The Wilderness Test

I read recently about a salesman who was trying to make a big sale to the purchasing agent of a company.  He was sitting in the purchasing agent’s office waiting for him to come in so that he could submit his bid.  While he was waiting, he couldn’t help but notice that his competitor’s bid was sitting on the desk.  Unfortunately, the actual figure for the competitor’s bid was covered up by a coke can that was sitting on it.

            The salesman started thinking: “If I knew what my competitor was bidding, that would help me to make a better bid.  What harm is there in taking a quick look?  No one would ever need to know.”  So, he reached over and lifted the coke can to look under it.  But as he did so, thousands of BB’s poured out from the bottomless can and scattered across the desktop.

            It was a test set up by the purchasing agent … and this salesman failed the test.  Needless to say, he didn’t get that company’s business.

            In our Bible class Wednesday evening, we talked about what James said in chapter 1, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

            One of the points that I made in class was that we tend to misunderstand the word “trials”.  We think of trials always being something bad.  “I’m going through a tough trial right now.  My health is bad, or things are tough at work, or the car just broke down.”  And those are trials.  But trials aren’t always bad.  We talk about “trials and tribulations” together in one phrase as if those two things are the same, but they’re not.  Tribulations are always bad things that happen to us, but trials are not.

            For example, if you encounter someone in need, that’s a trial.  How are you going to respond to that situation?  Are you going to help them, or are you going to walk away and do nothing?  That’s a trial, it’s a test of your faith.  It’s not a bad thing, it’s not a problem, it’s not a tribulation.  It’s just a test. 

            Or, when you’re doing your taxes, there’s an opportunity for you to adjust a few numbers.  What are you going to do?  Are you going to show integrity and do what’s right, or are you going to try to get away with something?  It’s a trial, a test of our faith.  It’s not a tribulation.  It’s just a test. 

            And once we understand that, we realize that we all encounter various trials all day long.  Every interaction we have with another person is a trial.  Every time we open our mouth to say something is a trial.  The way we spend our money is a trial.  The way we use our time is a trial.  We’re being tested every single day, all day long.

            And a test isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  If you’re in school and you’ve studied hard and you know the material, then a test isn’t something bad.  A test is an opportunity to show the teacher how much you know.  But, if you’re not prepared and you haven’t studied, then a test is something you fear, something you dread.

            The trials we encounter in life are the same.  If we have a strong faith in God, then trials are an opportunity for us to demonstrate our faith in God, an opportunity to show that we have committed our lives to following Jesus Christ.  But, if you don’t have a strong faith in God, then trials are something you fear, something you dread, because they will demonstrate your lack of faith in God.

            Knowing that helps to explain how trials can come from Satan, but they can also come from God.  F. B. Meyer put it well when he said, “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 the thing about a test is that it will reveal what’s in our heart.  As I said Wednesday night, going through a trial is like squeezing a tube of toothpaste.  When you put the pressure on that tube, what’s going to come out is what’s on the inside. 

            But it’s also true that sometimes we don’t really know what’s on the inside, we don’t really know what’s in our heart until that tube gets squeezed.  Imagine going into your workshop or your first aid drawer and you come across a tube that’s not marked.  You have no idea what’s in the tube until you squeeze it and see what comes out.  The same thing happens to us spiritually. 

  • You may not realize there’s some impatience in your heart until something hinders your progress. 
  • You may not realize there’s some pride in your heart until you’re forced to do something menial. 
  • You may not realize there’s some stubbornness in your heart until you’re forced to do something that you don’t want to do. 
  • You may not realize there’s some idolatry in your heart until you’re required to sacrifice those things that matter most to you. 
  • You may not realize there’s some immaturity in your heart until you can’t have things your own way. 

            A test is a way to reveal what’s in our heart.  So, I thought it would be helpful for us to look at some of the tests that God sends our way because God intends for those tests to help us.  As Augustine once said, “Trials come to prove us and improve us.”

            So, this morning, I want to begin a series of lessons that talk about some of the tests of our faith.  And this morning, I want to begin with the wilderness test.

            One of the questions that is asked most often by Christians is “Why?”  And I don’t think it should make us feel good that that’s the same question which is asked most often by 3- and 4-year-olds.    But we all want to know why. 

            Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do we work hard for God but often don’t see any results?  Why do we pray over and over for something that’s important to us, but we don’t seem to get any answer?  Why do the wicked prosper while the righteous struggle?  Why?

            There’s a hymn that has this line in it – “We wonder why the test, when we try to do our best.”  And perhaps we are most inclined to ask the question, “Why?” when we’re going through a time in the wilderness, a place filled with difficulty and hardship.

            In the book of Exodus, the Israelites were slaves in the land of Egypt, and God used Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, passing through the waters of the Red Sea.  And they were headed for the land of Canaan, that land that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

            And the first thing we notice when the Israelites leave Egypt is that apparently God does not use Google Maps.  Because God did not lead the Israelites on the shortest possible route to Canaan.  He took them first to Mt. Sinai, which is about 200 miles out of the way — which is bad enough if you’re driving a car, but if you’re walking and there’s not much water or shade, then this is a detour that is really going to test your faith.

