Does God tempt people to sin? Of course not. James states it rather explicitly: When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone (James 1:13). But does God test his people? Yes.
If you are reacting negatively to this statement, consider this: Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 4:1) to undergo a severe round of testing. Many translations indicate the purpose was to be tempted (or tested) by the Devil. In this fascinating account, it appears that before Jesus was permitted to start his ministry he was required to encounter and stand against the doctrines and manipulative devices of the devil. He countered them with his identity as the Son of God, his complete loyalty to the Father, and his thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. As with his baptism in the Jordan, all three members of the Godhead were present in the wilderness. The devil was no match for them. If old slew foot weren’t such an evil, conniving jerk, I’d almost feel sorry for him. Almost.
Jesus was perfect in righteousness and holiness. So why this test? Hebrews tells us that it was necessary for our redemption, and for our atonement. Jesus was completely a human being, and completely a supernatural being. He wasn’t a hybrid of God and man, but the perfect representation of both.
For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants…he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Heb.2:-18).
The author later elaborates,
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Heb. 4:14-15).
If the Spirit of God led Jesus right into this—40 days of fasting, and then in his weakened physical state, withstanding a theological challenge by the subtlest of creatures—why would we assume that we will never have to endure times of testing? We are certainly more in need of refinement and strengthening of our faith and knowledge of God than Jesus ever was. But the difference in our case is that Jesus is with us as we undergo every test, interceding, teaching, cheering us on.
If we are true disciples, he tests us because he loves us. Testing is part of discipline, and disciples are those who readily submit to his discipline. When you take a class, how is your progressed assessed? Usually with a test. The way we approach the test demonstrates whether we have mastered the material.
Before we are well grounded in the ways of God, we are easily tempted, when we are dragged away by [our] own evil desire and enticed (James1:14). But when we have learned to follow him closely and tests and temptations come, we “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Heb.4:16).
We may go through times of testing, as Job did, when we can’t seem to find him. Job lamented in a particularly painful moment,
…if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:8-10).
I love Job’s faith here. He can’t see God helping him in his hour of testing and trouble. But he remains confident that God’s watchful eye is upon him. There will be an end to his struggle. God is doing a refining work in the midst of it that will bring great glory!
Let’s not be the kind of Christians who expect everything to be easy. That’s childish faith. Let’s embrace the hard stuff as the way that God is cooking and buffing away the impurities and tarnish, so that the gold within can shine for him.
Jesus showed us the way, and he is with us, even when we don’t see him clearly!