“God’s calling must be tested and his servants must pass the test”
That’s from Craig Keener’s commentary on the book of Matthew and I think it’s true.
The moment we raise the question of God testing people objections emerge.
- “A good God wouldn’t allow people to suffer or try them in such a difficult way”
- “If God knows everything why does he test people. Either he doesn’t know or he isn’t good to do so.”
In today’s text God tests his own son who in the previous story he embraced and affirmed. I intend to make three points from this story.
- You will be tested and it won’t be fun.
- Testing makes no sense if you don’t believe in God or the Christian view of reality
- In the end I believe we will see that testing is for our benefit and God accomplishes good things through it that probably can’t be had in any other way.
You Will Be Tested and it Won’t be Fun
I almost don’t need to make this point except that we live in a culture that suggests it isn’t true despite any clear-eyed view of human life on this planet.
I’ve offered Scott Alexander’s analysis of suffering even in America.
And then how this works out in any give 20 people.
I’m also finish up a book on opioid addiction in the US. It’s a story of out changes in medical protocols combined with innovative business models from a small group of Mexican farmers created a new wave of heroin addicts that will be around for another generation, but this time mostly consisting of white, middle class people who thought they were immune to heroin addiction.
Now all of this is to say that suffering comes to all, but additional suffering will come to people who are called to follow Jesus. Just look at what he asks of you.
- To love those who are hard to love
- To stick to commitments and relationships that are not “life giving” and cost you plenty
- To forgive those who hate you, hurt you, and harm you
- To love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
In other words to be a Christian means to suffer not only the regular evils of this world but to voluntarily absorb and endure even more.
So yes, if you are called by Christ to follow him you will be tested and that testing will hurt and often bring you to your limits.
We Understand Testing
There is a whole new genre of testing reality TV shows:
- 60 Days In where people voluntarily go to jail to snitch
- The Wheel: Contestants try to survive in different types of wilderness
- Alone: Survivalists see how long they can live in the wilderness
- The Selection: where people endure Navy Seal training to see if they can make it
Most of these shows have no cash prizes. In their little video diaries people talk about how they want to test themselves or how they are inspired to do this by a friend who has cancer or who lived their life in an inspiring way and they want to honor them.
In all of these shows people voluntarily endure dangerous and extreme suffering usually with the ever-present knowledge that they can make the suffering end with the tap of a button. They can quit the program at any time, relieving the artificial suffering or they can press a button where a boat or truck or helicopter will swoop in with food, medical help or just plain relief from the danger of people, animals or the elements.
Anyone who watches these programs won’t have much difficulty understanding Jesus’ trials in the wilderness.
Matthew 4:1–11 (NIV)
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
It amazes me how in some ways Jesus’ trial tracks with the tropes of reality TV in this area
- Trial will almost always involve hunger, deprivation or threat to your physical well being. We see this in the stones to bread temptation
- Fame or recognition stalks all of these reality TV contestants. Will they be validated? Recognized? This seems especially important today in our world with people who look inside for their identity only to discover their identities are fragile.
- All such questions finally arrive at the big picture. “Can meaning be found? How?” Every reality show contestant, editor and producer will go to this level at some point to locate the reasons the contestant either tapped out early (“I realized that family is most important so I tapped out for the sake of my kids”) or stayed until the end (“I couldn’t let down my dead grandma…”).
Layers to Jesus’ Story
There are layers to Jesus’ story that Bible readers have long recognized.
- Jesus is reliving Israel’s trials in the wilderness, passing the test where they failed it.
- Jesus identity, established in his baptism is being challenged
- Jesus responds to the test in each case by relying on God’s word in the Old Testament law. He doesn’t rely on himself but on the provisions God has given him
- The testing focuses on the type of Savior he will be and the cruciform shape of his Messiahship
Jesus’ trial is similar to reality TV shows in that what Jesus is offered at each moment is a way to make either the present suffering (his hunger/stones to bread) end or short-cut and avoid his future suffering. Jesus intentionally endures avoidable suffering to achieve something that seemingly cannot be achieved without suffering.
TV Shows are about Ego
The kind of testing done on reality TV shows is usually about self-realization. Because it’s done on a reality TV show there is also a hint of self-aggrandizement or self-promotion. In order for us to feel OK about watching this voyeuristicly we assume the producers will limit the risk and the harm being done to the contestants. It creates a safety net so to speak.
Real life suffering usually has not “tap-out” button, no safety net, no assurance that such testing won’t result in some permanent loss.
