One of the best things I discovered in going for my Doctor of Ministry degree was that there would be no tests for any of the courses—only papers (lots and lots of papers). That was really good for me, because writing papers is fairly easy for me. Tests, on the other hand, have always been a major source of stress, ever since I was in kindergarten and Mrs. McCandless would give out smiley faces if we finished our Weekly Reader exercises correctly. I still remember the one frowny face I got because of a math problem. It scarred me for life.
As I went through school, I found that standardized tests are the worst, especially those with multiple-choice answers. I would get so anxious in taking the test that I would over-think the answer. “Well, technically the answer is B, but it could also be A under certain conditions, or C if that’s the answer they’re looking for.” The questions with possible answers like “A and B” and “All of the above” and “None of the above” about gave me a nervous breakdown. To this day, I still have nightmares about showing up for a final exam in a course that I forgot to attend all semester.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. Test anxiety is pretty common. We want to do well, but we fear failure. We fear we’re not prepared, that the test will contain some trickery to trip us up. We fear the subjectivity of the instructor, or the reaction of our parents to the results, or the college admissions officer saying that it’s just not good enough. The higher the stakes, the greater the anxiety we have as we sit down to take the test.
But what if the stakes are even higher than a grade or a GPA? What happens when the test is a matter of life or death?
“Lead us not into temptation,” goes this last section of the Lord’s Prayer, “but deliver us from evil.” That’s the traditional way we’ve prayed it, but it’s a statement that’s as confusing as that ambiguous question on an exam. Is it God who’s leading us into temptation here, and why would God do that? Lord knows we have enough trouble dealing with temptation than having God throw it in our path all the time.
Well, in the Gospels this part of the prayer is actually much clearer than that. In Matthew 6:13, it’s rendered something more like, “Do not bring us to the time of testing.” Temptation and testing are interchangeable meanings for the word peirasmos in Greek, but Matthew and the other New Testament writers make it clear that it’s not God who’s doing the testing here. In James 1:13, for example, it says that “no one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.” Instead, says James, it is our own desire that tempts and tests us. Matthew adds that it’s the “evil one” who plays on that desire and is happy to place the rigged exam in front of us on a regular basis.
Indeed, it’s the “evil one” who’s been pop-quizzing us since the beginning. In the Garden, in Genesis 3, it’s the snake who places doubt in the minds of the first humans, who desired the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The snake turns God’s true-false question (Don’t eat that) into a combination multiple choice and essay question, “Did God really say that? You have other options, you know.” Humans have been similarly tested ever since.
So, Jesus tells his disciples to pray for the tests of temptation and sin to be canceled, but like a kid hoping for a snow day reprieve in late September, it’s likely that the tests will happen anyway, at least for now. Jesus tells us to pray, but he also tells us how to get ready and to beat the anxiety of the tempting tests to come.
We know this because Jesus himself was tested and tempted multiple times. In Hebrews 4:15 the writer reminds us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” And because of that we can approach him with boldness, receiving grace, mercy, and instruction on how to avoid temptation and testing when it comes to us.
Our Gospel lesson today gives us a clear example of how Jesus himself was tested by the evil one. The scene comes right after Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan River. At the end of Matthew 3, it says that when Jesus came up out of the water the Spirit of God descended on him and a voice from heaven spoke, saying, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” But then it’s that same Spirit of God that almost immediately leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted and tested by the devil—a test that has very high stakes indeed.
