Qualification not Elimination

Posted by on Feb 15, 2012 in Sam | 28 comments

Written by Sam Williamson.

When we think about the tests of God, most of us shudder. Yet I believe that they can be a 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.

I particularly liked learning to land.

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, and we’d practice standard engine-restart procedures, and I’d look for a place to land. 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, such as 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 most of us think of tests, we picture Summative Tests. Summative Tests measure how much we have already learned, such as college entrance exams (the ACT or SAT), midterms, and finals.

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.”

So what.

Why is this distinction so important? Because understanding the difference between Summative 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, sort of a huge 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

The Failure. 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, when he is actually qualifying us. Through tests he makes us more capable; he dismantles the false self and builds in us our truest calling. He broadens our shoulders and he strengthens our steps. He’s teaching us to fly.

The Pain. When we barely hold 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.

The Purpose. 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 as 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 belief. 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 an engine-out exercise.

He’s teaching us to fly.

Sam Williamson



28 Responses to “Qualification not Elimination”

  1. Dude!…Awesome…God is walking me through EVERYTHING you wrote about! Thanks for your life…It weighs alot 🙂

    • Hi Thomas,
      Thanks for the comment. For me, understanding God’s tests as Formative brings Hope. He is at work in everything, making me into the man he sees me to be. Pretty cool!
      And, yes, looking in the mirror tells me my life “weighs alot” — thanks for reminding me 🙂

  2. Wow Sam thank you I had no idea I was living under the summative lie, i didn’t even know those 2 words till now! haha Thank you brother powerful stuff. Loved how you weaved the lesson in & out of the story. Great job!

    • Hi Brandon,
      Thanks for your comments, and I love how you call it “living under the summative lie.” Yes, that is a perfect description of our condition when we misinterpret what God is doing and forming in us.

  3. Wow. That hit me between the eyes. We’re selling our place to buy an acreage and its starting to wear on me. Am I missing something? Doing it right? Taking care of my family? Hearing Father? And to see it all as formative is freedom!

  4. Valerie condron says:

    This is amazing. Since I am in the midst of some heavy stuff, it is beautiful to be reminded
    Of God’s heart for me…thank you

    • Hi Valerie,
      I feel for you. When I’m in the middle of “heavy stuff,” there is pain and fear. Pain of the present and fear of the future.
      I really believe that–knowing His plan for us is being created in us–brings us a more grace in the present and more hope for the future.
      Valerie, God IS working in you now, creating and building something great.
      thanks for sharing.

  5. Sam, thank you.

    I just had a great heartache at home. THis didn’t bring comfort, but it brings perspective on what the Lord is doing. I’ve been crying out to Him… and He’s showing me this is something He is handling.
    Thanks man.

    • Hi Scott,
      Thanks for you comment. My heart goes out to you in your home heartache. I’ve been there and it can be heart breaking.
      I like that word, perspective. So, what perspective do you find it brings?

      • Lol, I like Gary’s comments on are we on a luxury liner or a battleship. In your story I’m seeing God as the pilot and showing us how to handle ourselves. My wife’s affair and now dealing with single parenting is quite an adjustment. But we had many bumps over the last 10 years. I’m seeing he is training me in relationships (an area I have not been wanting to grow in as much as business) And now there is simply no ignoring anything relationally. Each relationship with kids and her are very presant. I’m not sure the goal of the tests, but He is simply growing me… not disqualifying anyone. And I know He’s mightily at work in my wife… as she’s with friends now and seeking Him.

        • Hi Scott,
          I love your personal reflection, “And now there is simply no ignoring anything relationally.”
          While we sometimes fear God’s tests–for our fear of the pain they will bring–instead they always bring about some life, something we had been missing.
          Thanks for all you are thinking of. You are clearly thinking deeply and profoundly.
          And I love it 🙂


  6. Wow! This is probably one of the best explanations of why most say God will not test us and reject that idea yet, we all know that we are tested all the time. But would we really see what your flight instructor did for you as a “test”? It is loving, formative instruction she didn’t want you to crash and burn…just like God. He allows us to see what we are capable of handling (whether we like it or not) to show us how Glorious He is and stretch our faith in Him.

