“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
Has any other passage of Scripture been as misunderstood, misused, and misrepresented? Certainly it has also been used for great things—used to bring hope, to give the promise of light to those who could see only darkness, to give resolve to those who were suffering. But it is a passage that has also been flattened, simplified, and distorted. “No man is tasked beyond what he can bear” sounds so simple, after all. To many, it promises a kind of invincibility: if you are tempted, you can resist! If you are suffering, you can withstand! And if you succumb, it was because you chose to give up or you chose to give in!
Too many people treat this passage as a guarantee of victory. Too many read this and thank God that they now supermen, invulnerable to the trials of the world. Too many have found themselves drowning in despair because they believed, based on this passage, that they could not be broken by sin.
There are many trials in this world, but the greatest are the ones that occur after a man falls. The greatest temptation is to believe that there is no hope of redemption, but second to that is to believe that failure is absolute. And treating this passage as an absolute promise of victory also primes you for a belief in absolute failure, because if no temptation you encounter is beyond what you can bear, and yet you succumb to it, isn't the fault fundamentally within yourself? If you are unwilling to win even when God has rigged the game in your favor, how complete your failure must be.
But failure is not absolute, it's just another trial. When we fall, we are strong enough to stand again. Our victory is never our own making, but our defeat always is. Few of us are strong enough to resist all temptation, but all of us, every last one of us, are strong enough to fight. When knocked down, we can struggle back up. We are stronger than the world wants us to believe.
Did God promise that we would always win? Or did he promise we were strong enough to fail without surrender?
- Elijah Robert Marks, the unfinished sermon
The sky is dark and heavy, the road wet from cold, September rain, and fallen leaves of trees overflow the ditches and spill into the road, making it difficult to tell where road ends and shoulder begins. Elijah squints through the grimy trails left by his windshield wipers as he races down back roads much too fast for safety. His hands grip the steering wheel, knuckles white, as the wipers whip back and forth, whirp-whip, whirp-whip.
He mutters as he drives, but not to himself: he is praying. He is praying with all his might that it isn't true, that it's a mistake, that the real message was distorted as it was passed from messenger to messenger. Please Lord, he says, let this not be true. Let it be a mistake.
Let this cup pass from me.
He feels guilty the instant it comes to mind, but he holds onto that with as much desperate strength as his hands grip the wheel. He can't help thinking it, wishing for it, praying for it, over and over again.
The car is a 2004 Audi Station Wagon: 4 cylinders, automatic transmission. It was new when her father gave it them—a marriage present—and it's still in good condition, despite its age and the miles they've put on it. Elijah frequently jokes that it's the fanciest thing they own, and while it's not a performance vehicle by any means it puts out more power than you might expect. But Elijah is pushing the car as hard as he can, and he can feel the chassis shaking as he races home.
Home. He has to get home.
God, please let them be wrong.
He turns too sharply, curses aloud as he forces himself to turn into the skid, to focus as he guides the car back onto its path. Thankfully few people use the road this late at night, and when he finally pulls out of his spin he is in the empty far left lane. He does not take time to learn from his mistake: he floors the accelerator, tires squeal, and the car takes off again.
He forces himself to slow down as he turns into the neighborhood—he doesn't want to, his breath is ragged from the effort of holding back when he finally turns onto his street, and his breath catches when he sees the echo of flashing lights just over the last hill before their home. It's a narrow street, with street parking only—barely enough room for a car on each lane, and considerably less when it snows—and when he finally gets to his house, he barks out a single, frustrated laugh when he realizes he has no place to park. Three police cars and a van are parked in the middle of the street, in front of his house.
He slows to a stop in front of a neighbor's car. His door is open before the engine dies, his seat-belt thrown to one side, and he doesn't bother closing the door or even removing his car keys as he bolts out, hurrying to his home. The entire front yard is marked off with police tape. There are floodlights set up on the sidewalk, illuminating the yard.
They live in a small two-story Dutch Colonial. It's a modest, older home, with a front porch no wider than the door and the tiny, picture-frame window to its left. To the right of the door is a bay window that covers the rest of the front, white wood frames with light green wood shingles beneath. The rest of the house is old brick, crumbling a bit from the passage of time but still mostly sound. The lights are on. The bay window curtains are open, looking in on a small, comfortable living room. The door is open.
No. The door is gone. His front door lies scattered across the entrance, smashed to splinters.
