Testing God

(A Lection Reflection on Luke 4:1-12)

Let me put some thoughts in front of you, and you tell me if you’ve heard these before:

    • Trust in God.
    • Believe God’s word.
    • Stand on the promises of God.
    • Step out in faith.

Sound familiar? Sure — we’ve all heard these, and probably said them at one time or another. Yet in today’s lection, Jesus not only refuses to do these things, he winds up saying that acting on them is testing God. And that’s a bad thing.

Huh. Not exactly what we expected, right? Let’s take a look.

If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you know today’s passage. Jesus is being tested in the wilderness by the diabolos, the Accuser or Deceiver. (The word is usually translated Devil, but I like these words better.) The Deceiver offers Jesus three deals, each time promising something good in return for Jesus doing something he shouldn’t. I don’t want to spend time today on either of the first two tests (using heavenly power for earthly ends, and worshiping evil). Instead, I want to look at the third one.

The Deceiver takes Jesus to Jerusalem, to the pinnacle of the temple, and encourages him to throw himself off the roof of the temple, noting that the Scriptures themselves say that angels will protect the Messiah and prevent him coming to any harm. And Jesus not only says No, he follows it up with “You shall not test God.”

It’s obvious that “testing God” is something you don’t want to do. But what does it mean? Time for some etymology — not on “test” but on “tempt,” the word used in the KJV. Here’s the definition of “tempt” from the online Merriam-Webster:

tempt  \ˈtem(p)t\

1:  to entice to do wrong by promise of pleasure or gain
2a: (obsolete) to make trial of; test
b : to try presumptuously; provoke <tempt fate>
c : to risk the dangers of
3a : to induce to do something
b : to cause to be strongly inclined <was tempted to call it quits>

Origin of TEMPT — Middle English, from Anglo-French tempter, tenter, from Latin temptare, tentare to feel, try

You see it? We’re not talking about tempting God to do something wrong; instead, it’s that meaning in 2a and 2b — “to make trial of” or even “to try presumptuously.”

Was the Deceiver right? Do the Hebrew scriptures say that God will send angels to protect his Chosen One? Yep, sure do, right in Psalm 91:11,12. So why then would it be wrong for Jesus to “step out in faith” by jumping off the top of the Temple? Even more important — when is it wrong for US to step out in faith like that?

If we are doing it to make a point about God, or even more to make a point TO God, it’s testing God. And if we are not acting out of faith and trust, but trying to put God in a box, it’s testing God.

Ask yourself this: what is the attitude behind your actions? Are you trusting as a child, or being pushy like a teenager? Are you looking at God and asking “Please,” or are you glaring at God and saying “Prove it”? What if God says No — what will be your attitude then?

There are promises all throughout scripture, and there are times when we need to act in faith. But if there is one big truth to get out of today’s lection, it is this:

God is not a cosmic candy machine,
and faith is more than just inserting coins.

Jesus’s quiet faith is what shines through at the end. He trusts God to provide, and doesn’t need to put God to the test to know that God is there. He knows that this is not a time to ask God for a miracle; those times will come later. Instead, even while he is being tested himself, he figures out how to simply abide in his relationship with the Father.

As we move into Lent, may we all learn to practice that same abiding, that sense of trust and faith that God is there and will provide. And may we develop that sixth sense of knowing when to step out in faith, and when our “faith” is something else. Amen.

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