Does God Test People?
by Pastor Chas Stevenson (taken from his book, God, Why?)
Has God been testing us this whole time? Has every Christian hardship been planned by God to improve our character and make us stronger? Is it all one big exam where our attitude is the only thing graded? Many people think so. But it’s not true.
Suffering is not a divine test. God is not like the Emergency Broadcast System that interrupts people’s peaceful radio and television viewing with annoying little beeps and the “This is a test” voiceover. But for some strange reason, many people have been conditioned to feel proud about believing that their God has purposely directed the difficulties of life toward them. As if by engraving God’s name onto their problems, it gives them a sense of feeling specially chosen for character development. It almost seems that they’d rather God play an active, hurtful part in their hardship rather than no part at all. I’m glad that they want to believe in God so strongly, but they are still off course in understanding Him. Getting on course is our key to success – like in marine navigation: any small error in our compass today can put us way off course in our future destination. And I’ve found that when our religious upbringing began with some flaws or is incomplete, it can be difficult to humbly admit a wrong and get back on course. And all the while, though our intentions are pure and our love toward God is real, our faith remains weak because what we are believing started a bit off course.
We are special, and we are chosen. But God’s Word and God’s holy presence inside our hearts is what He uses to convince us of that – not tests and trials. Thank God we don’t have to wait for tragedies to come before we can experience God’s love and goodness. We can wake up feeling it every day, just by walking with God and spending time in prayer and the Bible.
It seems that by thinking that God has willed some adversity, they can better cope with it. “It’s this thing that God and I have going, you know – He tests me, I pass it. This is my spiritual journey.” Or maybe they feel they were specially chosen for the chopping block because “God only sends problems to those who are strong enough to handle it.” But please hear me. This is not what the Bible says about spiritual life and growth.
Think of all the people who haven’t made it through their challenges, and either ended up divorced, depressed, insane, or in the grave. We surely couldn’t say that God planned those outcomes, can we? And I doubt that God ever claims, “Oops, it seems I didn’t properly measure the dosage of that test – My apologies.” Life doesn’t become a failure when God gets involved. It gets more successful. We don’t become weaklings after salvation, and we don’t receive extra hardships for being on God’s side. We actually become “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37) and “always caused to triumph in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:14) and able to do “all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
But what I’ve observed is that many atheists can handle challenges sometimes better than the Christian because they haven’t been polluted with the “God did it to me” doctrine. That subtle thought can cause confusion and double-mindedness about overcoming the problems. So rather than charging ahead to victory with unwavering confidence, the Christian loses strength because he is wondering about God’s will. “Did God do this to me? Is He trying to show me something?” By asking the questions, we’re already behind in the race for victory. We should already know God’s will, God’s goodness, and God’s promises to deliver. But that’s hard to do if we believe that God is the Troublemaker-the-Tester-the-Hardship-Creator.
Here is a good rule of thumb for spiritual understanding: God will not break one covenant promise to fulfill another. (A Covenant is a deal, an agreement, a partnership between two parties. God has made one with His people. We know it now as the New Covenant, or Testament). Though God wants us to develop our character and though he wants our faith to get stronger (both of which are covenant commands from God’s side), and though He has promised to help us do so, He doesn’t do so by robbing us of our health, our dear family members, or our finances to teach us some lesson or challenge our belief system (those are covenant, conditional promises from God’s side). We may feel robbed, and at the same time we may feel like we have character flaws that could be hindering our lives, but God is not the glue between them. God is a promise keeper, and if we combine all of His promises together, they leave no room for the false dogma of God-the-Troublemaker-the-Tester-the-Hardship-Creator.
Rather than a Bible doctrine of “God tests His people,” it is just the opposite. The Bible actually says that God does not test His people at all in the area of outward trials and hardships. God has been blamed for testing people’s fortitude with hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, diseases, car crashes, birth defects, loss of job, poverty, and every other tragedy imaginable. And it was all wrong. Basically, God told us to stop the rumor and not let anyone blame Him for the trials of life.
“Let no one say when he is tested (tempted), “I am tested (tempted) by God”: for God cannot be tested (tempted) by evil, nor does He Himself test (tempt) anyone” (James 1:13).
