“We will have an exam next week.”
“Tomorrow, there will be a test on …”
Do you remember the knot in your stomach as you thought about how much you needed to cram for an upcoming test? I remember the audible groans from my students whenever I announced that the exam was drawing near. Even if you are a good test-taker, exams can be intimidating. But what if most of our exams just dropped in on us, unannounced? Can you imagine your teacher greeting you with the words, “Good morning; pop mid-term today. For real!”
That might not happen in the classroom, but our tests of faith often just waltz into our peaceful or already-chaotic lives without much warning. Sure, there are those words in Scripture that warn us, “Beloved, do not be amazed and bewildered at the fiery ordeal which is taking place to test your quality, as though something strange (unusual and alien to you and your position) were befalling you” (1 Peter 4:12 AMP). Despite this reminder, my first response to unexpected difficulties and disappointments is a feeling that God has betrayed me by dropping an unfair exam on my head.
In our weekly Bible study, our pastor has been going through the Book of Genesis. These last few weeks we’ve been in the midst of Abraham’s story. I find myself much more sympathetic to Abraham and Sarah’s frustration with God’s timing than I did when I was a teenager. The years of childlessness dragged on and on while they tried to cling to God’s promise. And then at long last, Isaac was born and there was joy and laughter. Until …
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Genesis 22:1-2 NIV).
I cannot fathom the anguish that was in Abraham’s heart as he made the choice to obey God and prepare to sacrifice his beloved son. Out of the blue, here was a faith-test of seismic proportions.
I have always struggled to understand the point of this test. I do understand how Abraham’s obedience provided a way for God to show a picture of Christ in the provision of a ram. But why did it have to be such a hard test?
The pastor began by honing in on the word “test,” explaining that Genesis 22 is the first instance where God is described as testing someone. And then he read the following dictionary definition: “Test—a procedure intended to establish the quality, performance or reliability of something, especially before it is taken into widespread use.” As he lingered on the last few words in that definition, I remembered something another pastor had said in an attempt to encourage me during my own season of testing. “Sarah, sometimes a tree gets cut and pruned, and it feels like the end. But this is all for the purpose of the tree’s greater fruitfulness, which is upcoming.”
As we read through the story of Abraham’s unbelievably difficult test, the pastor pointed out God’s response to this man’s obedience: “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12 ESV). He reminded us that the purpose of tests is to develop in us a fear of the Lord—which is a determination to put Him first, an unshakable trust that He is worth everything. Proverbs 9:12 explains that: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (ESV).
Going back to the definition of test, I started thinking about the part at the end: “a procedure intended to establish the quality, performance or reliability of something, especially before it is taken into widespread use.” I realized that I could see the growth of Abraham’s faith over the years of his story, even though he probably ascended up to Mount Moriah feeling anguished and confused. This was a man who previously could not trust in God’s protection during his travels, deciding to put his own wife in moral danger by asking her to lie about their relationship. This was a man who tried to bring the “son of promise” by his own means. This was also a man who refused wealth from a pagan king and interceded on behalf of a condemned city. And now, this man is building an altar to sacrifice the miracle-child, the most precious gift God had given him … all in reverence for God’s supremacy and faith in His ability.
Abraham’s faith had grown over the years. Reverence for God, the fear of the Lord had become his identity. God was working in Abraham’s heart even in these darkest moments of testing. And a few years later, Abraham would grieve Sarah’s death with faith. In faith, he would send his servant off on a long, “mad” journey to find a believing wife for Isaac, refusing to compromise with convenience. Isaac and Rebekah would become grandparents to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, through whom God would send His Son to bless the world. Abraham’s fear of God, his reverence for what is eternal, was tested before it was “taken into widespread use.” The tree with its lopped-off branches would produce more fruit than anyone had imagined.
We may not understand the need for these anguishing, unexpected, disrupting faith-tests that God seems to drop into our laps. We might even feel like the Teacher has left the room. (Last week, someone on the radio reminded me that the Teacher is usually quiet during the test. Quiet, but never absent.) But we can be sure of the outcome.
Peter reminds us, “Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner” (1 Peter 4:12, The Message).
Your impact is about to expand.