Human history is of course filled with testings without a safety net. Thoreau goes out to the woods for self-discovery. People scale El Capitan in Yosemite to test themselves, sometimes falling to their death.
All such things receive sanction in our part because the individuals are trying themselves voluntarily. If they fall from some height or harm their body through their ordeal we reason at least they knew the risks going into it, no one else is to blame. When God tests, we have all kinds of other questions and complaints. In Jesus’ trial here “the Spirit” sends him into the wilderness to be tested by the devil.
The Assumed Honor of Self-Preservation
In passed generation our culture was more comfortable with personal sacrifice for after-life benefits or the benefits of others. Some of this is still preserved in our embrace of nationalism. We still honor soldiers who give their lives in service to the country.
In the past we had more respect for people who spent their years with a sick or difficult spouse because of their vows. Today we quickly declare that self-interest and self-fulfillment should trump avoidable pain and distress. The prospect and promise of reward in the age to come falls victim to our skepticism of all things immaterial.
The Offense of God-Testing
As long as the suffering is self-imposed we allow it a degree of leeway. When we talk about God testing us, we get nervous.
The Bible is filled with story of God testing people
- the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is often seen as a test
- God tested Abraham by commanding him to kill Isaac
- God tested Israel in multiple times and ways in the wilderness
- God and Satan tested Job
- God tested David
The book of James famously elevates this.
James 1:2–4 (NIV)
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Prudent skepticism which says “we can’t be sure that this suffering is a trial” often gives way to self-prioritizing moral skepticism that says “you owe it to yourself to tap-out and not suffer because you can’t know that God is testing you.”
Sometimes we can know I think, and sometimes we can’t. The really difficult testing happens in those spaces where we don’t know and we wonder about God’s will and God’s presence with us.
In our age where we have inflated our own importance and diminished the presence of God to the degree that individual comfort and well-being have become the greatest priority. We find the idea that God would test us to be offensive and we try to banish it not only from our own minds but also the minds of others. We don’t allow it into public discourse, so it lurks in the haunting spaces of our whispers.
Our Gain will be directly related to Jesus’ Suffering
It is exactly in this space that we must read this text. The Spirit sends Jesus to the devil to test all of this in Jesus
- Are you really God’s son?
- Is the difficult road really necessary?
- Aren’t some short-cuts justifiable?
- Can’t we cut a deal and find a win-win between us?
Readers have long noted that Jesus doesn’t combat the devil with reason, or power, or stubbornness, but by recalling God’s words to his people. In the miasma of trail Jesus reaches for the only thing that in that moment might seem clear, God’s word to Israel. God’s word to him.
So often the heart of trial is dis-orientation. Our hungers are driving us to hurt or break or harm to satisfy them. Our capacity for reason has left us. We have lost self-reliant composure and don’t care about the esteem of others. In moments like these all that we can rely on is a word from outside, usually placed deeply in our hearts through memorization and repetition. Our ability to hold on will depend on the value of that foundation stone set deep.
I remember watching a brother and sister in a hospital waiting room comforting each other with a drippy pop song spouting pseudo-wisdom while a loved one was dying in a violent, ugly way. I thought how much better they could have been served by better wisdom rather than something repeated endlessly on AM radio in the late 1970s. This is how we are. This is how our mind works.
Do you have God’s word rooted deep in your hearts?
Misery: Our Secular Age makes suffering meaningless and because of this we tap-out sometimes at just the hint of anxiety
In Dreamland Sam Quinones chronicles how our contemporary heroin epidemic among the white youth of the comfortable took root in a period of affluence and comfort.
But across America, thousands of people like Matt Schoonover were dying. Drug overdoses were killing more people every year than car accidents. Auto fatalities had been the leading cause of accidental death for decades until this. Now most of the fatal overdoses were from opiates: prescription painkillers or heroin. If deaths were the measurement, this wave of opiate abuse was the worst drug scourge to ever hit the country.
This epidemic involved more users and far more death than the crack plague of the 1990s, or the heroin plague in the 1970s; but it was happening quietly. Kids were dying in the Rust Belt of Ohio and the Bible Belt of Tennessee. Some of the worst of it was in Charlotte’s best country club enclaves. It was in Mission Viejo and Simi Valley in suburban Southern California, and in Indianapolis, Salt Lake, and Albuquerque, in Oregon and Minnesota and Oklahoma and Alabama. For each of the thousands who died every year, many hundreds more were addicted.