His wife's name is on his lips as he runs to the porch. He screams her name as someone grabs him, pulls him away. A light shines in his face, he hears questions—he's trying to answer, but he doesn't quite understand what's happening. The man is in a uniform that he vaguely recognizes as meaning something important, but that's all he can process. Someone keeps asking him his name, over and over again. He tries to answer: Elijah Robert Marks. He tries to answer and he fumbles for his wallet and he dimly hears a familiar voice, his next door neighbor, saying yes, that's him, he's the husband.
He calls his wife's name again—Sarah! Sarah! The uniformed man—police, he realizes—is trying to talk to him in a calm, reasonable tone, but he realizes the officer is starting to shout because he can't tell if Elijah is paying attention. He calms down and tries to focus. It's not easy. He hears snatches of phrases—a reported break-in, and neighbors reported screaming, and signs of a struggle. And then he hears the words he'd been praying not to hear.
“There's no sign of your wife.”
That breaks him. He's told, later on, that outwardly he grows very calm. His expression becomes somber, almost formally so, and when he speaks his voice is steady and controlled. He asks if he can enter the house. One officer says no, the other says yes, they argue briefly. Elijah asks again, and finally the officer who says no relents, warning that the house is now a crime scene and he must not disturb anything. Elijah agrees, and a uniformed officer escorts him inside. He's told, later on, that the entire time he's the very picture of reserve and self-possession. He remembers none of it. All he remembers is feeling as if he's drowning.
He remembers being in the house. He steps through the splintered door on the landing and feels quick blast of heat from the floor grate and then it's cold again—the door has been open a while, and the house is poorly insulated, so much of the house is chilly at this point. Bits of door are scattered across the floor. Some pieces trail up the stairs.
He hears the officer asking why his wife would have been upstairs, and he remembers answering, mechanically, that they'd turned the third bedroom into a shared office. He goes upstairs. The hallway is mostly untouched. The door to their bedroom is closed. The door to the guest bedroom is closed. The door to their office is gone, again splintered to bits. There is motion in there, he can hear voices. He starts to step forward, and the officer places a hand on his shoulder.
Let the investigators do their job, the officer says.
He nods dumbly, asks if he can collect some clothes and toiletries—he's not going to want to spend the night here. The officer agrees, but they need to catalog everything, and what follows is almost comical: they take pictures of the suitcase he chooses to use. They take pictures of the slacks Elijah chooses to pack. They take pictures of the underwear, shirts, socks—enough clothing for five days in all—as they get placed in the suitcase. Then Elijah shuffles down the hall toward the bathroom.
He looks into the office as he passes. It's a wreck: her desk is turned over, her computer lies on the ground, her monitor is smashed to bits. Gashes have been gouged out of the hardwood floor, the plaster wall cross-corner from the door has a crater in it, with spiderweb cracks radiating from the indentation in the center. Two men stand over something on the floor near the gouges—a red stain, still wet.
“Is that blood?”
His voice sounds very far away. The two men glance up at him. One frowns, the other grimaces sympathetically. The uniformed officer places a hand on Elijah's shoulder and gently guides him toward the bathroom, where he collects his shaving cream, hair gel, comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, and shampoo. He tries to look into the office on his way back, but the officer hurries him along, and when he returns to the bedroom the crime scene photographer spends ten minutes taking pictures of toiletries.
By the time he leaves the house an ambulance has arrived. He doesn't understand why until a paramedic shines a light in his eyes and starts asking him questions. Shock, Elijah thinks to himself. They think I'm in shock. He supposes they're right. They talk to him, take his pulse, wrap him in a blanket. A half an hour later he starts to feel a little more rational. He refuses to go to the hospital.
He gives the police his contact information, promises not to leave town, says he'll call them when he figures out where he's staying tonight. His neighbors offer to put him up, but it's too close. He asks to use their land line—cell service is terrible—and calls the Super 8 to see if there's room. Then, as his world starts to crumble a little more, he makes another call.
Eleven numbers. Two short rings. A deep, gruff voice answers the phone.
“Al?” Elijah's voice catches just a little.
“Eli?” The voice softens, becomes friendlier. “Wasn't expecting to hear from you tonight. Everything OK?”
“No,” Elijah says. “Al, have you heard from Sarah at all?”
“Not since Tuesday,” the man says. “Why? What's wrong?”
“Everything,” Elijah says. “I'm sorry. I have bad news. Sarah… something happened at home. There was a break-in. She’s missing.”