Years ago I wrote an article called “Testing God,” and today on Gutenberg’s Facebook page this question came in:
On your website, there was an interesting article about not testing God, but how does this relate to for example Malachi in the OT and Paul in the NT who tell us that we should put God to the test?
This is a great question. Let me give a general answer first, and then take a quick look at Malachi.
What does it mean to test?
The idea of testing something, as the Bible speaks of it, means examining how someone or something reacts in a certain situation. For example, God tests us, tries us, by putting us through “trials” and observing how we respond. In the same way, we can test God; that is, we can examine how God responds in certain situations. In and of itself, testing is neither good nor bad; it is just a process of learning about something by observing what it does.
To test or not to test?
As the question from Facebook points out, the Bible sometimes says that we should not test God and sometimes says that we should test God. How can this be? Consider these two scenarios:
Scenario #1: Jill has an impressive record as a music teacher. She tells Jack, “Take lessons from me, and watch how well you will be playing in a year.” Jack takes her up on that, and sure enough, in a year’s time he is playing some of his favorite songs.
Scenario #2: Jill, Jack’s wife, has been faithful and trustworthy for many years. However, after Jack hears a vague rumor that she was seen talking to another man, he goes ballistic. He says to Jill, “I will never trust you again until you prove to me that you have not been unfaithful.”
In both scenarios, Jack puts Jill to the test. But Jack’s situation and moral state is very different in both. In the first, Jack is “testing” Jill by observing whether her teaching truly does lead to good results. But why does he do this? He does it because he believes her to be a good teacher, and he has a confident expectation that the future will turn out just as she promised. His test is not motivated by suspicion; in fact, just the opposite. He pays her and follows her teaching for good motives, expecting the results of the test to be positive. But in the second example, Jack’s test is motivated by unworthy suspicion. He has every reason to believe his wife, but he refuses to do so and demands more proof.
One way to think about the difference between these two tests is to think about the order of events. In both cases Jack is testing Jill; that is, he is evaluating what she does. But in the first case, the order is first trust, then examination. He trusts her reputation as a teacher and becomes her student now, expecting to examine her work and find it good later. But in the second example, Jack starts with no trust at all, in spite of the fact that his wife is very trustworthy. He demands that she pass his test now, and only then will he trust her later (if she passes).
This is exactly our situation with God. It is right and good to say, “I will trust Your promises now, God, and I expect to see you keep those promises later.” This is a good kind of testing; expectantly watching to see God do what He promised. However, there is something very wrong with saying, “In spite of the many reasons I should trust You, God, I refuse to do so; I will only trust you later if you prove to me now that you will give me what I want.” This is not trust but presumption.
In Malachi 3:10 God says to the Jews:
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.”
This seems to me very clearly to be the first kind of “testing” described above. God had promised to the Jewish people that He would bless them in the land if they would keep His law. And yet they had stopped paying the tithe that the law demanded. God is in essence saying to them: “I have given you many reasons to believe that I keep my promises; trust me now, pay me the tithe now, and watch later as I keep my promises.” Trust comes first, examination comes later. That kind of examination, that kind of testing, is appropriate.
This is in contrast to Israel in the wilderness as seen in Exodus 17, when they grumbled about the lack of water. They too were testing God, but in a bad way. Their message to God was in essence: “We refuse to trust you now. We will trust you later if you prove to us now that you will give us what we want. Pass the test now, God, and only then will we trust you later.” That kind of examination, that kind of testing, is faithless. (Interestingly, we also see this wrong kind of testing in Malachi. In 3:15, five verses after the tithe passage quoted above, a charge is made that “the doers of wickedness” unrighteously “test God” and yet they escape.)
To sum up, then, testing God is good when it means trusting NOW that His actions will pass the test LATER. Testing God is bad when it means demanding that He pass the test NOW so I can grudgingly agree to trust Him LATER.