The Unimaginable Hope of the Tests of God

When we think about the tests of God, most of us shudder. Yet I believe that they can be a key to Hope and Joy. Let me explain.

I began flying lessons in 1997. These lessons taught me to take off and land, to navigate using aviation charts, and to communicate with air traffic control.

I particularly liked learning to land.

On my second flight, my instructor Jayne pulled the throttle to idle and announced that my engine had just died. She asked what I was going to do. Throttling her was not an option because I hadn’t yet learned to land. But I was strongly tempted.

Soon a pattern emerged. She’d kill the engine, I’d want to kill her, and we’d practice standard engine-restart procedures, and I’d look for a place to land. Then we would circle down to the landing site until Jayne said we would have made it (or not). Then she’d re-throttle the engine, we’d climb, and we’d review what I had done.

Jayne drilled the engine-out procedures so thoroughly into me that I could have done them in my sleep, though I never tried.

Two Types of Tests.

Jayne taught me to fly through a series of tests. The nature of these tests—repetition and reflection—taught me to fly. Educators call these tests Formative Tests. They are educational methods that train us in the midst of the test, such as my flying instructor’s engine-out surprises.

Each time Jayne killed my engine it was a test, but the test itself trained me to handle emergencies safely and confidently. Formative Tests teach us today how to avoid disqualification tomorrow.

However, when most of us think of tests, we picture Summative Tests. Summative Tests measure how much we have already learned, such as college entrance exams (the ACT or SAT), midterms, and finals.

While Formative Tests are designed to qualify us for the future, one could say that Summative Tests are designed to disqualify us, as in “My SAT score was low so I failed to get into Harvard.”

So what.

Why is this distinction so important? Because understanding the difference between Summative and Formative Tests is the key to joy or despair. It is the difference between midday-sun and midnight-darkness. Frankly, it is the gospel.

Most people consider Christianity to be one large Summative Test, sort of a huge College entrance exam; a big moral test which we repeatedly fail. But it isn’t.

Why do we fear the tests of God? Why do we freak out when we read passages like this, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you” (1 Peter 4:12)? We fear God’s tests for these reasons:

  • We fear the Failure of tests
  • We fear the Pain of tests
  • We fear the Purpose of tests

The Failure. If God’s tests are Summative (assessing and disqualifying), then yes, we should fear them. But if God is using tests to form us, then we can be at peace—even in the middle of a crisis. When we misunderstand the nature of testing we think God is disqualifying us, when he is actually qualifying us. Through tests he makes us more capable; he dismantles the false self and builds in us our truest calling. He broadens our shoulders and he strengthens our steps. He’s teaching us to fly.

The Pain. When we barely hold our lives together, the mere thought of the burden of a test—adding one more thing—causes pain. We fear our engine-out-plane will hit the ground. But God himself is our flight instructor, sitting in the plane next to us. He is not on the ground giving radio instructions. His exercises develop strength. He is preparing us for something great.

We willingly experience self-inflicted pain to attain our own goals—the pain of exercise to gain health, the pain of dating to find a spouse, the pain of child-rearing to have a family—so why do we fear the pain of God’s tests? Isn’t he always after greater goals than we seek? Isn’t he more careful with our hearts than we are? He is always after something richer than we imagine.

The Purpose. We think we know what we need, and we fear God will get it wrong. God’s tests often go in directions we don’t wish. We want to be a doctor, and God wants to give us peace. We want financial security and God wants to give us joy. God formed our hearts and deepest desires. He created our calling before we were born. He knows what we need, and through his tests he reveals our hearts and our calling. And he is teaching us to land.

When we believe God’s tests as Formative, we experience hope, the pressure is off. We know that God has prepared us for this moment, and we rest knowing God uses this moment to prepare us for the next. It’s okay. Even if we “fail” this time around, God uses today’s experience to prepare us for tomorrow.

Only one test is truly Summative. That test is what we choose to believe. Do we choose to believe his tests are Summative or Formative? If we believe his tests are Summative—and failure is disqualification—then everything rests on our shoulders.

When we believe in our hearts that he has done everything for us—he has already qualified us—then every test is an engine-out exercise.

He’s teaching us to fly.

© Copyright 2012, Beliefs of the Heart, Ltd. All rights reserved.


19 Responses to The Unimaginable Hope of the Tests of God

  1. Brooks Carlson says:

    Great post. I’m going to chew on this one for awhile.

  2. John says:

    As you might expect, I loved the flight training analogy! I didn’t know that Jayne was one of your instructors, she’s a great lady.

