Word Study #11 — “Test / Trial / Temptation” –Don’t blame God!

How many times have you heard – or said — “God is/was testing me/you,” “God won’t give you more than you can handle!”, or “God has put me/you through a heavy trial!”, or something similar? The culturally expected response is usually respectful sympathy, and a few “piety points” to the credit of the speaker. Why does it so seldom occur to anyone to reply, as the apostle James did (1:13-14), “But God doesn’t DO that!” ?

There are four different words that have been translated “trial” — each only once in the entire New Testament. Dokime (also rendered “experience, experiment, or proof”), classically defined “to test or assay, to approve or sanction, to examine and admit to a class” , in Paul’s second letter to Corinth (8:2); dokimion (the means by which a test is made) in I Peter 1:7; peira (trial, attempt, experience) in Heb.11:36; and purosis (burning, cooking, or destruction by fire) in I Peter 4:12 and Rev.18. None of these are represented to be caused or “sent” upon his people by God, although several times he is said to have used them, or turned them to the benefit of the affected individual. Sometimes, with other translations, those same words merely refer to human investigations.

The more common word, peirazo (v.), peirasmos (n), is classically defined as “attempt, test the quality (as the assay of metal or ore), to be experienced, to examine, and to seek to seduce or tempt.” Remember, this is the same word: the only distinction is the context.
In the New Testament, the import leans heavily toward the latter meaning, though not by any means exclusively. It may refer simply to people trying to do something (Ac.16:17, and 9:26); to a person’s credentials for a task (Rev.2:2 and elsewhere); to self-examination (II Cor.13:5); and to people’s attempts to put God to a test (Ac.5:9, 15:10, Heb.3:9).
Only once does it refer to a physical malady – Gal.4:1-4 – to which Paul applies the label “a messenger of Satan” — hardly a justification for the common practice of referring to every illness, inconvenience, or incapacity as a “trial from God”!
The vast majority of New Testament references, however, are to Jesus vs. Satan himself, or the Pharisees and/or Sadducees who opposed him. Another large segment refers to the persecutions endured by the faithful because of their fidelity to Jesus and his Kingdom. The connection to persecution is not accidental. Refer to W.S.#4, where I have noted that persecution could frequently be avoided by a statement that repudiated one’s loyalty to Jesus, and acknowledged “Caesar is Lord” instead. The “temptation” was NOT to “indulge” in some activity on a list of “no-no’s”, but to desert or betray one’s Kingdom citizenship. In both cases, whether the translation is “temptation,” “trial,” or “test,” the perpetrators are either Satan himself (12 x), or people/institutions that have deliberately set themselves in opposition to Jesus (about 15 x) — certainly not God!
There is one reference (Jn.6:6) where in the crowd-feeding incident, Jesus essentially gives the disciples a “pop quiz”: “He said this, testing him (Philip), for he knew what he was about to do,” and several where the source of the test/trial is not specified (James 11-12, I Peter 1:6-8).
The use of
peirasmos in the Lord’s Prayer is interpreted by some as a request for God to refrain from what they mistakenly see as his accustomed practice of “testing” people. However, when it is seen in the context of the other half of that request, phrased in classic parallelism, “but rescue us from the Evil One,”  it reveals exactly the opposite (and more accurate) understanding: that it is the Evil One who causes problems with “temptation.”
Peirazo appears in admonitions to “test” the qualifications of people who claim to speak with authority (Rv.2:2), although a form of dokimazo (dealt with in the discussion of discernment, W.S.#9) is more common in those contexts.
Do you notice anything apparently “missing” here? In all of these references, we have encountered none attributing them to “God’s will” or any deliberate infliction of “trials” or “temptations” by him upon his people! Search the Scriptures, folks. It’s not there.  In no instance is there any hint of any of these situations having been instigated by God! In fact, James clearly declares that allegation to be a fallacy: (1:13-14) “No one must say, when he’s being tested, “I’m being tested by God.” For God is not tested by evil, and he tests no one. But each one is tested by his own desires, drawn out and enticed.” Remember, the choice of whether to use the word “tested” or “tempted” is entirely that of the translator. The word is the same. It is, as James makes clear in the next sentence, a very serious matter: one intimately connected to a person’s own “desires”, and having a very serious effect on his life. Epithumias— “longings, yearnings” — (from thumoo, with an intensifying prefix) — is a very strong word. These intense desires are the artifacts of one’s chosen life-direction, which is expected to have been altered by metanoia (w.s.#6) – a process which, as we have seen, is not necessarily instantly completed. James places the responsibility exactly where it belongs: on the focus of our attention and ambition. In a similar warning, Paul advised Timothy (I Tim.6:9) of the danger of being distracted by competing loyalties – in that case, riches.

The remedy is equally clear. Jesus himself has “been there, done that.” Heb.2:18 tells us, “In that he himself has suffered temptation/testing, he can help those who are being tempted/tested.” Or, as a later writer has put it, “He made himself like us, so that he could make us like himself!” By having experienced severe temptation/testing and triumphed over it, Jesus was enabled to extend his own success to his people!
Paul’s reassurance in I Cor.10:13 is essentially the same. Notice carefully that this passage also attributes to God not the source of the testing, but rather the way out!” These two passages need to be held together, like the two lenses of a binocular, to obtain a proper perspective. And as always, only the Lord Jesus can “hold everything together” as needed. He has had a lot of practice, as Peter reminds us (II Pet.2:4-9) – and has also promised to rescue his people (Rev.3:10) from the greater testing on the horizon – to enable their/our endurance. “He has been tested in everything, just like us – but he didn’t flunk!” (Heb.4:15)

So where do we come out? It is appropriate neither to apply the label “trial/testing/temptation” to every major or minor annoyance of life (although one’s response to those certainly does “prove” — demonstrate – where his loyalties lie!), nor to ascribe all our “troubles” to the “will of God” (another needed word study!) Only when tests/temptations are recognized in their true light – attempts to turn us aside from whole-hearted devotion to the Lord and his Kingdom – and their source is rightly identified – persons or institutions that have set themselves in opposition to that Kingdom, and that malevolent power whose cause they serve – can the battle lines be accurately drawn.

(I Peter 4:12-16) observes, “Don’t be surprised/shocked” when trials/testings come – that is to be expected, if one is faithful to the Kingdom of a King whom the world does not acknowledge. Just make sure, he notes, that the “sufferings” imposed from the outside are not deserved.
And don’t blame God!!! He does not attack his own Kingdom or its citizens. Jesus gave his life in their/our defense!


2 Responses to Word Study #11 — “Test / Trial / Temptation” –Don’t blame God!

  1. Haibin says:

    Great article! But how about God tested Abraham in Gen 22:1?

  2. ruthpmartin says:

    Please note that this is a NEW TESTAMENT study. There are a LOT of things that changed with Jesus! I do not presume to comment on things in the history that the book of Hebrews tells us DIDN’T WORK, and were superseded by Jesus’ life, teaching, and accomplishments!

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