A Test of Faith
A test is a way to measure someone’s knowledge, skill, or resolve. You have to take a test to get a degree. You need to take a test to prove you can drive a car. You might even need to take a test to prove you are ready for a job. Tests are designed and given to us to see if we measure up. There are also tests that arise naturally in life. We experience tests when we have to make a difficult decision––a moment that may “test” your character. We may call these tests “trials.”
Being tested is a natural part of being human. So it is no surprise that being tested is also a biblical design pattern. Characters in the Bible experience tests throughout the entire story to see if they can live up to God’s intended purpose for humanity. Let’s look at the narrative pattern of God putting a test before humans to see if they respond with faithfulness or act on their own wisdom in disobedience.
The first test of faith for humans is introduced on the first pages of the Bible. In Genesis 3, God gives Adam and Eve a test, telling them they are free to eat from the tree of life but not the tree of knowing good and bad. And God is pretty clear about the consequences: eat of the tree of life and live an abundant, eternal life with God; or eat of the tree of knowing good and bad and die. The humans give into temptation and choose to eat from the forbidden tree, beginning humanity’s downward spiral of sin and failure.
This story bothers a lot of people, and it leaves us to wonder: Why would God test humans in this way?
God’s Eden Ideal
This wasn’t some arbitrary test conducted by a cruel God. The scene in the garden of Eden and the choice between our own path or abundant life in God is something that all people must face. God designed humans to be co-creators and co-rulers with him (this is what it means for us to be made in the image of God). The only way to succeed at this vocation is to eat of God’s own life. This means that the opportunity to truly be human in the way God intended is also a test. And the choice is up to us.
Adam and Eve chose to eat of the tree of knowing good and bad, going down a path apart from God’s instruction and wisdom. Yes, they were duped into this choice by a deceptive creature, but in the end, the choice was their own. As a result, they were banished from the garden, losing access to the tree of life. But the opportunity to walk with God and rule over creation on his behalf didn’t disappear. In fact, the very next story is about how the test given to Adam and Eve is given again to their children.
Humanity’s Second Chance
We find this next test in the story of two brothers, Cain and Abel, found in Genesis 4.
Adam knew his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.” Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock – Genesis 4:1-4a
The story begins with the two brothers offering sacrifices to God. Cain offers a sacrifice from his crop, and Abel offers a sacrifice from his flock. The narrative doesn’t tell us why they are offering sacrifices, but it doesn’t take too much contemplation to understand what is likely going on. Humanity’s relationship with God is in trouble. Cain and Abel grew up outside of the garden, suffering the consequences of the first generations’ actions. But Cain and Abel want to reclaim their calling as image-bearers and rule creation alongside God. And what better way to symbolize their loyalty and commitment to God than a sacrifice, right? But as soon as the sacrifices are made, we see that making a proper sacrifice isn’t so simple.
The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. – Genesis 4:4b-5a
Just like we weren’t told why they offered sacrifices, we also aren’t told why God favors one sacrifice over another. (This is an interesting question to ponder for another time.) But the key takeaway here is that while Cain and Abel’s sacrifices were intended to solve a problem, they instead created a new problem. How is Cain going to handle his unrecognized sacrifice? Let’s keep reading.
So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” – Genesis 4:5b-7
Again, we don’t know why Cain’s offering wasn’t good. But the bad sacrifice gives us a beautiful exchange between God and Cain in verses 6 and 7. While Cain is angry that his sacrifice wasn’t accepted, God comes to Cain like a father full of compassion and gives him guidance. He tells Cain that he has a choice between doing what is right or what is wrong. As the reader, this should remind us immediately of the choice presented to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. God asked them to choose life over death, and now God is presenting the same choice to their child. Cain has the chance to make the right choice where his parents failed.
Sin That Destroys
In this exchange, we also receive a vivid picture of how perilous this choice between God’s wisdom or our own can be. Even when we choose to do what is right, “sin is crouching at your door.” The word for “crouching” here is the word used for animals who stalk their prey. Just like Adam and Eve encountered a deceptive creature that led them into sin, here God describes sin as a creature waiting to pounce. Sin is a predator looking for opportunities to destroy us, but God instructs Cain to “rule over it.”
Even in our modern context, we can recognize the inherent difficulty of tests. They expose our abilities and whether or not we have what it takes to succeed. For Cain, his test presents him the difficult choice of whether or not to act out of anger. Will he let his anger turn to violence or will he “rule over” his sinful impulses?
Unfortunately, Cain does not make right the actions of his parents. He too fails this test, allowing his anger to turn to violence against his own brother. He murders Abel despite God’s warning of sin’s constant predatory presence. It’s a troubling picture of humanity that sets the tone for the rest of the biblical story.
God’s Wisdom or Our Own?
We’re only a few pages into the Bible at this point in the story, and we’ve already seen two generations of humanity go through very similar tests. This pattern is important. It should cause us to wonder, will all humans undergo this same test? And the answer is simple: yes. We all will be confronted with a similar test, and the choice is up to us. Are we going to live by God’s wisdom or our own? Are we going to let our sin rule us, or will we rule over our sin? Will we partner with God to bear his image in the world, or will we go it on our own?
The story of the Bible makes it abundantly obvious that humans are unable to pass this test and seize the opportunity to be truly human. But the good news of the biblical story is that God himself became human to pass the test on our behalf. The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, but he ruled over those temptations, and he didn’t let sin devour him (Hebrews 4:15).
Not only did Jesus pass the test, he also offered himself as a sacrifice for us. Cain didn’t make a proper sacrifice, but Jesus did. And just like Cain, we find ourselves constantly being devoured by sin. Paul gets at this idea in his letter to the Romans.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. –– Romans 3:23-25
And so the test is still before all of us, an opportunity to be united with God as he intended. Sin is a powerful force, and this is no simple test, but there is hope. The test has already been passed on our behalf. Jesus came to do the work that humanity could not, reuniting us with God and restoring us to our divine purpose and the ideal of the garden.