By Derek Weber
Let’s talk about testing. Psalm 66 is a great psalm of thanksgiving, and it can even point to joy (see psalter, UM Hymnal 790, especially the sung response). In many ways, it is easy to preach. It is a true celebration of the goodness of God – except for that pesky bit about being tested.
Our assigned text starts so well: “Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.” Wonderful! It is a hymn to the presence and protection of God, who guards us from the hazards of living, keeps our feet on the path of righteousness. Who wouldn’t want to preach that?
But then it takes a turn in the very next verse: “For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.” Wait, what? The same God who kept our feet from slipping now tests us? It gets worse: “You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water . . .” Um. Really? Protector God?
Certainly, we can imagine our lives being caught up in all those things. We’ve been through fire; we’ve been through water; we’ve had people riding over our heads more often than we’d like to admit. We’ve even had our net moments where we felt trapped by anything and everything. So, it isn’t necessarily the content of the struggles that gives us pause; it is the fact that God is the author of our pain. “For you, O God, have tested us.” So, let’s talk about testing.
What do we envision when we read what the psalmist writes? What comes to mind when we want to talk about the testing that God gives to us? For many, it means a somewhat arbitrary bolt from above where the old man with a long beard decides on a whim to afflict us with some sort of test. God just draws our name out of the divine hat or closes the holy eyes and rests a glowing finger on a name in the book of life or something. “It’s our turn,” we think. Maybe we did something to deserve it, or maybe it was simply random. Either way, it seems a vengeful or capricious God who would do such things.
What if the psalmist has simply reported on the struggles that had been encountered? What if it was just a catalog of difficulty? We would have sympathized and seen the common humanity, the path of shadow and suffering and known what it was to walk with such a burden. But when you add in that activity of God, it now seems like punishment.
That isn’t how the psalmist saw it, however. The psalmist was simply providing a catalog of events. But the world view of the writer is that nothing happens without God having agency. It isn’t written with a sense of frustration or anger; it’s just cataloged and noted that God is a part of what has happened. So, there is no incongruity in the mind of the psalmist to speak of a God who doesn’t let our feet slip at the same time as a God who brings us into the net. We would say, “Stuff happens” with the same state of mind that the psalmist says, “God sent stuff.”
Yet, it is a test, not just stuff. It is not a test for God to see whether we will be faithful, but a test so that we can see whether we will be faithful. God doesn’t need the test to know our hearts; we do. God isn’t examining us but giving us the means by which we can live out our faith. Everything that happens is a test, and we rise to the occasion by responding as if we belong to God.
As an aside, we often talk about the tests as difficulties that we have to struggle through. And certainly those are tests – the negative medical report, the loss of a loved one, or of a job, a financial crisis, a relationship in trouble. All these and more are often seen as testing our faith. We need to include, however, the good things on the list as well. Bishop William Willimon, in a sermon to clergy, once declared that we ought to respond to good news from a member of our congregation with, “I’ll be right there!” or “I’ll be praying for you!”
“I just got a promotion”
“I’ll be right there.”
“I got a raise.”
“I’ll be praying for you.”
The good things we encounter are just a much a test of our faith as are the negative things. Will we continue to honor God in this time of good fortune? Will we be humble when the applause comes? Will we be faithful when we move to the top floor? Life is a test of faith.
That’s why as we coach members of the body on their testimony, the question is not, “Have things happened in your life?” Because things always happen, for good or for ill. The question is rather, “Where have you seen God at work in and through you?” The psalms are our guide here. As tragic as the story might be, and high as the emotions might run, it always returns (almost always) to praise. “Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed steadfast love from me” (66:20).
It should turn not just to praise, but to a commitment to worship and to participate in the life of the people of God – and then, not just worship, but disciple making. “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what God has done for me” (66:16). It’s in the telling of our story, our faith story, that we engage in building up the body. We participate in making disciples.
Faith isn’t just for us. That’s part of the test. You notice the psalmist speaks in plurals. You have tried us, not me. You brought us into the net, you laid burdens on our backs: us, our. There is corporality to faith. There is an us, not so much a me (or rather the me that God wants me to be is a me in us. And that us is as wide as the world). The prophetic image is one of the whole world streaming to the mountain of the Lord.
Our calling as followers of Christ is not just to keep ourselves on the path, but to invite others to walk the same path we walk – the path of the one chosen and precious.