Did you see that? It says for us to “Let no one say” that God is testing people. He’s not. He’s not testing people to sin, and He’s not testing people to lose faith or be sad. He’s not tempting us to get discouraged, depressed, or angry. He’s not testing people’s patience. And He’s not tempting people to turn away from Him. Temptations and tests will come, but what I am saying, what the apostle James is saying, and what the Holy Spirit is saying, is that they don’t come from God.
Let me explain this passage further. Most translations of the Bible use the word “tempted” (Strong’s 3985, p. 1002) instead of “tested”, and that is why many people missed the interpretation of this Scripture. But the original Greek word is “peirazo”, which means to test, to prove, to examine, to try, as well as to tempt. People assumed that the reference was only to the temptation of sin and therefore passed it by because most of us know that God does not tempt us to sin. We should all be aware that it’s the devil that tempts people to sin. But actually, doubting God is a sin. Losing our patience is a sin. And giving up on God’s plan for our life is a sin. So tempting our faith is the same as testing our faith, as the definition of the word proves.
The Greek word that is translated ?tempt’, ?tempted’, or ?temptation’ is also translated in other places as ?test’, ?try’, ?to prove’, ?a trial’, or ?provocation.’ So what the Scripture is saying is that God does not use tests or temptations to discipline us, provoke us, build our faith, or improve our character.
If we examine the passage in light of its context, James begins his subject in verse 2 when he says, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” Clearly, most Christians believe that trials will test our spiritual strength, and if we endure, we prove our resolve and end up with patience. Most churches teach that, and rightly so. It is correct: trials test our spiritual strength, and if we overcome by our faith and win, we end up stronger. (I say that winning is key, because I’ve found that losing battles hurts our faith more than helping it.) But this truth is in the same chapter as the “God doesn’t test” one and in the same line of thought. So when instructing people that we are to endure through trials, we must also instruct them that these trials never come from God, for God never tests anyone. It says, “.when you fall into trials,” rather than “.when God gives you trials,” because He doesn’t.
I’m not sure how it could get any clearer.
Instead of God using evil trials and tests to improve His people, He uses instruction. Just like an earthly father, God teaches his children by telling them the truth. An earthly parent does not teach his child wisdom by harming them. Instead, the parent simply tells his child to ?look both ways before crossing the street’, and ?don’t play with matches.’ That is much better than tossing the child into the street to show them how powerful a moving vehicle is or burning the house down to prove a point about matches. We would all agree how ludicrous that would be. But yet we insinuate that exact thing with regard to God teaching us, His own children. Even when parents recognize that their child has not listened well, they don’t cause the bad thing to happen just to prove a point. Instead, they just keep telling, and they just keep hoping for compliance. God is the same. He teaches His people with His Word and His Spirit rather than with evil things. And then He waits for us to comply. Obviously, if we don’t learn or don’t listen, we may encounter the evil thing or fail in the fight against it. But rather than “because God willed it as a test,” it should be attributed to “consequence for action taken.”
Here is one reason why people easily migrate to this God-the-Tester theory. It is because trials expose our spiritual weaknesses. We know that we are on a spiritual development journey with God. Therefore, we conclude that when a certain challenge reminds of some particular faith deficiency, certainly it must have been our great Teacher in the sky who reminded us. As if God is in heaven laying out all the suffering bumps in our road to spiritual growth. He’s not doing that. God will probably be there coaching us, “Trust me. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. Come on son.” But He is not causing the bumps.
I heard of one retired man who presupposed that the stock market drop during a time of recession was a personal test from God. He heard God tell him, “What’s the matter? Don’t you trust Me?” I wouldn’t argue with what he heard from God. God wants us to trust Him. But he made a leap of presumption that is not scriptural. God wanting us to trust Him through trials doesn’t give any evidence concerning the source of the trial that tried us. What I argue with is the man’s tack-on to what God said. The man added his own interpretation (which is dangerous) about God lowering the stock market to test him. That’s not scriptural, so therefore, we know God wouldn’t be saying that. The rest of the story is that after my friend challenged him on his statement, the retired man admitted that he didn’t really believe God had tested him, but that the challenge had presented him an opportunity to trust God. I was glad to hear that. But then why did he say the fallacy in the first place? I believe he said it because this style of “religious speak” is so common that everyone just blindly adopts it without realizing how damaging it is to God’s image and to their own consciousness of who He is.
