Saturday, September 5, 2009

When God Tests Us

When God Tests Us

Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and James Cone find themselves all at the same time at Caesarea Philippi. Who should come along but Jesus, and he asks the four famous theologians the same Christological question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Karl Barth stands up and says: “You are the totaliter aliter, the vestigious trinitatum who speaks to us in the modality of Christo-monism.”

Not prepared for Barth's brevity, Paul Tillich stumbles out: “You are he who heals our ambiguities and overcomes the split of angst and existential estrangement; you are he who speaks of the theonomous viewpoint of the analogia entis, the analogy of our being and the ground of all possibilities.”

Reinhold Niebuhr gives a cough for effect and says, in one breath: “You are the impossible possibility who brings to us, your children of light and children of darkness, the overwhelming oughtness in the midst of our fraught condition of estrangement and brokenness in the contiguity and existential anxieties of our ontological relationships.”

Finally James Cone gets up, and raises his voice: “You are my Oppressed One, my soul's shalom, the One who was, who is, and who shall be, who has never left us alone in the struggle, the event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed struggling for freedom, and whose blackness is both literal and symbolic.”

And Jesus writes in the sand, “Huh?”

I the test is not the temptation

In Genesis chapter 2, God gives Adam the first test – don’t eat of the tree of knowledge.

temptation was introduced in Chapter 3 – and it was a pretty easy temptation to overcome, right?

“just say no” – but in this case, there was no peer pressure, no corner to be backed into – although God could foresee the serpent tempting Adam and Eve, God made sure they could get out of the temptation.

That’s why in James it says: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”

God does not tempt us.

We do enough of that ourselves

and the world takes care of the rest.

What God does is ensure that we will always have a way NOT to sin – not to fall into temptation

You’ve heard the bit of “pop theology” that goes: God will never give you more than you can handle,” right?

Well, don’t try finding that passage in the Bible because unless you’ve written it in there, you’re going to have a hard time.

We can sort of think this through, right?

Everything God gives you is more than you can handle because you can’t handle anything without God’s help. So let’s take that bit of misinformation out of our heads and replace it with the real quote – not the one from the internet.

In Corinthians, Paul writes: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it”

Now that’s a big difference, right?

And one that makes a lot of living easier to understand. When we’re burdened with the pain of living, when we forget that Jesus has given us the greatest gift of all, we often feel like we can’t handle what we’ve got. We can’t play the hand of cards that God – or in these times of weakness, fate or luck, has dealt us.

And then we’re reminded of that passage that doesn’t exist – God won’t give us more than we can handle” and we KNOW that we can’t handle what we have

and we break down

and we give up

and we let go

and we turn away from God.

Think about that when you start misquoting the Bible – twisting it to sound nice is still twisting it.

What the Bible says is not that we won’t be given burdens

but that we won’t be tempted beyond our ability to say no.

Every time you or I have given into temptation – of whatever sort, there has been that moment when we thought “no, we shouldn’t.” And then we gave in.

Why? Why ignore the very moment when God is stopping time for us and allowing us to be right?

Why fail then?

On the TV show “The Biggest Loser,” where people compete to lose the most weight, they have a saying “nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.” I can’t attest to that, but I can tell you than nothing feels as good as following God’s will.

And God’s will is not our will.

Even Jesus knew that when he prayed “not my will, but yours be done.”

II God’s tests

But temptation is not God’s way of testing. Temptation is the Devil’s way, the world’s way, our selfish nature’s way of getting us to fail one of God’s tests – that of following Him.

But God tests us in other ways. The “following God test” is one that only one person has ever gotten an A+ on. All the rest of us fall short of the curve set by Jesus.

But that’s a summative test. A summative test is one that comes at the end of teaching – did you learn what you were supposed to? Our lives are one big standardized, high-stakes test, and death is when we turn our scantrons in.

But God gives us formative tests, too – tests that discover what we know and tell God when we’re ready to move on.

Probably the most famous of these tests is when God tells Ol’ Abraham to go sacrifice his grown son on Mount Moriah. Grown son, mind you – so it was a bit of a test for Isaac, too – to let himself be all tied up and readied for the altar by his pops.

And Abraham and Isaac passed the test with flying colors – or at least they crammed really well for the test. Or rammed? Anyway they came out of the test alive, which is more than we can say for their school mascot.

God used that test to find out just how loyal Abraham and his family would be – could they be the foundation for God’s holy nation? Only the test would tell.

Jesus liked to use tests, too.

In the chapter after today’s passage He asked his disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter, being the Rabbi’s pet, spoke up and answered “the Christ” (that means the anointed One of God, by the by – “messiah” for those of you who like multi-syllabic words) – can’t you just imaging good old Rocky – “ooh ooh, Rabbi Jesus, Rabbi Jesus, I know da answer!”

Jesus used the test to find out what the disciples knew – and what he could teach them.

What was he going to teach them? Those of you who are top-notch in bible memorization can probably guess

but let’s go back to today’s reading first.

My favorite test in the Bible comes from today’s passage.

A Greek woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus replies in his ever-compassionate way (and I’m paraphrasing) – “get away from me dawg, I ain’t got nuthin for you – I gots to take care of mah own.”

Okay, if you don’t like the New Urban Standard version, we can go back to the NIV translation – he says “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs.”

You may have observed in your reading of the New Testament that Jesus is not always polite in his responses to requests for aid.

I think this is just preparing us for the upcoming test – you may have noticed that God is not always polite in his responses to prayers for aid, either – sometimes his emphatic NO comes with a burden, often not unlike a cross.

Our job is not to get offended if we can’t understand the niceties of God. Our job, like Job, is to accept what God has given us


like Job, we can ask questions without fear.

Which is what this brave Greek woman did. Instead of being offended that her first answer was no, giving up, and turning away from God, instead she asked the right question

not “God why won’t you help me?”

but “aren’t you here for the whole world?”

The first question shows ignorance.

The second question shows understanding.

Once the second question was asked – that’s “but even the dogs get the children’s crumbs” – the demon had to leave the Greek woman’s little girl because now Jesus was with her.

Once the Greek woman realized that God was here on earth not to heal and do magic tricks, but to feed his creation, well then, things got better. She passed the test. And when she passed, Jesus knew that the whole world was ready for his message.

Which brings us back to the disciples.

Once they knew that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the chosen one, the anointed one of God, what were they ready to know?

Well, the end of Mark 8 has it clearly for us:

31He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

33But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

34Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever wants to save his life[c] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? 37Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 38If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels."

Once Jesus knew the world was ready for him – as he found in Mark 7, and that his disciples knew that he was the Christ, Jesus could begin talking about exactly why he was on earth and what he would do – and the great gift of life he offered to all.

When you come to the final test, what will be your answer?

If you know now you’re failing, God has a great grade recovery plan. Just ask him, and Jesus will give you copies of all his notes, and if you still can’t pass, we’ll, he’ll be glad to take the test for you.

Pray with me,


we know your tests are not temptations

and that temptations do not come from you

but the strength to overcome them does.

When we are tested

give us the wisdom

to answer correctly

or ask the right questions

and when we fail

send us your Word

with all the answers

we will ever need.

In Jesus name,


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