Certain Christian clichés are more harmful than helpful. One example, for some, is, “God doesn’t tempt us, but He tests us.” Though technically true, this has led some believers to rephrase it practically as, “If the devil causes something bad to happen, it’s temptation; if God causes it, it’s a test.” This oversimplification and blending of two non-identical concepts skews perception of both God and reality. There is a biblical difference between the two that deserves attention.

James says that God can neither be tempted “nor does He Himself tempt anyone” (James 1:13). As explored in yesterday’s lesson, temptation utilizes deception surrounding either a harmful fulfillment of a legitimate desire or the fulfillment of a harmful desire. Put another way, the goal of temptation is harm: to harm the individual, at least for the here and now, and preferably permanently. Drawn away by her desire for “something more,” Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, and the devil gained access to our world and our hearts. Under the dizzying effect of power, lack of accountability, and sexual desire, David took Bathsheba and slayed her husband, leading to untold woe throughout his kingdom and family, cutting at the very heart of God’s chosen people. Fearing for his life and possibly his reputation, Peter denied even knowing Jesus, fulfilling a pitiful prophecy uttered only a few hours prior, leading to his own guilt and shame. In all of these examples, the purpose of the temptation is revealed when conceived: destruction of relationships, harm to body and mind, and an estrangement from God.

In contrast, God has explicitly said that He tests His people. When He gave manna to the Israelites on a Sabbath schedule, He did so to test them (Exod. 16:4). In fact, the entire wilderness experience was used as a test (Deut. 8:2). The goal has always been clear: “To know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” Instead of harm, the goal of testing is to provide a correct perception of oneself, to deepen dependence and trust in God, and to show how trustworthy God really is. Each test, threaded throughout Scripture, can be rephrased as a question from the heart of God. To Abraham He asked, Will you trust Me with your beloved son Isaac? To Israel He asked, Will you trust Me to guide and provide in the wilderness? To Martha and Mary, grieving the death of their brother, He asked, Will you trust Me when My timing is not yours? In all tests, God is desiring to show the believer their heart and their need, and that He is a trustworthy resting place for their hearts.

It’s true that “God doesn’t tempt us, but He tests us.” The purpose of temptation is for the devil to destroy; but the purpose of testing is for God’s hands to preserve and build.