    • Hi Tim,

      You’ve nailed it with, ” It is loving, formative instruction, she didn’t want you to crash and burn…just like God.” Yes, exactly. Her hands were on the yoke, but her hands loosened up over time as I became more capable. Just like God. He is training us into becoming us. He sees in us far more than we do.


  7. Cindy Hirch says:

    Hi Sam,

    What an incredibly thought provoking message. I’ve gone back to read it several times because it truly resonated with me. The “purpose” element really hit home. We always want to be on control of our lives, and truly believe we know what is best. For some, self-reliance is like breathing. It is all they know. They cannot fathom that God truly has a better plan.

    We cringe at the unknown and only walk toward what we can see. But if we could see the backdrop and landscape of what God is creating behind the scenes, we would welcome the purpose…we would trust.

    • Hello Cindy,
      The “Purpose” element hit home strong with me as well. I see this tiny sliver of life that I believe is me; so I resist the eye-opening, mind-blowing reality of all that God is really bringing about.
      I love your line, “f we could see the backdrop and landscape of what God is creating behind the scenes, we would welcome the purpose…we would trust.”

  8. John Moorhead says:

    Sam, I am a 65 year-old retired physician, mentoring some younger men going through some painful stuff. I pause before I write this, but I believe it is true: I have never been exposed to a way of looking at things which is more helpful. I will take this perspective, this language into the love I have for these men, and I believe God will use it greatly. Thank you for this, Sam, from the bottom of my heart. I am with you, for the Kingdom.

    • John,
      Wow. Thank you.
      I’m thrilled you can bring this perspective to the young men in your care. As you believe the truth of His loving tests, your belief will be infectious, and those younger men can also have the hope these beliefs bring.
      Thanks for all you are doing; from the bottom of my heart, I am with you as well.

  9. Sam, excellent post. I’m thankful that school days are over and that God’s tests are formative, as he shapes me into the man he designed. My wife has walked through physical pain for the last several years of dealing with a heart condition. However, God has used her physical pain and our emotional pain to empower us to walk in our callings. It’s still a difficult and overwhelming journey, but I wouldn’t trade in the difficult road for the easy life.

  10. Hi Chris,
    I love your image of God “empowering” us to walk in our callings. That is so perfectly true. First we need enlightening, then we need encouraging, and finally we need empowering.
    I’m sorry to hear of your wife’s condition. I can sense the difficult and overwhelming nature. I encourage you to continue to see God using all this to bring strength; enlightening, encouraging, and empowering.

  11. Sam this was a beautiful way to explain what God is up to. Control freaks like me sometimes think God’s “going to mess this up”. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Some of us have had people let us down before. Some of us stepped out in faith and we misread/misjudge the situation and got hurt or let down. What we need to remember is the teacher is silent during a test. I hate that, I’m tired of making mistakes. I know in the long run it’s helping me become who God designed me for, but I don’t feel it right now.

    • Hi Scott,
      I think you are right, that we think God is going to mess things up; partly cuz so many other people have messed things us for us, and partly cuz we think we know what is needed.
      I guess part of the test is believing God really knows what he is doing. And, yes, this too is Formative. Slowly (sometimes too slowly!) but surely we come to believe he really is out for our good.
      Thanks for the comment and the transparency.


  12. I’ve been sharing this with my clients left and right! Really well done!

  13. Not five minutes before reading this post I was on the verge of disqualifying myself from ministry in the context where God has placed me many years ago. It’s been a lifelong habit, “putting myself on the bench” because I feel less than qualified. God has spoken directly to my heart through the wisdom of this message and I realize now that I am being prepared for something new, challenging and rewarding rather than being punished for not measuring up. My own bar is higher than I can attain to [especially when I strive in the natural instead of the supernatural] so I am truly thankful to have found this website and for the candor you use in writing these messages Gary. Thanks for the transparency because your experiences really resonate in my heart, praise God!

    • DE, your are welcome. I am constantly amazed how common our life experiences are while be each unique. Yes…please don’t give up through self-disqualification. You are greatly needed in the work of the Kingdom of God.

  14. Sharon Regan-Williams says:

    Thank you for these thoughts and this perspective! What excellent wisdom for reflection and soaking.

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