The Tests of Faith
The life of the righteous is filled with tests, great tests of faith: not to determine our worthiness of heaven, measure our strength, or prove our endurance. God tests the faith of the righteous to prove the certainty of his promises, the sovereign power of his arm, and the depths of his love for us in Jesus Christ. Of late I am aware of too many tests to recount: sickness and death in our congregation and its extended families, job and financial uncertainties, interpersonal conflict, struggles with sin, and weariness with long-standing family disturbances. The precarious national situation intensifies our present sense of tenuousness. Why are all these things and many more simultaneously descending upon us? What are the lessons we are to gain from them? How are we to view our relationship with God during such times? These and similar questions have occupied my thoughts of late with a force and persistence that have surprised me, indeed, changed me, I pray, for good and for glory.
In discussing God’s testing of the righteous, it is exceedingly important to recognize his sovereignty. Refusal to do is catastrophic for faith; it is Satanic. For if we do not recognize God as the origin of our trials, then we must consider them either haphazard events in a chance universe or the results of Satan’s mischief. To affirm a chance universe is to confess atheism. To view life’s trials as coming from Satan denies abundant biblical testimony that God is the author of our trials, ignores the fact that Christ definitively defeated and bound Satan at the cross, and ascribes to Satan power and authority that belong to Jesus Christ alone (see John 12:29-31; Matthew 28:18). Our wellbeing during seasons of testing depend upon a firm and unshaken conviction that they come from the hand of our loving heavenly Father, who governs the nations and our lives by his mighty power, never allows us to be tempted beyond our ability, and is causing all things to work together for good. Belief in God’s sovereignty during trials is the greatest of all comforts to the believer; not to believe in his providence is the greatest of all miseries.
And then we must remember that the tests of faith serve important purposes. They refine our faith. This will not mean much to those who have been taught that faith is little more than intellectual assent or a one-time "salvation" experience. But those who understand that faith is a way of life will readily admit their need for stronger faith, more Christ-centered faith, more self-denying faith. Faith is the gift and work of God in our hearts by which we learn to distrust ourselves and our abilities, depend upon God’s word and promises alone as the source of life, and look away from ourselves to find life’s ultimate purpose and meaning. Without testing, faith cannot be strong, will not be real, or languishes in worldliness and immaturity. With testing, faith learns by experience God’s power, the certainty of his word, the preciousness of Jesus Christ, and the sustaining grace of the Holy Spirit.
Faith’s testing leads to prayer. It cannot be too strongly stated that God wants us to pray, exercises us by prayer, and will bring seasons into our lives that force us to pray. We see this in the life of our Savior, throughout the Bible, and in the universal testimony of the catholic church. Depend upon it. If you are God’s child, you will pray. The Spirit of adoption "lusts with envy," to use the old King James language, a fervent desire and working of the Spirit in us by which we are led to cast ourselves upon the power of God. Tests and trials are a chief way God deepens our dependence upon him, which in turn leads to prayer. And what a blessing this providence is. Prayer is the God-appointed means by which we dig up the treasures of life and salvation that are revealed for us in the gospel. And when we are led away from self-trust, feel something of our weakness, though none of us has ever felt it as we should, and learn to trust in God as our Helper, faith is invigorated. God works, answers, assists. He will not do this apart from fervent, persistent prayer, for if everything always goes our way, we will never learn that he is our good, our strength, and our refuge. Since God loves us, then, we can expect testing, for we must pray. And it is not as if the chief benefit of prayer is that life’s struggles are smoothed out and removed. Rather, we learn to walk with God in prayerful submission and dependence upon his love and faithfulness, in every season of life, through every trial and adversity.
Testing also teaches us to know God as our greatest good. And this is of inestimable importance, for as we long as we live in the body of this death, the temptation will always be to consider comfort, ease, and prosperity as necessary to our lives. We will avoid hardship, exertion, and sacrifice, anything that disturbs our delusion. But when adversity comes, comfort is removed, and our confidence in prosperity and strength is destroyed. We learn the truth. We have no good beyond God, fellowship with him, obedience to him, dependence upon him. His word becomes exceedingly precious to us, his promises our life, his faithfulness our chief comfort. In such seasons of weakness, we are truly strong, not in ourselves but in God. We realize with clarity and certainty otherwise unknown that God is everything. To know him is to possess everlasting life, even if we are diseased, overwhelmed with grief, robbed of our comfortable lives, or besieged with innumerable enemies. And because God knows that he is our greatest good, he orchestrates the events of our lives to reveal himself as such to our faith. He will remove the idols of our lives, our false comforts and sense of security, and our wretched self-satisfaction and pride. These are the obstacles of a truly good and holy life. Tests purify faith from attitudes, beliefs, and actions that lead us away from God. He alone is absolute necessary for our well-being in this life.
And testing is God’s way of calling us to self-examination. It is true that not all testing and trials are the result of specific sin, but Job’s experience must not be made universal. Some hardships is directly related to sins for which God is chastening, from which he is weaning us. David confessed that his afflictions taught him to obey God more devotedly. Abundant biblical testimony confirms that through trials God directs us to consider our life, to engage in serious reflection upon our walk, whether or not we are obeying him, trusting him, loving him, worshipping him. Sin is always present in the most consecrated of lives, and we may be certain that by testing our faith, God is leading us to love righteousness and hate sin. The only way we can ever overcome sin is for the love of righteousness to fill our soul. Love for righteousness is the fruit of union and communion with Jesus Christ. Hence, as testing leads us to our Savior, so it can mortify sin and enliven closer obedience to God.
Testing will never end in this life. God mercifully grants seasons of reprieve, and for these we should be humbled and thankful. But many are the afflictions of the righteous. They teach us to long for heaven, not to escape God’s providences but to revel in God’s presence, in the fruition of faith, in the replacement of faith with uninterrupted love. To the degree testing purifies you from love for the world and whets your appetite for communion with God in grace and glory, it is one of God’s most merciful dispensations of providence. He wants us for himself; he will have us for himself. And the goal of testing is to lay our burdens finally before the feet of our glorious King and Savior, see our Shepherd, and have him say, "Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joys of your Lord." If testing produces bitterness and impatience, or hardened, stoic resolution, it is not leading us to heaven. It should make us tender, hopeful, ready for death, diligent in serving the Lord.
Do not, therefore, despise seasons of testing. They are precious gifts of God to teach us experience, strengthen our faith, and manfully arm us for the great contest in which we are engaged. The world cannot be discipled to Christ otherwise than through believers who have learned to die to self and live in him. We cannot overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil except through the purifying of our faith. Do not complain or try to escape. Count testing all joy. It is God’s way of making us fruitful unto every good work and dedicated to his kingdom.