            You would think that if God is all-knowing, he would know the shortest route from Egypt to Canaan.  And you would think that if God has the ability to part the waters of the Red Sea, then finding a direct and easy route to the promised land should be a snap.  God didn’t have to give his law on Mt. Sinai.  He could have given it to Moses at Kadesh, or Mt. Hor, or somewhere else along the way.

            God would never make it in the travel industry because it seems like he’s always leading his clients into the wilderness.  He even led his own Son into the wilderness for forty days.  So, it’s not that God is upset with people when he sends them there.  Obviously, there must be a good reason for him doing that.  And one of the reasons is that God uses the wilderness as a test.

            In Deuteronomy 8, God said to the Israelites,  “You shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3, NLT)

            Then, in verse 14, “Do not become proud at that time and forget the Lord your God, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt.  Do not forget that he led you through the great and terrifying wilderness with its poisonous snakes and scorpions, where it was so hot and dry. He gave you water from the rock!  He fed you with manna in the wilderness, a food unknown to your ancestors. 

            He did this to humble you and test you for your own good.  He did all this so you would never say to yourself, ‘I have achieved this wealth with my own strength and energy.’  Remember the Lord your God. He is the one who gives you power to be successful, ” (Deuteronomy 8:14-18, NLT)

            When the Israelites were finally getting ready to cross over into the land of Canaan, God told them to remember the past 40 years, those 40 years when they were in the wilderness, 40 years when they had to deal with poisonous snakes and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, 40 years that God provided them with water and manna.

            And then, God says, “The reason I took you through the wilderness, the reason I put you through all that, was to humble you, and to test you, and to do you good in the end.”  Which raises the question, what was the good that was done in the end?”  And I think the answer is this…

            The good that God wanted to do during their time in the wilderness was to make those people aware of their total dependence on God for everything.  God’s goal was to give them an experience in the wilderness that would make it impossible for anyone to say, “I accomplished this by my own power.  My hand has gotten me this wealth.”

            You see, there are times when God puts us all in the wilderness, and he tests us by allowing us to go without some things that we think we need.  And he supplies our needs in ways that we may not appreciate.  Above all, he forces us to be dependent on him.  And, in the process, he allows us to be stressed.  He even allows us to suffer pain.

            Because God wants to teach us humility.  He wants to teach us that we need more than just food.  He wants to teach us to depend on him and to realize that we can’t accomplish anything by our own strength.

            So, let’s take a look at three tests that God gave the Israelites in the wilderness, the same three tests that he gives us when we go through those wilderness moments of our lives.

Test #1 – “Do you really trust God?”

In Exodus 15, starting in verse 22, “Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water.  When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter.

            “And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’  And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. 

            “There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.” (Exodus 15:22-26)

This is the end of chapter 15.  Now, back in the first part of chapter 15, there is a great song of praise to the Lord that all the Israelites are singing.  Isn’t it surprising how quickly the praise turns to grumbling?  These people have just been delivered from Egypt.  They’ve witnessed the power of the ten plagues.  They’ve had the waters of the Red Sea part in front of them and they walked through on dry ground, saving them from the Egyptian armies.  What an amazing demonstration of God’s power they all witnessed. 

Then they had this beautiful praise and worship service where everybody was singing and dancing before the Lord.  But then, three days later, they’re grumbling and complaining and saying, “What are we going to do?  Life is terrible.” 

The issue of “Can we trust God?” had already been settled back at the Red Sea.  So, the question now is not “Can we trust God?”  The question is, “Will we trust God?”  Will we trust that the God who went to great effort to bring about such a mighty deliverance forget his people just three days later? 

Now you’re probably thinking to yourself – How in the world could they do that?  If I were an Israelite, if I had seen everything that God had done, I would trust God.  But you need to be careful.  Don’t be too quick to think that, because we’re not all that different from the Israelites. 

Think about what God has done to deliver us.  Think about what great lengths has God gone to to set us free from the bondage of sin.  God was willing to sacrifice his Son for us.  And we come together every Sunday morning and we celebrate that deliverance and we sing songs of praise to God thanking him for everything he has done for us.  

But then, by Monday morning, we’re grumbling and complaining because everything’s not exactly the way we think it ought to be.  Or we’re experiencing some pain or discomfort and we look at our situation and question if God is going to do something to take care of us.

Paul wrote in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all….”  In other words, if God was willing to do that much for us, “how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”  Do we really think that God is going to go to such great lengths to deliver us from sin, and then just forget all about us?  Wherever God leads us, we can be certain that he’s going to provide for us. 

But let me tell you something.  At certain points in your life, God is going to intentionally put you in situations where you’re going to have to wait on him to provide for you, so that he can test you, so that he can see whether your confidence is really in the Lord, or if your faith is only in those things that you can see and touch at the moment.  Where’s your confidence?  Do you really trust God?

Test #2 – “Are you going to obey God?” 