But God Tested People in the Bible, Didn’t He?
You may be wondering about the Scriptures that mention the “chastening of the Lord,” and you should. You should also be wondering about the fact that God tested Abraham once and He proved Israel several times. We’ll deal with the chastening of the Lord later, but the short answer is that God never chastened or tested His people with affliction and tragedy. Instead, He chastened and tested them only with words, by commanding or asking something of them. For instance, Abraham is the one individual that God decided to test, or prove, but He didn’t do it with some terrible hardship or disease. Instead, God simply commanded him to do something. God only wanted him to be willing and obedient – not for him to suffer. He only tested him with words and intervened before any harm came.
Jesus also tested people, but only with words – only with commands or questions – and never with trials or affliction. One time when at least five thousand of his followers were hungry, Jesus tested Philip. They were on a mountain and had little food, and Jesus asked Philip “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat? But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do” (John 6:5-6). Of course, Philip fails the test by forgetting that he is with the Miracle-Worker. And he goes on to explain how the little food is not enough to feed everyone. Many times, that is what happens to us – we forget that Jesus is with us and turn immediately to our natural reasoning for an answer. But if He tests us, He only does it with commands, or sometimes loaded questions – never with evil.
Parents do that when training their children, don’t they? They’ll take a situation and ask the child for a calculated prediction, “Now, what do you think should happen here? What would you do?” That is one way that parents help their children develop wisdom, and that is one way that God helps us.
Jesus tested the rich young ruler with a command. He dealt with the one issue of the heart that could keep the man from giving his all to God – his money (Mark 10:17-25). But He didn’t take the man’s money to teach him a lesson. He only commanded him something about it. And just like many people today who don’t want God touching their money, the rich ruler “went away sorrowful.” Jesus tested the Syrophenician woman with a conversation. He needed her to prove her determination to believe Him for the deliverance of her demon possessed daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). These are examples of how “your faith.is tested by fire.” (1 Peter 1:7). The burning of the fire is nothing more than the struggle of the soul to understand, submit to, and believe God.
God tries the hearts and reins (Psalm 7:9). But the Bible never says that “trying the hearts” includes sickness, tragedy, or affliction. We would have to make assumptions to add that in, because the Bible never says that. When God commissions us to do something, or when He asks us a loaded question, it is not so He can see what we’ll do, for He already knows. Rather than God testing us all the time, the Bible tells us to test ourselves, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). God is not constantly testing our faith level. The world does enough of that by itself, during which we can measure our own faith.
Now in our natural progression through life, there are stages of development that we go through. We have to go to first base before second, second base before third, and third base before home. Each stage has challenges, and God obviously leaves us there to meet them and overcome them. Just like we don’t usually promote a teenager fresh out of high school directly to the chair of the Chief Executive Officer of a company, God doesn’t just promote us around all the obstacles of life. There is a timeline of proving ground that creates integrity and character in us. There may be some hard trials at the bottom and the learning curve may be steep, but rather than a divine test, it is more a natural one. And it is needed. There is a transition that takes place when anyone desires to go to a higher level of ability or experience. It requires intense effort for professional athletes to reach their goals. It takes years of focused education for doctors and scientists to earn the right to practice medicine. And there is some pain involved. But this is not to be confused with suffering as it pertains to harm and affliction.
If our difficult situations are caused or “allowed on purpose” by God, they would never be physically harmful. They may require spiritual obedience or mental endurance, but God doesn’t hurt people, wreck relationships, or ruin people’s lives to see if they can stand the pain and keep some religious grin on their face.
