God had a plan to undo the consequences of the Fall, to heal and restore humanity, and that plan began with Abraham. His line would lead to the Point-of-it-All. And God would get from Abraham to that Point by what one biblical scholar1 calls “the single plan-of-God-through-Israel-for-the-world.” There was never a Plan-B.
But (and this is a huge “but”) when the covenant was established, Abraham and Sarah had no child. God’s plan and promise of a family line required Sarah, who had been infertile, to conceive. And she did. I don’t think we can imagine the joy Abraham felt. He and Sarah had a child. They named him Isaac, which means laughter. That tells us something, doesn’t it? In his later years, Abraham took great pleasure in watching his son grow up. I wonder how often he found himself chuckling at the antics of his boy. But sometimes when he looked at him, he could see a line stretching into the future, embracing the promise, blessing the earth.
And then we come to chapter 22. Plan-A, Plan-Only, “the single plan-of-God-through-Israel-for-the-world,” which depended on only one person, on Isaac, on the boy called Laughter, was put at risk. And it was God himself who was to blame.
Our passage opens with a problematic statement: “Some time later, God tested Abraham.” The KJV has, “God tempted Abraham,” and the word is often translated that way in the Old Testament. Why would God tempt his own child? Or did he test him? Is there even any difference? I think there is. The difference between a test and a temptation is found in its origin and motive. If it originates in the Satan, we consider it a temptation. If in God, then it is a test. St. James says, “When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.”2
Another difference between a temptation and a test has to do with the motive behind it. A temptation is an enticement to do evil. God never entices us to do evil—Satan does. But God will sometimes give us trials for the ultimate purpose of bringing about good. Deuteronomy 8:16 captures the idea when it says “God…tested you so that in the end it might go well with you.” God cares so much about the end that he is willing to employ hardship in the present.
But even we understand the difference – God tests, and the devil tempts – the difficulty is not cleared up. Why should God need to test us? Doesn’t he already know everything about us? Doesn’t he who sees the end from the beginning know how we will fare in the test? And if he knows already, why put us through it? Here are three possible reasons.
One: though God knows how we will behave during a test, we do not. Though God knew what Abraham would do, Abraham did not. It was important for Abraham that his loyalty to God be confirmed. Whether we succeed or fail, a test helps us to know where we stand. The truth about where we are is always our friend, even when it is hard to take.
Two: the Bible hints that others are watching how we go through tests. Unbelievers are watching. St. Peter tells us that, during trials, we are “to live such lives among the pagans that…they may see your good deeds and glorify God.”3 Believers are watching. Paul says that Christians watching him go through a painful trial were encouraged to speak the word of God courageously and fearlessly.4 How you go through a difficulty may be a source of strength and assurance to struggling fellow-Christians in your family, among your friends, and in your church. And then there is the suggestion that other, more august beings may be watching. Paul speaks of rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms who see in us the manifold wisdom of God being demonstrated.5 Remember that Job’s great test was played out before a heavenly audience. St. Peter speaks of angels who long to look into things dealing with our salvation.6
Three: tests do more than just reveal what is in us. They are designed to change what is in us, to make us grow, and to develop us in the image of Christ. St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that God is working in us an eternal weight of glory – not in spite of such tests, but through them: “Our…troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”7 St. Peter says that “Now, if need be, you suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith, of greater worth than gold…may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”8
1 Wright, N.T. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, IVP: Downers Grove, IL, 2009.