This morning I want to lay out for you a framework for thinking about and processing emotionally and spiritually what’s going on when we suffer; when we experience distress and pain in our lives. This framework is the scriptural teaching on testing and how it works.
I’m using the word “testing,” but this word (πειρασμός/peirasmos) can also be translated as “trials” or “temptation.” And I’m also working with the idea of God’s “discipline” of his children.
Two things up front. Testing usually involves difficult situations of suffering, although we can also be tested by good times and abundance (Deuteronomy 6:10-12). But we’re focused on suffering.
And second, tests are not just about God disciplining us for our failures, although this does happen (1 Corinthians 11:30-32). But God also disciplines and tests us when we’ve done nothing wrong. Job was tested, but not because of his sin (Job 1:1). Jesus was tested, but was sinless (Matthew 4:1-11; the cross). As I said before, just because we’re suffering doesn’t mean that we’ve done something wrong.
Alright, let’s look at –
The parties involved in testing
1. God allows us to be tested. This is made clear in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into testing” (Luke 11:4). If God didn’t lead us into testing, there would be no need to ask him not to do this.
And, of course, there are numerous examples of God testing people in Scripture, as we have seen:
- God tested Job (Job 1-2
- God tested Abraham when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise (Genesis 22)
- And God tested the Israelites in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2)
With regard to Christians in the New Testament:
- Jesus teaches that each day has “its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34)
- He said, “in the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33)
- We will experience “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2)
Even though God allows us to be tested, it’s important to remember that God allows it for our own good. As Hebrews 12:10 says, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” God wants us to grow and become more and more like Christ. God is training us in righteousness, just like an elite athlete is always being pushed by her coaches to get better through working out.
It may be hard for us to understand, but despite God’s great love and compassion for us – and he doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer – God is more concerned about our growth than our comfort, security or even our success in life and ministry. God is giving us his tough love. As Hebrews 12:6 says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves.”
Now, we think we know what’s good for us, and in our view what’s good equals no suffering. But God knows what’s truly good for us and sometimes it does involve undergoing suffering.
Although God allows us to be tested, 2. It’s actually Satan who tests us through his agents.
One of his names in Scripture is “the tester” (Mark 1:13). This is a part of his function in the order of God, to test and then to punish those who sin (Hebrews 2:14). He seeks permission from God to test us. We see this in Job 1-2 and Jesus tells Peter that Satan has asked to sift him and the other disciples like wheat in Luke 22:31. His goal is to cause us to stumble and sin so that he can accuse and punish us (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10).
So, God wants us to grow, but Satan wants us to be destroyed.
And finally 3. Christians are the ones who undergo testing.
In terms of our humanity two things need to be pointed out. First, there is “the flesh.” This refers to our human weakness. As Jesus said in Gethsemane – “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Now, this is not something alien in us; another nature. The flesh is simply who we are apart from God. It refers to our own human desires, longings and fears.
And when we are put under pressure, the flesh makes us vulnerable to give in and take another way than God’s way. (And this is the real source of our test, not God or Satan. Without our weakness we would never be tempted to sin. This is the point of James 1:13-14).
Second, there is our heart. This is the seat of our choice or will. We are not simply our fears and desires. There is more to us than that. And in a test we choose which way we will go.
And also God doesn’t leave us alone. As Christians the Spirit dwells within us and helps us in times of testing. As Jesus said in his greatest time of trial, “the flesh is weak,” but “the Spirit indeed is willing” (Mark 14:38). The Spirit pushes us forward and gives us strength in our times of weakness.
How testing works
We are put into difficult situations, most of which involve suffering. Here are some examples:
- When you don’t have enough to eat, will you still trust and obey God? (Exodus 16; Deuteronomy 8:2)
- When tragedy strikes, will you curse God? (Job)
- When an opportunity for sexual immorality occurs, will you take it? (Numbers 25; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 10:8)
- When God asks you to do something that’s very hard, will you sacrifice for him? (Genesis 22)
- When you face the loss of comfort, reputation or even your life is threatened because of your commitment to Jesus, will you deny him or compromise to avoid this? (Luke 8:13; 1 Peter 4:12)
These difficult situations provoke an inner struggle within us. The trial we are going through puts pressure on us. Our flesh wants us to take the easy way out when God is calling us to take the hard way of righteousness, self-control and self-sacrifice.
Our flesh doesn’t like difficulty and suffering and Satan appeals to this weakness. But the Spirit helps us. The Spirit leads us to do what’s right. So our flesh pulls one way and the Spirit pulls another. As Paul says in Galatians 5:17 – “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other . . ..”
Which leads us to the point of testing, we have to choose. God wants to know what’s in our heart (Deuteronomy 8:2). And this becomes evident in our actions (Matthew 7:20). Will we trust and obey God when it’s really hard or will we take the easy way out? Will we stay true to God or will we be unfaithful?
Some things to remember in times of testing
Our testing and suffering is part of a bigger cosmic struggle; a spiritual battle that is going on in the world. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
So our faithfulness in times of testing and suffering matters not just for ourselves, but for God’s larger purpose in the redemption of his creation. We want God’s kingdom to advance.
Also, we can have joy even in testing and suffering. I will mention this several times as we talk about suffering, because we need to hear it.
First, we can have joy because God is working in us. As James 1:2, 4 says, “count it all joy.” God is working in us that we may be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” And second, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “this slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
We can affirm this, by faith, even when we can see no possible way that what we are going through could bring about any good in our lives or in the lives of others. We will not understand or be able to explain all of our suffering. That all things work together for our good (Romans 8:28) is in God’s hands and that may well be beyond what we will ever see or experience in this life. Our joy is based on our faith that God is nevertheless working and his promises are true.
Finally, although we are told that we will be tested in various ways we can pray to be spared testing. Just as Satan comes before God to seek permission to test us, we can come before God and ask, “lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). Jesus is encouraging us to seek to be spared. Why aren’t we praying this all the time!
Our reasoning can be articulated in the terms of the first two petitions of the Lord’s prayer. “God we are weak. Have mercy. If we fail you, we will bring dishonor to your name and your kingdom will be thwarted.” So please spare us.
But ultimately these same two petitions trump the last petition to be spared. Jesus prayed to be spared testing in Gethsemane when he prayed, “remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36).
- But he also prayed, “Father, glorify your name” in John 12:28, that is the first petition, “hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9).
- And he prayed “not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36) that is the second petition, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
And like with Jesus, when God does not spare us, we need to move forward focusing on bringing honor to God’s name and doing God’s will in our time of testing and suffering.