For instance, let’s say that a woman loses her husband in a tragic accident. Ten years later she looks back and realizes that because of that, she had to get a full time job, raise the kids on her own, and become the spiritual head of the family. One result is that she is now a much stronger person than before, and she concludes that this must have been God’s test all along – that her husband had to die so she could get stronger. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
God doesn’t induce tragic pain to bring about some good. He is able to bring about good without pain. Just because it seems like the woman’s spiritual growth was a consequence of her husband’s death, we cannot rightly assume that God wanted the husband dead. That would violate the Bible pattern of God’s good will toward all people. So even though we admit that God allows us to go through certain seasons of refinement, we also must realize that torture and suffering should never be attributed to God even if it seems to result in a certain merit.
Here is an example of God helping us behind the scenes. A farmer watched a mocking bird building her nest in a heap of branches pruned from the apple tree beside the house. All day long the bird toiled; in the evening the farmer destroyed the work she had done, scattering tiny twigs about and trampling them under his feet. The next day the bird patiently began building again. Again at evening time her work was destroyed. Judged by bird standards, the man was cruel. The third day she began her nest again, but this time in the rose bush by the kitchen door. In the evening, the farmer smiled on the bird and her work remained. Day after day she continued to build; the nest was completed; the eggs were laid and warmed beneath her bosom. But long before the time for hatching, the pile of branches from which she had been driven had been removed and burned. Had the far seeing farmer allowed the bird to have her way, all of her nest, her little ones, and her hope for the season would have been destroyed. She did not see beyond one day. He saw the end from the beginning. (Goodpaster, p. 2)
But notice, the farmer didn’t hurt the bird, nor her eggs, nor her future. He only helped redirect her steps. God’s only involvement in tests and trials is as a Deliverer – One who makes a way for us to escape it. “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Again, the Word says that God will foresee temptation and help us out of temptation but never that God will give it. If He were to do both, He would be working against Himself.
Remember what Jesus said to Peter before the cross? He told Peter that “Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail.” (Luke 22:31, 32). Who tested Peter? Clearly it was Satan. The devil is the sifter, the tempter, the afflicter, and Jesus is the Helper. God was not testing Peter to see if he could hold on to his faith. It was the devil tempting him to give up his confidence in the Christ and turn from his divine destiny as an apostle. So if anyone’s faith is being tested, the test is from Satan or the world.
Jesus, Himself, was also tested at the end of His forty days of fasting and praying (Matthew 4, Luke 4), but not by God. The Holy Spirit led Him to the wilderness to pray and fast, with the final purpose of being tempted and proving His resolve as the One entrusted with God’s power. But it was the devil who actually tempted Jesus to commit sin. And Jesus suffered no harm at all. Instead, Jesus escaped the temptation by knowing the truth and obeying God. And so can we. Jesus didn’t give us the example of how to endure through some terrible injury or lengthy depression. He only gave us the example of how to win – and win fast! The temptation that Jesus faced was not something that defied God’s covenant like sickness, maiming, or poverty. It was a thought war with Satan. And Jesus won it. This wilderness temptation was the crucial moment where Jesus’ obedience “binds the strong man” so He could continue on for three and one half years plundering that strong man’s goods. (There is more on this thought war discussed later.)
Actually, if you think about it, Jesus had great faith. He had the strongest faith of anyone in the Bible. And He achieved it without terrible tests from Almighty God. He went through no physical affliction to get there. He achieved and maintained an absolute confidence in God, His Father, as well as a spiritual maturity, by simply walking with God every day. He had opportunity to prove His great faith when challenges arose. And each time He overcame before the challenge turned into suffering. Jesus is our Christian model. At least He should be.
God is good and faithful. And He’s not throwing His people curve balls in life to see how they’ll hold up.
Genesis Ch. 22:1-19 The thing God commanded was a difficult task; he told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, on the altar. But Abraham wasn’t afraid to do so, for he believed his God. He knew God would come through somehow. He put Isaac on the altar and raised the knife, but the angel of the Lord stopped him. He had passed the test without any tragedy. God only wanted him to be willing – not for him to suffer. He only tested him with words.
Another time God warned the Jews not to listen to the false prophets, for He was watching to see if they loved Him with all their hearts (Deuteronomy 13:3). He wasn’t really initiating the test. His test was only the viewing of their response.
To get anwers to more tough questions like this one, see the full “God, Why? video series here: