Being put to the test

Sometimes we are uncomfortable with this concept, and that is probably due to the Christian businessman’s thinking prevalent in Western society today. However, we should listen to the words of Scripture and form our opinions from the Word and not simply from our own biases or knee-jerk reactions. Israel was challenged to do this under the law, and the lesson stands for us too:

“All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers.” (Deut 8:1)

God’s expectation of us, as with Israel, is that we would “observe” to do all the commands that He gives us. As the Hebrew indicates, this means guarding them and protecting them by paying heed. They were to learn the lessons of life through the trials brought upon them by God’s providence. For example, they were expected to “remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no” (Deut 8:2). They were to call to remembrance the journey that God was bringing upon them. It was a life of dependence on Him, complete with trials, that had the goal of humbling them. They were to experience affliction and to be weakened, as the original word signifies. This was a weakening or a breaking of the spirit of the flesh with the end goal of testing them and making them to know by experience whether they would prove obedient or not. These were not theoretical trials, but practical proving grounds. The wilderness was a biblical boot camp!

God reduced them to dependence on Him to see how they would fare. Would they put their trust in Him, demonstrating it by keeping His commandments, or not?  What about us, how do we respond to trial?  It should have the effect of teaching us to keep God’s ways.

It is our character that is on trial. We are being tested in practical circumstances to demonstrate where we put our faith:

“And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live. Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years.” (Deut 8:3-4)

God “suffered” Israel to hunger. He allowed them to feel the pains of hunger. Yet He didn’t leave them to starve in the wilderness. Instead, He fed them with manna with the purpose of teaching them the lesson that survival is not based on merely satisfying the animal desires, but rather on obedience to God’s Word. Christ would draw on this exact passage when undergoing his temptation in the wilderness to emphasise the lesson God was teaching the ecclesia in the wilderness (Matt 4:2-4). We need to remember this when we are tempted not to sacrifice our principles for pragmatic survival reasons.

Chastening of the Almighty

God’s way of training us is also called chastening in Deuteronomy 8:5 and they were expected to consider this carefully. The word used for “consider” is yada—to know or learn by experience. When we go through our wilderness trials, we need to have the teachableness of a child. In the depth of trial, we cannot shake our fist at God in frustration or despair; rather we must ask, What is God trying to teach us in this circumstance? Then we need to look for His hand to be revealed as Moses declared, “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you today: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen today, ye shall see them again no more for ever.” (Exod 14:13)

Consider a sampling of Scriptures using the same Hebrew word anah translated “humble” in Deuteronomy 8:2:

“Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.” (Psa 119:67)

“It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes.” (Psa 119:71)

We might not relish the thought of affliction or humbling, but God will be just and faithful as He prescribes the necessary dose each of us need:

“I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me.” (Psa 119:75)

Trial is there to exercise us, as Ecclesiastes clearly states:

“And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.” (Eccl 1:13)

This is what Paul states in Hebrews:

“Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” (Heb 12:11)

This means that we will not be without trial in the wilderness we wander through, just like Israel did for forty years.

God is not so much interested in the ‘here and now’ but in the end result, as He states at the end of the Deuteronomy passage:

“…who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end” (8:16)

God’s goal from the beginning was to do Israel good by dealing well with them and making them right and beautiful. However, this will only fully happen in their “latter end”.

An excellent example of the chastening of Yahweh can be seen in the life of Naomi. When trouble arose, she and her husband left Israel for the land of Moab (Ruth 1:1-2). Their story is a disaster, yet when Naomi returns to the land of promise she acknowledges that God’s hand has been upon her to bring her back: “Call me not Naomi” she said, “call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the Lord hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?” (Ruth 1:20-21).

The affliction of Yahweh was indeed bitter. She had lost a husband and two sons. Yet, all the while that she dwelled in the land of Moab, although a foolish decision, her God had been working with her. She acknowledges “I went out full,” indicating the famine had not been as dire as she may have thought it was, yet in the mind of Naomi and Elimelech it was enough to warrant leaving the little ecclesia in Bethlehem. Sometimes our perspective is skewed, and instead of trusting in God we turn to our own resources. The cost of this can be dire, as it was to Naomi. Yet God did not abandon her, rather He worked within her circumstances and brought her back. She was empty upon her return because she had lost a husband and two sons, and no doubt her bitterness was deep, yet she doesn’t blame anybody but herself.

