“This is only a test . . . had this been an actual emergency . . .” Do you remember the piercing noise of the Emergency Broadcast System followed by those words? Begun in the 1950’s, radio stations were required to test their systems daily, to make sure the government could inform us if there was a nuclear attack or some other national disaster. As a kid, it was always a relief to me to hear that this was “only a test” and I didn’t have to rush to my elementary school and put my head under a desk. Life is really different than the Emergency Broadcast System. When we face life’s trauma’s and troubles, not only are they tests but they’re also actual emergencies. Dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic for 2 ½ years has been very real. Losing a loved one brings actual grief. Having a business fail or being furloughed from a job makes for genuine financial hardship. A serious sickness, whether Parkinson’s, heart disease or Cancer, or any other illness, is a true challenge. These are all actual aspects of the wilderness experiences most of us have been dealing with. And, in addition to these being real emergencies, the wilderness experience is also a test from God.
In Deuteronomy 8, at the end of 40 years of wilderness wanderings, the Lord tells Israel what His purposes were for their wilderness experience. The Lord Jesus allows us to undergo our wilderness experiences, the very real traumas and trials of this life, for the very same purposes. Last week, we examined the first purpose—to humble us, or to teach us God-reliance instead of self-reliance. This week, we’ll look at the second purpose of the wilderness experience. God brings us through the actual emergencies of the wilderness to test us. Take a look at Deuteronomy 8:2: , “Remember the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these 40 years in the wilderness, so that He might humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands.”
Here’s the strange part of this testing—God doesn’t need a test to know what we’ll do. Isaiah 46:10 says God declares “the end from the beginning, and from long ago what is not yet done.” God also knows what’s in our hearts—“man sees what is visible but the Lord sees the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). When Moses wrote that God was testing Israel to know what was in their hearts or whether they would obey His commands, he was using an anthropomorphism, a figure of speech that applies human characteristics to the all-knowing God. Moses was writing that Israel needed to be tested to prove themselves in real life, not just in the omniscience of God. Although I am far from all-knowing, I am always surprised when I give a final exam at Moody Bible Institute, the college where I teach, because I almost always know how a student will do on that test. After a whole semester of quizzes, papers, class discussions and tests, I know within five percentage points how virtually every student will do on the final. Hardly any student ever changes their grade with their final exam. But I still have to give the test, to prove their grades in actual experience to them. How much more does the omniscient God know how we’ll respond to a test? Still, according to Deuteronomy 8:2, the Lord uses our wilderness experiences to test us in two ways.
First, God uses our wilderness experiences to test our motives. Deuteronomy 8:2 says, “Remember the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these 40 years in the wilderness . . . [to] test you to know what was in your heart . . .” The phrase “to know what was in your heart” could be paraphrased to mean “to know our true motives.” Why do we chose to follow God’s will sometimes? It should be because we love and adore our Father because He redeemed us through faith in our Messiah Jesus. Unfortunately, that’s not always our motive. Sometimes we want to bribe God—“see how good I am, so please give me everything I ask for—health, wealth, and a life of ease.” At times we may follow the Lord in life because we long for the respect of others more than we want to express our love for God. But following the Lord in the wilderness is a challenge—we should follow the Pillar of Cloud through our spiritual desert not to bribe God or impress others but because we love Him with all our hearts and souls.
Second, God uses our wilderness experiences to test our obedience. God says He used Israel’s 40 year journey through the Sinai Desert “to test you . . . whether or not you would keep His commands.” Truth to tell, I wasn’t the most obedient child. But there were times I obeyed my mom—when she gave me whatever I wanted. For example, if my mom said, “Here’s a dollar; Go buy anything you want from the Good Humor man,” amazingly I was perfectly obedient. Not so much when I was told to take out the garbage or clean my room. That’s how the wilderness experience tests obedience. It examines whether we’ll obey the Lord in good times or bad; in times when the cupboard has plenty or when it’s empty. Will we obey God’s Word only when we’re healthy and wealthy or when we’re sick and poor? Obedience in the wilderness of our lives proves that we’re obeying God not merely because it’s convenient but because we’re completely devoted to Him. In C. S. Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters, the demon and tempter Uncle Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood this essential truth: “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
God tests our motives and our obedience because He wants us to prove our love and faithfulness to Him. F. B. Meyer put it well: “Satan tempts us that he may bring out all the evil that is in our hearts; God tests us that He may bring out all the good.” And He uses our wilderness experiences to do it.