In the previous post, we saw how Paul used a variety of known stories from Israel’s history to warn the Corinthians of the possible consequences of their spiritual arrogance. “So if you think you are standing,” he wrote, “watch out that you do not fall” (1 Cor 10:12, NRSV).
With the warning, however, comes a well-known word of encouragement:
No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities. Instead, with the temptation, God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it. (1 Cor 10:13, CEB)
Again, the context: some of the Corinthians, converts from paganism, are continuing to frequent the rites at pagan temples. On the surface, the issue is their freedom to eat the meat that is sacrificed there as part of the festivities. They know that idols have no real existence, they argue, so how could it hurt? But there are hints scattered through the letter that there’s more than simply a meal involved; the party might include an X-rated floor show with audience participation.
There’s nothing particularly unusual about the temptation itself, and Paul offers the faithfulness of God as encouragement. Indeed, all the stories Paul has already referenced in this part of the letter have a similar lesson: God is gracious and faithful, and it’s against that background that the people’s repeated acts of faithlessness come to such a tragic end. Thus he says directly: God is faithful, and he won’t let you be tempted past your limit.
But that does not mean they can do whatever they like and God will bail them out. If that were the case, why the warnings? Why the insistence on rigorous discipline? Why the subsequent command to flee idolatry (vs. 14)?
I can easily imagine what the Corinthians might have done with this verse. They may already have believed that their participation in the sacraments offered some kind of protection against evil, and they certainly seemed sure of themselves in the wisdom department. It would have been easy enough for them to twist Paul’s words to their advantage: Well, then, what are you worried about? It’s just like we’ve been insisting. God won’t let us fall.
That, of course, is not what Paul means.
“God won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities,” Paul says. What ability? The ability to endure, to resist temptation. If, in the course of everyday life, we seek the way out of temptation, God will provide it. But God doesn’t promise to rescue his people from their own arrogance and folly.
Do we twist Paul’s words ourselves? Have we ever taken this verse as justification for exposing ourselves unwisely to temptations that, frankly, we’re not really ready to give up?
Goal-directed endurance is part of the Christian life. If we want what God wants, he will help us attain the goal.
If we don’t…well, we can expect to fall down.