Via pills, heroin had entered the mainstream. The new addicts were football players and cheerleaders; football was almost a gateway to opiate addiction. Wounded soldiers returned from Afghanistan hooked on pain pills and died in America. Kids got hooked in college and died there. Some of these addicts were from rough corners of rural Appalachia. But many more were from the U.S. middle class. They lived in communities where the driveways were clean, the cars were new, and the shopping centers attracted congregations of Starbucks, Home Depot, CVS, and Applebee’s. They were the daughters of preachers, the sons of cops and doctors, the children of contractors and teachers and business owners and bankers.
And almost every one was white.
Children of the most privileged group in the wealthiest country in the history of the world were getting hooked and dying in almost epidemic numbers from substances meant to, of all things, numb pain. “What pain?” a South Carolina cop asked rhetorically one afternoon as we toured the fine neighborhoods south of Charlotte where he arrested kids for pills and heroin.
Crime was at historic lows, drug overdose deaths at record highs. A happy façade covered a disturbing reality.
Quinones, Sam. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (pp. 7-8). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
How could this happen?
Consider the journey we’ve been on.
The liberal-democratic order is founded on suspending the question of whether God exists or not (and has authority over human life) and relegating that to the level of personal opinion. This means that democracy itself functions as though atheism is metaphysically true—there is no God whose demands on people must be embraced—but gives people the freedom to shape their own lives around theism (or deism, or polytheism etc). In the short term this is a great solution to the problem of religious wars, by simply punting ultimate questions of morality and metaphysics and seeking to create a society where people can live together despite deep differences.
The problem is that this arrangement is unstable for two reasons. First, living in a western democracy catechizes people into practical atheism. Because the underpinnings of society forecloses the question of God and makes material reality the ultimate horizon, then society itself is run on atheistic presuppositions. The more you invest in being a good citizen and are part of democratic public life, the more you are shaped by the rituals of democratic life into thinking, dreaming, desiring, acting, as an atheist.
But making everything base around the individual will (almost) inevitably make everything be reduced down to hedonism—happiness through pleasurable experiences, and the pursuit of wealth and social status that preserves the maximum kind of individual freedom that liberalism recognizes and esteems. Increasingly democracy gains confidence in its metaphysical position (this world is the only meaningful horizon) and begins to move from a naked public square to enacting its vision of the good that expresses that metaphysical position (the good life has to be justified entirely within the constraints of this life).
The morphine molecule is perfectly adapted to offer euphoria and kill pain of every kind. Why do we need to refuse it? Is it not our “soma” from Brave New World?
Deliverance: With His Testing We are Refined
Beneath the panicky denial of God-testing is the limited imagination that God can actually make something of the miseries of this world. Leap to deny and to deaden the pain when the saints have long through tearful eyes encouraged us to endure on.
Don’t forget the admonition of James I mentioned earlier, but also remember the great passage in Hebrews where the heroes of the faith endured for a city they had not yet known.
Hebrews 11:39–12:3 (NIV)
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. 1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
What his testing shows is that we are not alone. God, just as he does not exclude himself from our pain does not exclude himself for the testing he places upon us. He asks nothing of us he doesn’t place on himself through his own son.
While these few verses in Matthew and Luke outline the episode of testing by the devil his entire life was a test. He was tested in every way even to death on the cross, yet as the Hebrews ext shows he endured the cross for the joy set before him. A secular world offers no such hope and therefore no such joy.
Gratitude: The Grace to Endure
As I noted earlier earlier suffering will come to us all. The question is what will come through when tested and what will the testing create in you and of you?
Many of us know testing and know what it means to fail. No one but our Lord comes through the age of decay without failing. Even the tests that we fail, however, he can turn to our benefit. It is by his grace that when we fail he picks us up again, attends to us like the angels attended to Jesus, and proceeds to test us again. His tests are not to exclude us, but to strengthen us, encourage us, and make us stronger so that we too may in moments endure and lift others who are tested around us.
This little blog post must stay unfinished, but on Sunday in our service we will complete it with the supper of our Lord. We will break the bread and drink the wine remembering how he was tested, and how he triumphed. We will partake of the meal remembering how we have been tested and failed and looking for the strength to face the next test that will come until we are remade.
All called by God will be tested and many times they will fail their tests. In time, however, often through repeated testing we start to overcome, to endure, to become strong, to become able to help bear the burdens of others and to encourage them too to get up and be tried again.
God does test all he calls, and we who are called must pass his tests, even as we suffer.