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.