Greek: πειρασμὸς ὑμᾶς οὐκ εἴληφεν εἰ μὴ ἀνθρώπινος· πιστὸς δὲ ὁ θεός, ὃς οὐκ ἐάσει ὑμᾶς πειρασθῆναι ὑπὲρ ὃ δύνασθε, ἀλλὰ ποιήσει σὺν τῷ πειρασμῷ καὶ τὴν ἔκβασιν τοῦ δύνασθαι ὑπενεγκεῖν.
My Translation: No temptation has claimed you that wasn't of humanity, but God is faithful, who will not let y'all be tempted beyond what y'all are capable, yet he will make, with the temptation, an exit that you may be capable to endurance.
KJV: There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.
My translations are purposefully stretched and should not be viewed as more accurate than the KJV translation unless I say so in the post. I'm trying to show the range lying between the original Greek text and the English.
Update May 2013" This scripture has been removed by the Church Educational System from the Scripture Mastery list. However, it had remained within this list for over two decades and as such is still familiar to many graduates of the LDS Church's Seminary program. So I'm keeping this exploration of it online, but it is no longer applicable to CES.
The Letters to Corinth
Mormons really like the letters to the Corinthians. These are letters written in answers to questions that Paul's congregation in Corinth had. The second letter shows some evidence of possibly having been originally two different letters that were inexpertly edited together long after they were written.
Because the letters are in answer to unknown questions from the Christians at Corinth, the letters sometimes seem to skip from one subject to another. For the scripture mastery verse in question, Paul is discussing evil behavior and what the correct behavior of a Christian should be.
At the end of Chapter 9, Paul has been talking about how his followers should retain humility even in the face of how they have already achieved victory through Christ. Beginning Chapter 10, Paul warns of how Israel, who were also God's chosen people just as the Corinthians are now God's chosen people by joining the new covenantal people of Christ, still incurred God's wrath through their evil actions. Paul warns that even though Israel was God's chosen, through their disobedience many of them were killed.
So too, says Paul, should Christians living at the end of the world stand firm and not fall into evil ways. Then comes the verse in question.
With this previous context as given, perhaps we can see that Paul is not talking about temptation in some little sense. He's just finished talking about the history of Israel in the wilderness under Moses. When Paul says that no temptation has taken you except what is common to humanity, he means that we're all subject to the same things that afflicted ancient Israel. And so we're all still subject to God's judgement even after becoming his people.
After the verse in question, Paul says that because of what he's been talking about (Israel's disobedience) that the Christians at Corinth should live their lives carefully. Paul's theology says that joining the covenant community of Christ destroys the ability of sin and death to capture the believer in Christ. For this reason, sin and death no longer have a hold on the believers. But Paul, while acknowledging that his followers are free from the effects of sin, they should be careful in their actions all the same.
Let's go back to the verse and look a bit more closely at it. Paul feels that the temptations his followers have to deal with are common to humanity, but that God will provide a way for them to endure it. Note that this verse is not talking about "giving in to sin" or about salvation and the effect of works upon it. It just says that the Corinthians will experience human temptations and that God will give them a way out by providing them with the strength to endure the temptations.
For Mormons, salvation is not fully dependent upon belonging to the covenantal people (the Church). Salvation must still be received through living a virtuous life and through avoiding sin, an idea very difficult to pull out of Paul's writings. Mormons usually approach this verse with the assumption that since God wants us to achieve salvation and exaltation, and since this is predicated on our faithfulness, then God will never allow us to be tempted in a way that we can't handle. In other words, God has made it so that it is possible to live a life without sin (the result of not enduring temptation), which should give us hope to someday be able to do so.
A Common, But Horrible, LDS Reading
An odd interpretation of this verse that is extremely common among Latter-day Saints, however, is one that replaces the word "temptation" with "challenge". You'll often hear Mormons approaching challenging situations of grief or pain with the statement that God will "not give us more than we can handle". That idea comes from this verse, and yet it is not at all what this verse is saying. And history shows that of course people can experience challenges in their lives that are many times greater than what they can handle. People's bodies, emotions, and sanity can all break under the weight of what this world can throw at them. In a world of war, bloodshed, and holocausts, people break. Assuming that God somehow provides a way for humans to not break when this happens can lead to some very wrong-headed and uncharitable opinions on how people deal, or don't deal, with grief and pain. What should we think of someone who is reacting badly to the death of a family member if we think they God is supposed to help them through it? Should we think they are rejecting God's help?
In fact, there's a troubling cultural aspect of Mormon funerals that often revolves around this interpretation of this scripture. Mormons are fond of mentioning that because they believe that their families will be reunited after death and that families are eternal (a belief commonly found among many faiths) their funerals are merely bittersweet, temporary farewells. Whereas others may wail and bemoan their loss, Latter-day Saints know better and while they are sad, they are hopeful as well! Unfortunately, this has developed to such an extent that most Mormons do not know how to deal with the psychological need of grief, worried that by expressing too much of their sorrow they'll be letting down their community. And sometimes those communities can be too strong in enforcing this sense of hopeful sadness and will let those who are expressing too much sadness that they need to rely on God more. If you're too affected by pain and grief, the problem is yourself! Your testimony is not strong enough to carry you through these challenges. God has promise we won't be given more than we can handle!
Thankfully, as more and more Mormons become open to the benefits of psychological counseling, this idea that Mormons cannot admit defeat in the face of overwhelming pain and grief is slowly starting to show cracks. Time will hopefully tear down this mistaken assumption that God will always help people through the challenges of life. This scripture merely promises that God will help his people through their common temptations, which is not at all the same thing.
Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?
I think this scripture was chosen in order to provide youth with a hopeful approach to the LDS conception of sin and repentance. I think it was chosen to give LDS youth the impression that even when they are tempted by sin, God is aware of them and is trying to help them. However, this scripture, as used by the Mormons, also tends to set up a bad situation when temptations are yielded to. Since such sins could have been avoided, then the individual is only to blame for giving in. In the face of addictions, of war, of accidents, and the myriad of other pains of life, this viewpoint can be tragically self-flagellatory for some people. There are better scriptures to give the impression that God is aware of us and wants the best for us. This scripture, if misapplied (and there's precious little given against such a misapplication) can result in individuals constantly beating themselves and their self-image up for being human and making mistakes.