            In Exodus 16, “All the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin…on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.  And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’

            “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not.  On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.’” (Exodus 16:1-5)

Isn’t it amazing how, just a month and a half after the Israelites escape bondage, they start talking about the good old days?  Now, if I remember the first part of Exodus correctly, when they were in the land of Egypt, they weren’t exactly having the time of their life, sitting around the dinner table stuffing their faces.  No, they were crying out to the Lord because of their bondage and the misery they were in.  But now, all they can remember is how wonderful it was back in Egypt. 

So, God says, “I’ll give you manna to eat.”  And I want you to notice that God tells them the main reason for the manna experience.  God said in verse 4, “I’m doing this to test you and to see whether or not you’re going to follow my instructions.”  So, what were the results of this test? 

God gave the Israelites two very clear instructions.  First of all, he said, “Here’s how it works.  You go out in the morning and you get all the bread you need for that day.  But make sure you eat everything that you gather because if you don’t, then it will rot and maggots will get in it.  Just gather what you need for that day and eat it.”

“And then, on the sixth day of the week, make sure you get a two-day supply of bread so that you’ll have some for the sixth and seventh day because there’s not going to be any manna on the ground on the seventh day.”  Now that’s basically it.  It wasn’t a complicated test at all.  Just two parts to the test  So how they’d do?

Exodus 16:20, “But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and stank.”

And then in verse 27, “On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none.  And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?’” (Exodus 16:27-28)

The Israelites did not get a very good score on this test.  There were only two parts to this test, and they messed up both parts. 

And we can be critical of them, but I think we have trouble passing that same test.  No, we don’t have to go out and collect manna every morning, but Jesus did tell us something similar to what God told the Israelites.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Don’t be anxious, don’t be worried about whether or not God is going to provide everything you need.  God will take care of your needs today, and don’t worry about tomorrow because he’ll take care of your needs tomorrow, too.” 

When I get out of bed in the morning, I need to have one simple consuming passion  — this day is a gift from God, and my only mission today is do whatever God wants me to do.  That’s it!  I know that God willgive me what I need today.  And so, I can serve him with all my heart because I don’t need to worry about anything.

But most of us do worry.  We’re worried that we don’t have enough stuff to take care of our needs, so we keep gathering more and more stuff.  Our focus is on what we can do to provide for ourselves and not on our God who provides for us.

So, there are times when God takes away some of our stuff and he says to us, “Don’t worry.  I’ll take care of you.”  And when that happens, we’re put to the test.  Are we going to obey and do what Jesus told us to do, or are we going to fret and worry and grumble and complain like the Israelites?

Test #3 – “Do you remember what God has done for you in the past?”

Listen to what God said to the Israelites in Psalm 81:7, “In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah.”

The story of what happened at the waters of Meribah is found in Exodus 17.   Basically, there wasn’t any water to drink and the people of Israel got upset with Moses.  So much so that Moses went to the Lord and he said, “The people are ready to stone me to death.”

At this point, we’re not surprised to find Israelites complaining  But here’s what’s significant about this event.  This is not the first time that the Israelites have been without water.  This was a test they had seen before.  But instead of remembering what happened with the manna, instead of remembering when the log was thrown into the water, instead of remembering what God had done for them time and time again, they made the same mistake a third time.

            In Psalm 106, “He rescued them from their enemies and redeemed them from their foes. Then the water returned and covered their enemies; not one of them survived.  Then his people believed his promises.  Then they sang his praise.  Yet how quickly they forgot what he had done!” (Psalm 106:10-13)

How quickly they forgot!  This is the “Do you remember?” test.  When the Israelites came up against a crisis, instead of looking back into their own history to remind themselves of God’s goodness, to remind themselves of how God had taken care of them time and time again, all they could see was the problem in front of them – “we don’t have any water” – and they ignored the even greater reality which was the presence of God. 

God says in the psalm that Israel had a history with me.  They saw clearly what I could do at the Red Sea.  They saw that I put the wood in the water and made it drinkable.  They saw that the manna showed up in the morning and the quail showed up in the evening.  They had a track record of me meeting their needs in time of crisis.  But the very next time a problem came up, they forgot all about all of that, and they grumbled and they said, “What in the world are we going to do now?”

It’s a matter of trust.  You only trust people who have proven that they are worthy of your trust.  And that’s why God takes the failure of the Israelites so personally.  Because they said, “We don’t know if we can really trust God.”  They didn’t say those specific words, but that’s what was in their hearts.

You need to understand this.  When God allows you to go through difficulties, circumstances to help strengthen your faith and to help you to grow spiritually, and you respond by grumbling and complaining, even though you may never use these words, what God hears your heart saying is, “I don’t know if I can really trust God.”  And God takes that personally.  Because God knows that he has proven himself time and time and time again.  The question is, “Do you remember?”

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.”  Because a test is merely an opportunity to demonstrate your faith.  So, when we find yourself having to take the wilderness test, you’ll find three questions on that test – Will you trust God?  Are you going to obey God?  And, do you remember what God has done for you in the past?”

One Comment

  1. Nsikan Emmanuel Akpan

    Wow! Thank you so much, Bro Alan Smith, for this great message. This has blessed me in many ways.
    May God continue to reveal His Word through you.

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