4:2; 11:16
  • John 6:6; 8:6
  • Acts 5:9; 9:26; 15:10; 16:7; 24:6
  • 1 Cor 7:5; 10:9, 13
  • 2 Cor 13:5
  • Gal 6:1
  • 1 Thess 3:5
  • Heb 2:18; 3:9; 4:15; 11:17
  • James 1:13, 14
  • Rev 2:2, 10; 3:10

My friend’s response brought an academic discussion home to real life, something he’s quite good at:

Thanks very much. Here’s what I was wrestling with: Many people (like me) who don’t know Greek rely on the English in 1 Corinthians 10. The words say that we won’t be tempted beyond our ability. But many people (again, without knowing the root Greek word) also say, “We won’t be tried beyond what we can handle.” I hear this way too often in the Church — by people who have never been tried to the point of emotional or spiritual or physical death.

I’ve seen these kinds of trials (with exceptionally faithful people). And while in the trial, the pain is exquisite (a word I learned to relate in such a way during a period of inspiration). Assuming the exquisitely pained person can “come up for air,” even very briefly, there can be a respite that allows one to call for help from God. This is the direct application of faith as a principle of action. And then, on God’s infinite and all-loving time schedule, power is sent from heaven. But if the so-pained person doesn’t exercise faith, then they might, in fact, be doomed.

We do not preach a gospel of prosperity. Conversely we don’t also preach a gospel of adversity. Life on a fallen earth has great adversity. The gospel message is always one of deliverance.

I pondered his reply as it struck a chord. I knew that my friend did indeed know such stories, for he has ministered to many in great need and pain. I composed this reply next:

I believe we can be tempted beyond our ability to obey, and in our weakness we sin. But I love Elder Holland’s quote of George Q. Cannon: “No matter how serious the trial, how deep the distress, how great the affliction, [God] will never desert us.” (Oct 1997). That doesn’t mean: a) we don’t fail miserably sometimes; or, b) we don’t suffer as a result. It does mean that he is always there for us.

And I believe we can be tested beyond our ability to endure, in our mortal state. Sometimes the only deliverance from such exquisite pain (a great phrase, btw) is the ultimate solution: death. But Paul’s point doesn’t require that extreme solution.

Anyone who tries to make 1 Cor 10:13 say that we cannot be tempted or tried beyond our own abilities misses the point and simply needs to read the whole chapter:

  • vv. 1-4: The Israelites were blessed in the Exodus as they relied on the Rock of Christ
  • v. 5: Many sinned and suffered accordingly, even to death
  • vv. 6-8: This should be an example to us to not seek after evil
  • v. 9: Don’t tempt Christ; some of them did and were killed by snakes (uses a form of our word pierasmos here twice)
  • v. 10: Don’t murmur; some of them were destroyed for doing that
  • v. 11: They are an example for us to heed
  • v. 12: If you think you are strong, be careful—you might fall
  • v. 13: Trials come to everyone. God can be trusted and will not test you beyond your capacity but will provide a way out so you can endure
  • v. 14: Therefore, flee from sin

What’s his point? The ancient Israelites were blessed when they relied on God and suffered, even to death, when they gave in to evil. Likewise, we must be careful not to fall to evil. God gives us the strength to overcome evil and endure tests / trials / temptations, but it requires us to flee from sin. It requires the exercise of choice and agency to follow God.

You’re right, it is a gospel of deliverance and salvation, in all its meanings. But adversity is a part of this world and the free exercise of agency, as you said. Just as Alma and his people prayed for escape from their afflictions (which evil men had imposed on them, not because they sinned) and God instead made them strong enough to bear the burdens (Mosiah 24:13-15) until they could be delivered, so Paul promises that God has made us strong enough to deal with all the things of this life, if we trust him. It’s about free will and agency. Wrote Richard Draper and Michael Rhodes about this verse:

The word order, πιστὸς δὲ ὁ θεός (pistos de ho theos), “God is faithful,” is emphatic, putting stress on the adjective “faithful.” The Corinthian Saints can have complete trust in God because of his faithfulness in keeping covenants. The verb ἐάω (εαō), “to allow, permit,” shows that God will always act in the manner specified. The verb δύναμαι (dynamai), “to be able,” “to have strength,” or “to have capacity,” carries the idea of being able to carry a task to conclusion. In this case, Paul assures the Corinthian “strong” that God will put a damper on any temptation such that they can resist it if they will. (Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians: BYU New Testament Commentary Series, 1 Corinthians 10:13).

There is always a way out, not because we have any innate abilities or power but because God loves us and will always be there. Faith and hope—and charity for those so suffering (because we just might be their way out)!

Finally, getting very specific and as real-world as it gets, he asked this:

What about a Rohingya woman, fleeing from murderous persecution in Myanmar, and then thugs took her baby boy and threw it (alive) into a fire? This is a true story from 2017. Her life has been ripped up, inside out. But she has no faith because she knows no God. Her pain is exquisite. She has been tried or tested beyond her ability to endure. How do we apply this to her?