The way Matthew tells the story of Jesus is very Jewish. There are echoes of the Old Testament all the way through his Gospel, and here in chapter 4 we hear it very clearly. Jesus goes into the desert for 40 days, which is emblematic of the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert before entering the promised land. There in the desert they, too, were tested and tempted by evil. In spite of the fact that God was present with them in cloud and fire and in the tabernacle, the Israelites still wrestled with what it meant to be God’s people and gave into temptation (indeed, that’s what Israel means, one who wrestles with God). In I Corinthians 10 beginning at verse 6, the apostle Paul sees Israel’s testing in the wilderness as an example of how testing and temptation comes to us all:
“Now these things occurred so that we might not desire evil as they did.” He goes on to say that they became idolaters, they indulged in sexual immorality and complained against God. Then he says, “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (or, as Jesus puts it, the time of trial—the last days when evil will do its worst). “So if you think you’re standing,” says Paul, “watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
In other words, God will provide a way out of our test anxiety! But what is that “way out?” Well, I think Jesus gives us the answer key here in as he undergoes his own test in the desert, which is an image of a new kind of exodus story. Jesus is God’s son, just like Israel was God’s son, and as God’s son is he Israel’s representative, and he goes out into the desert to face the test that ancient Israel had failed by giving into evil. Jesus spends 40 days fasting and praying to prepare for the exam, and it finally comes when he is most vulnerable (as do most difficult tests).
The Satan (which means “accuser”) is the evil one who proctors the test there in the barren wasteland. It’s a three part exam designed to test whether or not Jesus would be faithful to God and his mission—the same sort of test Israel had been given and flunked. Each of the tests begins with the Satan mocking the words Jesus heard at his baptism: “If you are the Son of God…” In other words, if you’re really God’s Son, if you really are the Beloved, then you ought to be able to do these things, like:
Question 1: “Will you command these stones to become loaves of bread.” This one’s easy. You’re hungry after 40 days wandering around out here. Use your power to your own advantage, to feed yourself and others. Just say the word and you’ll have not only your daily bread but bread for a lifetime. You do that and hungry people will follow you everywhere. The Israelites complained about having manna every day. You can do better than that and the people will love you for it.
Question 2: “Will you throw yourself down from this great height of the Temple Mount?” Land unscathed and they’ll think you’re a superman. Prove who you are by a miraculous trick. I know God won’t let you, his favorite child, even bruise your little toe. The Israelites were supposed to be a light to the nations that would draw the world to God. You do this and everyone from miles around will flock here to see you perform and hear your message. Another easy answer, eh?
Question 3: “Do you really want to be a king?” Look, I have all these kingdoms here. I’ve got emperors and kings ruling over them. You can be the ruler of them all. Israel wanted kings so that they could be like the other nations. You could be the ultimate king of the world as it is right now. All you need to do is adopt my way of doing things: you know, peace through superior firepower, economic exploitation, that sort of thing. Anyone in your sandals would jump at the chance. How about it?
Security, fame, power—this is the kind of stuff that most of the world is striving for, the stuff that, at base, tempts us all. Present most people with the same three questions and they will ace them every time. These things will lead to an easy A and life on Easy Street.
But not for Jesus. For him, the test isn’t that simple. These are all trick questions (with Satan, they’re all trick questions), life and death questions, all designed to take him away from the ultimate grade God sent him to achieve.
He knows that humans don’t live by bread alone, but by the Word of God, the one who supplies the daily bread we need. He knows that fame is fleeting, and that putting God to the test in a foolish grab for attention is a fool’s errand.
And he knows that the kingdoms of this world and all their rulers are on the way out. He is interested only in God’s kingdom. It’s the subject of the first sermon he preaches in Matthew (“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” – 4:17) and it’s what he taught his disciples to pray for—“God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”)
Even when Satan departs from him, however, Jesus knows that the testing will continue. Demons will scream at him, religious leaders will accuse him, even his own disciples will misunderstand him; and Jesus recognizes the tempter in them all. “Get behind me, Satan,” he says to Peter when the disciple tries to push Jesus to security, fame and power instead of the cross. Jesus wrestles with his mission in the Garden of Gethesemane, telling his disciples to “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (26:41). But Jesus himself would come to that time of trial the next day. At the foot of the cross, those who mocked him repeated the same test questions that Satan himself had proposed: “If you are the Son of God…, If you are the Son of God…”). Hanging there, he looked like a complete failure. But we know he was actually breaking the curve.