Naomi had been reduced to complete despair whilst dwelling amongst the Gentiles. Her situation is a little like the prodigal son who was afflicted by a similar famine, which in the end turned him back to his father (Luke 15:14-18). She realized that even the poorest in her father’s house were looked after under the system of provision that had been created under the law—something unparalleled amongst the nations. God describes Himself in terms of the One who looks after the fatherless, widows and strangers in Deuteronomy 10:17-18. Indeed, one of the methods that God utilized in caring for the poor was through the gleaning of others:

“When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands. When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt: therefore I command thee to do this thing” (Deut 24:19-22).

God provided for those in dire straits, but they were still required to work at gleaning for their daily bread, even though the Father had made provision for their welfare.

The trial of prosperity

Often we groan under trial, awaiting release from God. Release only comes when our nature is changed; until then we are all still ‘flesh’ and subject to trial. Prosperity is as much a trial as poverty:

“Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day: Lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Deut 8:11-14)

This is a challenge, and sometimes more dangerous than experiencing poverty. In time of need, we must put our trust in God, but in times of affluence it is much easier to forget Him by ignoring him and ceasing to care. This in turn prevents us from fully keeping His commandments. Affluence breeds arrogance. Fullness of bread, dwelling in wonderful homes surrounded by much wealth and abundance can make us wither spiritually and cease to care about God’s ways. It was the sin of Sodom: “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Ezek 16:49).

It was a challenge for the first century ecclesia as well. They developed an attitude of careless apathy. “I know thy works” said our Lord, “that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev 3:15-17).

Affluence can be equally as challenging as poverty, since human nature is quick to push God out of the picture, as Deuteronomy describes: “And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth” (Deut 8:17). That is what we can begin to think of ourselves as ‘self-made men’ who have achieved our status through our own ingenuity and prowess. If we ever get to this point we need to rethink our situation and consider God’s words to us: “But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day” (Deut 8:18). God is the source of our power or strength, and of our wealth. The Hebrew speaks of one’s ‘ability, force, might or efficiency’.  We need to remember this in times of prosperity and of poverty. Everything we have comes from God. What matters is God’s righteousness, and that His character and covenant are upheld; that we honour His covenant with the patriarchs, into whose inheritance we are adopted.

The trial of prosperity is highlighted by our Lord when he meets a certain ruler who asks him what he should do to inherit eternal life? Christ challenges him to draw deep, in a way that he found difficult. “Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). This was too much for the rich ruler. This is where his commitment ran out: “And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich” (Luke 18:23). He was sorrowful and this is the same Greek word that is used by Christ when he stated in Gethsemane: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matt 26:38).

This is the hold riches can gain over us if we are not careful. We do not want to part with them, even for the kingdom of God. Christ reflects on the trial of prosperity: “And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25). The use of a camel is significant. It was the beast of commercial burden during the Roman Empire. In Nehemiah’s time, the people around Jerusalem had been coming into the city to conduct business on the Sabbath day with their animals laden with all kinds of burdens to be sold. Nehemiah had solved this problem by closing the gates on this behaviour (Neh 13:15-19).

There is some debate as to whether the needle’s eye refers to a door set in, or beside, the main city gate, through which if a camel was to go, it would have to be unloaded of its burdens and caused to shuffle through on its knees. Regardless, the imagery of a camel laden with burdens trying to pass through a needle is a metaphor exaggerated to make a point. Paul points out that we need to unburden ourselves of “every weight” as well, as we run in the race of life: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1).

Trial beyond the wilderness

The trial did not end for the Israelites once they left the wilderness. God still called on them to trust in Him, and obey His commandments. This is seen in the call for them to leave their lands and properties to attend the feasts three times in a year (Exod 34:23). To any rational human, this would have been a really dangerous thing to do. Surely, the nations around them would prey upon their land, steal their herds and flocks, carry off their wives and little ones, and destroy their habitations? You could imagine the discussions that would have taken place about how far to take the literal interpretation of this law. Yet God provided the answer: “For I will cast out the nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders: neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the Lord thy God thrice in the year” (Exod 34:24).

This would require faithful obedience to the commandment of God. They would have to trust God implicitly in order to obey His commandments. This is the same requirement of the Scriptures for every saint who would walk in the footsteps of Abraham: “the just shall live by his faith” (Hab 2: 4).