This Is Only a Test

Serendipitous synchronicity.  When I keep hearing the same phrase or idea from a diverse variety of sources, I perk up.  First, I was listening to some chucklehead talking about how the earthquake in Haiti was “God’s way of testing the people’s faith.”  Somehow, dropping tons of cement and stone and brick on defenseless poor people seems like a bit of an extreme test to me.  Why can’t God go for the multiple choice or true/false variety?  Or, better yet, why does God have to test people at all?  Where does the God of mercy, justice, love, grace, kindness, compassion, and healing come up with these tests?  A little while later, I heard a commentator saying that President Obama has “failed each and every test” while in office.  That seems a little extreme.  He actually hasn’t had much time to study for any tests, considering the fact that he was immediately buried under the rubble of a crumbling economy and a country at war in two different areas of the globe.  Oh, wait, maybe God is testing Obama…  Two nights ago I heard a TV preacher say, “the devil has tested the moral fiber of America and America has failed.”  Apparently, we are like Jesus in the wilderness — as far as being tempted goes — but surprisingly we don’t score as high on tests as Jesus does.  But I thought that was the point.  We never do as well as Jesus — that’s why we need Jesus.  Yesterday I listened to a heavily made-up woman preacher who explained that God and the devil work together to test us.  She explained that God sometimes causes war “to test men’s patriotism and resolve,” but that the devil enters in to cause “good boys to die, testing the faith of family and friends.”  I can’t even begin to explain all the problems I have with this convoluted and creative theological perspective.  Is our God actually so manipulative and devious?

And who says life ought to be a series of tests, anyway?  Do we actually believe ourselves to be some cosmic lab experiment with God pushing us to our limits to find out just how much we can take before we crack?  I remember a situation in my first church appointment.  A young couple discovered that their beautiful infant daughter was terminally ill.  A well-meaning, but obliviously dangerous “saint” befriended the couple and began telling them that the whole situation was simply “a test,” to see if their faith was strong enough.  She promised them that, if they prayed and truly believed, God would answer their prayers.  She held out a sliver of hope to two desperate young people who trusted her and wanted to believe what she said.  Shortly after the baby died, this woman abandoned the young couple, explaining that she couldn’t waste time with people with such weak faith.  It simply is not a part of my theology to worship a God that would use babies, illness, and disease to test us.  I have never been able to fully make peace with the Abraham and Isaac story — I know what it means, and I have heard all the interpretations, but I can’t quite reconcile the intentional manipulation.  For me, it is a matter of intention.  Surely, life tests us in many ways, but as part of the natural order of things, not because our loving God is trying to trip us up.

I met a young woman in Baltimore a few years ago.  She was living on the streets and told me that she got kicked out of her home by her father because she regularly got in the liquor cabinet.  I thought this sounded a little extreme, so I confirmed the story with the parents.  It seems their daughter had a drinking problem.  They sent her to rehab, then brought her home.  They restocked the liquor cabinet and made sure that their daughter knew where they hid the key.  Then they installed surveillance cameras and left her home alone on an almost daily basis.  After three weeks, she finally broke down and started sneaking drinks.  Her parents confronted her with evidence of her failures and told her she couldn’t be trusted and they weren’t going to watch her destroy her life — so they kicked her out of her home (to help toughen her up, according to her father…).  This story illustrates for me the “God is testing us” school of thought.  It isn’t a test when the one holding all the power (omnipotence), knowledge (omniscience), and awareness (omnipresence) manipulates our weaknesses to see how long it takes us to fail — it’s a trap.

It may just be a symptom of a cynical age that we believe that life is fundamentally a burden, or a trial, or a test.  If we believe in a loving God, then life should be a gift and a blessing.  It would be wonderful to believe in a God of grace, who only wants the best for creation — who gives people a future with hope.  How wonderful it would be to know that our God isn’t anxiously awaiting our failings so that we might be punished, but like a loving parent is the first to scoop us up and comfort us when we fall.  I do believe in a God who expects the best from us humans, but one who also exalts in our successes and empathizes with our failures.  How hopeless and depressing it must be to think that when hardships fall and our faith is pushed to the limits, it is God who is causing our pain.  I choose to believe that God is on my side, and any test I pass in this life, I pass by God’s grace.