Yes, Jesus was tempted in every way like we are, and even more so. He was tested in ways that only he could be as the Son of God, but he knew that his followers would continue to be tested after he was gone. He taught us to pray that we wouldn’t be, to ask God to keep us from it, that it not be more than we could bear. But we are still tested, and will be tested over and over again until the final exam is given in the kingdom. In the meantime, the evil one still controls the principalities and powers of this world, and they are constantly giving pop quizzes that are designed to take us away from the straight A way of Christ. How do we beat the test?
Well, Jesus gives us some tutoring about dealing with test anxiety as he’s out there in the desert. Here are a few lessons that will help you deal with any test that comes your way:
1. Remember who you are.
Jesus heard the voice when he came up out of the water. He called God Father and taught us to call him the same. He is God’s Son and we are God’s children, made in God’s image to reflect his love, grace, and care for God’s good creation. We are not “only human” as those who are wont to wallow in sin are prone to say. We are “fully human”—made by God to be angled mirrors of his glory, reflecting it to the world. We aren’t simply animals, prone to instinctive behavior and the instant gratification of our sinful nature. As the Psalmist says, we are created a “little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor” and given dominion over the works of God’s hands (Psalm 8:5-6).
God defines who we are. It’s not our grades, our success, our status, power, or wealth that defines us. We spend a lot of energy striving after these dead ends. That’s not to say that we don’t do our best. Rather, we do our best knowing who we are and who we belong to. We are beloved, and as we affirmed earlier this morning, nothing can separate us from the love of God.
2. Focus on what’s right, rather than what’s wrong.
My friend Chris Taylor is a band director in Park City, Utah (and a phenomenal trumpet player) and he says that when students get ready for a juried competition, they often go into the judges’ room fearing the mistakes they might make, thinking that the judges will only focus on what’s wrong. In reality, however, the judges really want to hear what’s right. The most successful students are those who go in with goal of sharing a positive experience with the audience.
I think that applies to test taking, too. If we go in expecting to fail, we probably will.
Most of our test anxiety, be it in the classroom or in life, has to do with fear of failure. But Jesus understands failure, otherwise he wouldn’t have taught us to pray for God’s forgiveness as we forgive the sins of others. Jesus didn’t approach his test in the desert fearful that he would do the wrong thing; instead, his whole orientation was about pleasing God and fulfilling the mission he had been given. He was playing to an audience of One.
Lots of things in this world are scrambling for our attention, and we get anxious and cut corners when we try to get them right according to the standardized tests of the world and its measure of success. We are devastated when we fail, so we focus on failure. When our orientation is about pleasing God, however, then we’re being graded on a completely different curve. With God, our failures are never final, and we can overcome temptation with the knowledge of God’s grace.
3. Develop good study habits.
Chris says that a lot of his students like the idea of doing something excellent without actually taking the steps necessary to BE excellent at it. A lot of people like the idea of being disciples of Jesus, to avoid temptation, but they don’t really take steps to study and prepare for the tests that come their way. The key to being a successful student or a devoted disciple is developing good study habits and practice, practice, practice.
Even though Jesus was God’s Son, it’s clear that even Jesus engaged in a disciplined practice regimen. He didn’t cram for this exam, but spent 30 years preparing for it. Notice how he addressed Satan’s test questions: he quoted Scripture—Scripture that he had studied and memorized from the time he was a boy. He wasn’t hauling a scroll around out there. His long hours of study and recitation in the synagogue brought them to mind immediately. We know, too, that Jesus spent long hours in prayer, often getting away by himself to commune with God. He rested when he needed to.
When we’re tested, our best chance at overcoming temptation is being able to draw upon the spiritual resources we’ve developed because of good habits and spiritual practices. Do you have a daily discipline of prayer and Scripture reading? Are you memorizing Scripture so that it will be with you at test time? Are you getting proper rest and Sabbath time with God? Developing these habits will help you not just embrace the idea of being a disciple, they will help you actually become a disciple who aces the test more often than not.
Temptation, testing, will always be with us until that great day when God delivers us from evil for good. Let’s not go through life as people who are anxious and fear the testing, but who embrace it as an opportunity to shine forth the glory of God to the world, the glorious image of God we were created to be.
For his is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen!