Pray without testing illustration

Somewhere later today, a school teacher is going to tell a friend, “Those kids really tested my patience today.”

In that one phrase, all of us understand the kind of day the teacher had. Her students were noisy and disruptive. No doubt, she repeated herself several times, grew more and more frustrated, and finally settled on a simple policy of getting to the end of the final class period.

If I remember this scene correctly from my own childhood, there was also extra homework handed out, a pop quiz that didn’t go well, and at least one trip to the Principal’s office.

When Moses gave one of the last sermons of his life, he reminded his people that they had tested the patience of God.

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah,” Moses said in one of the most important chapters of Deuteronomy[1]. Centuries later, Jesus would use this very verse in his verbal fight with Satan.[2]

Obviously, we don’t want to put God to the test. In the role playing of the Jesus-Satan debate, who wants to play the part of Satan?

And yet we desperately want to know what God wants us to do.

We also have instructions in the Scripture to “test me in this” according to one prophet,[3] and several instructions from Jesus to pray very specifically for guidance from God. And what of Gideon, who even asked for an answered prayer he could hold in his hands? Haven’t most of us considered putting out a fleece before God?[4] After all, it worked for Gideon.

It seems to be a confounding dilemma that leaves us paralyzed between the Bible’s instruction to discover God’s will and the clear command not to test God.

The key is in what happened at Massah. Remember what Moses had said? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.

You’ll find the story of Massah in Exodus 17. The setting was somewhere in the terrible wilderness between Egypt and modern-day Israel. Even the name “Massah” – which means “testing” – should give us a clue.

As the Hebrews stumbled toward the Promised Land, they ran out of water. Instead of asking God in faith to save them, they complained about the journey. They wondered aloud if God was even capable of saving them. They spoke yet again of revolting and returning to Egypt. For a people who’d already seen the power of their God in multiple ways, this was faithlessness of the lowest order.

As he’d been instructed, Moses struck a rock in front of the elders, and water for the people gushed out.

In another waterless location, Moses would strike a rock with such frustration, it would cost him entrance into the Promised Land.[5] On that occasion, God had told Moses to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses took his miracle-working staff and beat the rock. Picture an enraged baseball player using his bat to pummel a catcher. It’s an ugly scene.

On that day, Moses tested the patience of God, and God didn’t look the other way. It cost Moses dearly.

God still does not look the other way when we “test” him.

And yet we are challenged to pray as if God will really answer our prayers. We are told to knock on the door, seek what we desire, and ask for what we need.[6] Jesus also told parables that indicated we are to ask repeatedly and specifically for what we want. Remember the story of the unjust judge?

In that case, a woman came repeatedly to the judge asking for justice. The judge finally did what she wanted, because she was “wearing him out.” Incredibly, Jesus used a boxing phrase there, which is why some translations have the judge saying, “she’s going to leave me black and blue!”

The point of the parable?

“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”[7]

Clearly, there’s a big difference in praying for clear direction or provision and “testing” God. One is positive. The other is negative.

Go back for a moment to the teacher in that noisy classroom. Not every day is filled with frustrating moments. On some days, the students get it. They discover the love of reading. They conquer a mathematical formula. Science makes sense. History comes alive. Children mature into young adults.

Didn’t the teacher want the challenge set before her? Didn’t she want her students to make progress?

Of course she did. It was the misbehavior that caused the migraine for her and the extra homework for me.

The key in all of this is the matter of faith.

Had the thirsty Hebrews fallen on their faces in the desert before God and prayed in faith for water, “Massah” would have been named “Miracle.” Instead of dealing with God’s punishment, they would have grown exponentially in faith.

If you want an answer to prayer? Come in faith, and not in doubt. Come repeatedly, and don’t give up.

And come determined to obey, no matter what instruction God gives. For if you ask God for direction, and God gives it, disobedience at that point would be nothing short of testing the patience of the Lord.

[1] Deuteronomy 6:16.

[2] Matthew 4:7, Luke 4:12.

[3] Malachi 3:10.

[4] See Judges 6.

[5] See Numbers 20.

[6] Matthew 7:7-8.

[7] Luke 18:1. The entire parable can be found in Luke 18:1-8.