When Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness by the Devil, He was encouraged to cast Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple in order to prove the Scriptures true which said that God would send angels to keep His faithful servant from striking a foot against a stone (cf. Matthew 4:5-6; Psalm 91:11-12). Jesus responded by quoting a different Scripture which said, “You will not put the Lord your God to the test (cf. Matthew 4:7).”
The fuller passage Jesus quotes reads as follows: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 6:16-17; ESV)”
At Massah, the Israelites had grumbled about a lack of water, and had demanded that God provide it for them, through Moses. They had accused God of abandoning them and leading them into the wilderness to kill them. God provided the water (cf. Exodus 17:1-7), but He was not happy with the doubts and behavior of the people, thus the admonition in Deuteronomy.
On the other hand, we have the doubts of Gideon, which God did not seem to get upset at. When God called Gideon to battle the Midianites, before fully committing, Gideon asked God for a pair of signs involving wool, grass and dew. God gave Gideon the signs he asked for, causing the dew to fall only on the fleece the first night, and only on the ground the night after (cf. Judges 6:36-40).
Which raises a question: why was Gideon’s requested test accepted but the Israelites grumbling and “testing” of God was not?
Returning to the ministry of Jesus, there was another occasion when a group of Pharisees requested that Jesus provide a sign for them to prove His identity. Jesus rebuked them, calling them an evil and adulterous generation, and further told them that no sign would be given them except the sign of Jonah, who was in the fish for three days and nights. He further went on to declare they would be condemned in the judgment by the men of Nineveh who repented at the preaching of Jonah, and the queen of the south who had journeyed to hear Solomon’s wisdom (cf. Matthew 12:38-42).
Why rebuke these Pharisees when God did not rebuke Gideon? Is there a double standard? Was the problem the doubts that they were having, or is it another issue?
God Himself tells us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1; ESV).” Which means that God Himself encourages us to ask questions and seek the proof of what people are claiming is divine truth.
A certain amount of caution is called for before whole-heartedly endorsing any and every idea that comes our way, not to mention any and every person who claims to have a message for us from God. God didn’t get upset at Gideon because Gideon merely wanted confirmation prior to going to battle that it was indeed God who was sending him. Once the confirmation came, Gideon went out boldly to obey. The Israelites on the other hand, in the wilderness, were just looking for a reason to rebel against God, and they grabbed any and every opportunity to complain to God about their condition. They knew that God had indeed spoken to them, they just weren’t happy with the message. Likewise, the Pharisees who sought for a sign from Jesus were not going to be persuaded by one more miracle. They were just trying to throw up further obstacles to faith in Christ. The devil knew that Jesus was the messiah, and the word of God was true, he just wanted to tempt Jesus into forcing God to act a certain way; it was an appeal to pride and vanity; one which Jesus rightly resisted. In each case, when God got upset, it was because of the attitudes and motivations of the one doing the “testing.”
God is not a puppet to dance to our every whim, coming and going at our beck and call. If we start making demands of God before we obey, we are in the wrong. On the other hand, if we are sincerely seeking to confirm the truth of what we are supposed to obey, God thinks that is quite reasonable.
God wants us to have faith and confidence, but if we want to double check that a particular message is indeed from God, or we questions about what God has said, God is not going to be angry. He is a God who has said, “come, let us reason together (Isaiah 1:18).” It is only when we allow our doubts and fears prevent us from obeying, or when we are merely seeking an excuse to disobey, that God is going to condemn us. Doubt is not the real issue, reverent obedience is.
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Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.