It is natural to shudder when we think about the tests of God. They seem so scary. Yet I believe the tests of God are the key to hope and joy. Let me explain.
I began flying lessons in 1997. These lessons taught me to take off and land, to navigate using aviation charts, and to communicate with air traffic control.
On my second flight, my instructor Jayne pulled the throttle to idle and announced that my engine had just died. She asked what I was going to do. Throttling her was not an option because I hadn’t yet learned to land. But I was strongly tempted.
Soon a pattern emerged. She’d kill the engine, I’d want to kill her, I’d look for a place to land, and we’d practice standard engine-restart procedures. Then we would circle down to the landing site until Jayne said we would have made it (or not). Then she’d re-throttle the engine, we’d climb, and we’d review what I had done.
Jayne drilled the engine-out procedures so thoroughly into me that I could have done them in my sleep.
Though I never tried.
Two Types of Tests
Jayne taught me to fly through a series of tests. The nature of these tests—repetition and reflection—taught me to fly. Educators call these tests Formative Tests. They are educational methods that train us in the midst of the test, like my flying instructor’s engine-out surprises.
Each time Jayne killed my engine it was a test, but the test itself trained me to handle emergencies safely and confidently. Formative Tests teach us today how to avoid disqualification tomorrow.
However, when we think of God’s tests, we think of something else. We picture Summative Tests. Summative Tests measure how much we have already learned, such as midterms, finals, and college entrance exams (the ACT or SAT).
While Formative Tests are designed to qualify us for the future, one could say that Summative Tests are designed to disqualify us, as in “My SAT score was low so I failed to get into Harvard.”
Why is this distinction so important? Because understanding the difference between Summative Tests and Formative Tests is the key to joy or despair. It is the difference between midday-sun and midnight-darkness. Frankly, it is the gospel.
Most people consider Christianity to be one large Summative Test, the ultimate College entrance exam; a big moral test which we repeatedly fail.
But it isn’t.
Why do we fear the tests of God? Why do we freak out when we read passages like this, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you” (1 Peter 4:12)? We fear God’s tests for these reasons:
- We fear the Failure of tests
- We fear the Pain of tests
- We fear the Purpose of tests
If God’s tests are Summative (assessing and disqualifying), then yes, we should fear them. But if God is using tests to form us, then we can be at peace—even in the middle of a crisis. When we misunderstand the nature of testing we think God is disqualifying us–though he is actually qualifying us.
Through his tests he actually makes us more qualified; he dismantles our false self and builds in us our truest calling. He broadens our shoulders and he strengthens our steps. He’s teaching us to fly.
When we are barely holding our lives together, the mere thought of the burden of a test—adding one more thing—causes pain. We fear our engine-out-plane will hit the ground. But God himself is our flight instructor, sitting in the plane next to us. He is not on the ground giving radio instructions. His exercises develop strength. He is preparing us for something great.
We willingly experience self-inflicted pain to attain our own goals—the pain of exercise to gain health, the pain of dating to find a spouse, the pain of child-rearing to have a family—so why do we fear the pain of God’s tests? Isn’t he always after greater goals than we seek? Isn’t he more careful with our hearts than we are? He is always after something richer than we imagine.
We think we know what we need, and we fear God will get it wrong. God’s tests often go in directions we don’t wish. We want to be a doctor, and God wants to give us peace. We want financial security and God wants to give us joy. God formed our hearts and deepest desires. He created our calling before we were born. He knows what we need, and through his tests he reveals our hearts and our calling. And he is teaching us to land.
When we believe God’s tests are simply Formative, we experience hope, the pressure is off. We know that God has prepared us for this moment, and we rest knowing God uses this moment to prepare us for the next. It’s okay. Even if we “fail” this time around, God uses today’s experience to prepare us for tomorrow.
Only one test is truly Summative. That test is what we choose to believe. Do we choose to believe his tests are Summative or Formative? If we believe his tests are Summative—and failure is disqualification—then everything rests on our shoulders.
When we believe in our hearts that he has done everything for us—he has already qualified us—then every test is just another engine-out exercise.
He’s teaching us to fly.