13 replies

  1. A resource I regularly use is the “Provoking the Gospel of (Matthew) (Mark) (Luke)” by Richard W. Swanson, that uses the lens of drama to look at the lectionary. He prefers the “Building Inspector” model for The Satan and these sorts of tests are helpful. An intentional gottcha model isn’t very helpful.

    After reflecting on other tests (Mudguy Adam, Mother-of-Life Eve, and Abraham and Isaac) he has this paragraph that supports a parabolic approach to tests that Jesus later uses to helpful effect.

    “Of course, it is possible that Abraham missed the point of the test. When the slanderer tells Jesus to step beyond the laws of of gravity, Jesus reveals that he knows a stupid idea when he sees one. He passes the test. The rabbis play with the possibility that Abraham’s test is similar, that the right answer to God is: ‘Forget it.’ What if they are correct?”

    Swanson concludes his comment with another question: “Is it possible that Jesus also fails because he chooses between the options given?” To not point out a false choice rather than simply making a the “better” choice, doesn’t move us much further along.

  2. Abraham and Isaac are not the only places in the Bible where we get stories of testing and trial. For many of the biblical authors there was no conflict between a loving God and one that tests us. They did not view life as nothing but a burden, but they certainly viewed some of their trials as coming from God. I’m not ready to say I know more than they did.

    The woman in your first church was clearly in the wrong, but because people misunderstand or misapply a theological concept that does not make the concept null and void.

    I have not worked out my theology of trials and testing, but I find it hard to set aside the many biblical references to it on the basis of my difficulty with it.

    • I still raise my questions of intentionality and manipulation. I know life tests us in many ways, that our faith is a great sources of comfort and strength, and I know Biblical authors regularly interpret what happens to us as “God’s will.” The logical nightmare of following this line of thinking is quickly apparent: why me and not someone else, why Haiti and not Las Vegas, why poor people and not rich people, why men and not women, or the opposites of any of these? Arbitrary itentionality leads the limited of imagination and the immature of faith to throw up their hands and say, “there are just some things God doesn’t want us to understand…” another theologically problematic assertion, based on the eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and centuries of human history and common sense. Are we tested? Yes. Do these tests make us stronger? The ones that don’t kill us. Is God “doing” them? THAT is the question.

      • The logical nightmare of following this line of thinking is quickly apparent: we me and not someone else, why Haiti and not Las Vegas, why poor people and not rich people, why men and not women, or the opposites of any of these?

        Here’s my problem – mine not yours clearly. I’m pretty sure the biblical writers were smart enough to recognize the difficulties of these issues as well. Indeed, it is clear the Bible tries to wrestle through these problems.

        Lots of people who do not have an immature faith take the Abraham and Isaac story quite seriously. Why does the fact that some people have immature faith lead us to place the blame on the Bible?

        I’m not arguing with your larger point, just your exegesis and hermeneutics on Abraham and Isaac.

  3. I love the understanding of the Abraham and Isaac story (I don’t remember where I first read it) that says that the real test is Abraham being able to hear God’s true intention (no child sacrifice) through the cultural din where child sacrifice was acceptable. I also do not believe that God tests us with hardship, but people of faith through out history do believe it and that is reflected in lots of writings, including scripture.

  4. FWIW, while the Abraham/Isaac story is rich with all sorts of things, for me a major question is (Crossan’s?) “What is the nature of your God?” And I am running now with a quantum theology line that suggests that God is part of the process, that God is a loving force (Spirit?) moving creation cooperatively toward an ever-increasing complexity. We are not moving back to some sort of balance or back to Eden, but rather we are moving, together with God, toward wholeness. We are moving toward completeness, not away from sin.