I took a full day to ponder and reply, as his question gave me great pause. I imagined this woman standing in front of me as I wrote it, though she’s not likely to ever know my thoughts. But I pictured many others who have suffered in life as well, and did my best to compose something I thought was true but also supportive.

If I could explain evil in the world with all its consequences, that would be amazing. Poets, prophets, philosophers, and theologians have wrestled with that, and typically came away with more questions than answers. The improper exercise of agency must be one of the most painful things for our heavenly Father to watch, and yet he enthrones it as a core principle, because agency is the supreme law of progression. Nothing could happen on earth until agency was exercised by Adam and Eve, and the final act of mankind will be to exercise agency and surrender to the will of God at the judgment.

The woman you speak of, however truly tragic and unimaginable, is sadly but one story among millions. And from my observation, the vast majority who so suffer in our modern world and in ages past have not known God in any way that they could even reach out to him to ease their pain. On my mission in France, I repeatedly had people tell me they could not believe in God because if God existed, there would be no suffering in the world. As a 19-year-old, I had no coherent answer for that statement, and forty years later I’m not sure I have progressed much beyond that position. And though I am struck by the many, many talks in General Conference that consistently address the idea of dealing with suffering in this life with faith, I cannot recall a talk addressing why people without the gospel (or any knowledge of God and Christ) are benefitted from such pain, except perhaps to bring them to God. But for literally billions today and throughout history, they have almost no way of gaining that knowledge in this life, at least beyond any whisperings of the Spirit teaching them privately.

However, one book that addresses this somewhat is The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens. Perhaps you’ve read it. They wrote:

The pain associated with sin is the natural consequence of our choices; it is not God’s retribution upon the wicked . . . When Enoch saw God weeping, he learned that it was humanity’s “misery,” the fact of their “suffering,” that drew forth heaven’s tears. God’s mourning for rebellious Israel was for their present misery, not an imagined future hell. The gift and power of agency mean we are free to create the conditions of our own existence—which can be a blessing or a curse. . . . What is always at stake in any decision we make is what that choice turns us into. We may suffer the unfortunate consequences of other peoples’ choices. People may honor or abuse us, harm or nourish us. But for the most part, it is our own choices that shape our identity (pp. 80-81).

So perhaps the real point is that how we react and deal with such pain is the opportunity for real personal growth, whether we know God or not. We love stories of people who not only cope with but who overcome pain and suffering to do some good in the world. But honestly, such stories are powerful because they are rare. I think most just try to get through another day, consistently baffled that they could be so unjustly treated, likely concluding that God or fate or the universe must be truly against them.

I was struck by a statistic once that said about 350,000 people die per day on the earth, as an average. That is equivalent to an entire large city. I ponder that when I hear the news about this death or that, and one day it especially hit me when there was that huge tsunami in the Pacific that killed about 350,000 people. I thought, from God’s perspective, that catastrophic natural disaster merely doubled the number that he welcomed into the spirit world that day. That thought might strike you as somehow ignoring their suffering or minimizing the tragedy of that event, but for me, it put it in a fascinating eternal perspective. Yes, in this life we suffer, and some suffer far more than I can imagine in my mostly sheltered, safe, and healthy life here in the US. But all suffering ends and in God’s perspective, really isn’t that long anyway. One day, perhaps, we’ll look back on our brief mortal sojourn and see it through that lens. That Rohingya woman will have been taught about Christ and the Atonement, will have been reunited with her slain baby boy, now a powerful, mature son of God, and will have found great joy in her own eternal progression toward divinity. I think like Enoch seeing God weep, she will still feel that exquisite pain, but it will have been overcome and subsumed by exquisite joy and gratitude for the grace of God in her path toward her ultimate perfection. We will all fall down before the Father and the Son, like the people in John’s Revelation, with God wiping away all tears, with no more death, sorrow, crying, or pain, for all these things have passed away (Rev 21:4).

I don’t claim to understand it but I find hope in that promise of eternal deliverance for all of us, regardless of what challenges this life might bring.

Mortality is about suffering, in some form or another. How shall we respond? My friend concluded that for many, we have some form of an answer. But as we deal with people on the edge of the curve of suffering and trials, such as the woman in Myanmar, “we can either get uncomfortable or we create polite but unsubstantiated false doctrines,”—not as an official, institutional Church response but those we might generate in our Sunday School or other classes to try and make sense of the world.

But that discomfort with the messiness of life is good, since it drives us to our knees and keeps us humble and dependent on a higher power. As my friend said, while some things might be closed to our current understanding, we can take satisfaction in the knowledge we do have and in the continued opportunity to learn and understand more of the mind of God.

And as we’re learning, we can and must do all we can to ease the suffering of others, whether in Myanmar or in our own neighborhood or even our own home. Therein lies the true message of the gospel: “love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34).

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