    God isn’t so much the one who tests as God is One who is involved in the process of living with us.

    • You and I are on the same wavelength here, Dave. I took all kinds of heat a few years ago for an article I wrote after the Columbia spaceship explosion, for saying that God shared our grief but didn’t cause the tragedy. While the major outpouring of response was positive, I was struck by the number of people who questioned my faith and patiently (and not so patiently) corrected me that the space shuttle would not have exploded if it were not God’s will. What is the nature of my God? He doesn’t kill children, doesn’t tell us to kill children, and he doesn’t blow us up to make a point. We may interpret signs and infer intent and decide in our limited human understanding that it is God behind such things — and those who do so have every right to, and are supported by a stream of like believers through history — but that isn’t my understanding of Love.

      • This is a great discussion. We recently had the same sort of discussion about the Abraham and Isaac story in my Lay Servants class. While I am still wrestling with some aspects of the story, I do not believe God tells us to kill anyone. Our God is a God of love. Cindy’s lesson/understanding is a good one; thank you for sharing that!

  5. Where I have gone from that understanding, Tom, is that I believe the stories in scripture reflect that on going struggle to understand the why’s of tragedy and the wonders of the world and God’s grace. Conversations like ours do the same thing. Lucky for us, our conversations and story telling will never be canonized, so we don’t have to worry that thousands of years from now one Christian will scold another for an expression of faith that is counter to what they read in
    I Cindy 3:16. I also don’t believe (in response to a concern John voiced above) that my understanding reflects more or less theological maturity than anyone elses. It is simply were I am.

    Dan I wrestle very much now with the notion of God’s role in the face of tragedy being primarily to share our grief. I used to say that to parishoners plenty. Then I heard my mother respond to her pastor in the face of overwhelming tragedy, “that is one %^*%^& worthless God.” I believe that “sharing our grief” is a profound part of who God is in our pain, but I am aware that it is not always a pastoral word of comfort.

    • Again FWIW, for me God doesn’t “share” our grief in the sense of offering to carry some of our school books on the walk home. Rather, “God” “takes on” some of the/maybe more than some of the hurt and pain of the grief. If creation is groaning for wholeness, that groaning is an intense and life-changing process. For me, that process is done cooperatively with the generative, loving “God.”

    • Don’t mean “share” in a maudlin sense. Tragedy is tragedy. If a being has compassion, said being will hurt. Unless said being is manipulating all the variables, doesn’t allow free will, has no regard or concern for lesser beings, or doesn’t exist. Otherwise, said being will be part of the larger body of beings who care, and therefore share in the grief when others are hurt or suffer.

  6. I understand the meaning and find myself usually aligned with it. It was easier for me to recognize how people’s theology that I don’t agree with can be less than pastoral. It took personal experience to realize that my own theology might also be less than pastoral at times.

  7. The idea of “moving together with God toward wholeness” is an idea that I’m at least dearly captivated by. Yet, there are other texts more troubling than the Abe-Isaac scene. What about Deuteronomy 7:2–God clearly issues a command to utterly destroy life and show no mercy. Sometimes I think that I lean on process theology as a means to explain away that awful command. Don’t misunderstand me…I do not for a minute share the theology that God “wills” earthquakes on poor people. I’m just haunted by the many places in Scripture where God has a hand in destruction of people. Sometimes I wonder if God has a dark side…or maybe learned anger/grief management over the years. Surely the Canaanites were just as valuable in God’s sight as the victims of any natural disaster. How do we account for this? Somehow, I think process theology explains this in part. After all, Jesus ushered in a new covenant. I think God must at the very least weep over the dark days in Canaan…just as I believe God wept when Jesus was nailed to the cross. But I still struggle with the fact that God was there…and if I think about it long enough…I cannot get around the fact that God participated…[I’m struggling as I type…your comments are appreciated!]…

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