    As always, you have put an issue into a positive perspective for us to contemplate.

    We should welcome, not fear, the tests because they strengthen us. Also, for those of us who are constantly struggling with our faith and with our lack of worthiness of His love, it reinforces to us that He is right there with us and that he believes in us enough to give us tests.

    Blessings to you.

    • Hi John,

      I love your line, that a test can “reinforce to us that He is right there with us and that he believes in us enough to give us tests.”

      Yes, exactly. Tests say we are ready for something; not that we can’t do something.

      Great point.

  3. Joseph says:

    Great post Sam. Loved the distinction between finding joy and despair.

  4. Bruce says:

    Dear Brother,

    I’ve never thought of God’s tests in this way!! What a revelation He gave you to share with us! I think prior to your teaching today I have been of two minds; trying to live on both sides of that fence. I’ve sometimes sensed or feared trials/tests were summative and sometimes that they were formative. This teaching certainly sets the former to rest. With gratitude; as always, for these teachings. Hopefully the next time a test comes along, I will see that they are “engine off” tests which will qualify me to be used by Him in the future.

    The “engine off” story made it doubly confirming as it brought me back to Pensacola and the Navy when my intstructor in our T-34 Mentor would do the exact same thing on EVERY flight. And, yes, you do get pretty comfortable in finding a “landing” place (field, straight road, etc.) and set-up a spiral downward to end up on final before he would push the throttle to full and back up we’d go. Sometimes I thought he was actually going to let us land as he allowed us to almost touch the earth before throttling back up. The first time I almost fainted but gradually got used to those unexpected tests (induced spirals did the same thing to me until I got the point that I really looked forward to them-like being on the biggest amusement park ride). Now the hard part; to remember and apply that word picture to God’s next test.

    In His Love,

    Bruce :~)

  5. peter williamson says:

    Excellent post! Great distinction between tests as summative and tests as formative and insight about how God uses them.

    James 1:2-4 2 Let it be all joy to you, my brothers, when you undergo tests of every sort; 3 Because you have the knowledge that the testing of your faith gives you the power of going on in hope; 4 But let this power have its full effect, so that you may be made complete, needing nothing.

    (Bible in Basic English translation)

    • Hi Pete,

      Thanks for the comment. You picked a great verse, “Let it be all joy” and “Let this power have is full effect, so that [we] may be made complete, lacking nothing.”

      That says it all.


  6. Jim McFarland says:


    Wonderful perspective. You have a gift for opening windows to the soul!

    As I reflected on your post I realized in the past I was no where near the cockpit during my formative testing by God. I was somewhere in the tail because I never saw it coming. Thus I interpreted failure as Summative.

    A recent read of Parker Palmer’s “Let your Life Speak” has helped me realize as he says ” My altitude had been acheived by my ego, an inflated ego that let me to think more of myself than was warranted in order to mask my fear that I was less than I should have been”.

    In my case, however I crahed and burned and over time God restored me and showed me a better path.

    Parker goes on to say “Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated thier own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way.”

    Part of finding the way, I believe is what you have so aptly pointed out i.e. gaining the perspective of Formative versus Summative.

    Thanks for your words of clarification and encouragement.


  7. Lou says:

    Great article Sam. I got thinking about whether it was possible to “flunk” a Formative Test and my initial thought was “no”. Just going through the test is the formative part. Then I suddenly thought of all the times I tried to get out of a test I was in, all the myriad ways I tried to avoid it, and even successful attempts at forgetting such “bad” things that happened to me. So I am now thinking I actually can fail a formative test when I try to avoid it, or when I successfully pass it off as some “unfortunate” thing that has happened to me.

    • Hi Lou, that’s a great thought about flunking a Formative Test.

      The hope we have is that God is the one in control, and he is creating in us the man or woman we are meant to be.

      When we learn to ride a bike–another Formative training–we can skip a ‘lesson’ out of fear; but God will put us back in the seat.

      Thanks for the comments.

  8. Chris Skaggs says:

    I like this post Sam, well spoken. And while I’m no pilot, I have done a bit of martial arts training and this makes me think of my “graduation” from my green belt to a blue belt. The green belt training in Ninjutsu was focused on “earth” techniques which might be summarized as learning to be more stubborn and ornery than the other guy. “I am the rock upon which you will break yourself” so to speak.

    Anyway, this graduation was a test and it was explained as being summative – show us all you learned the lesson of Earth. It consisted of th emits difficult physical challenge I’ve ever had: four non-stop hours of grappling with every other student in the class. 10 minutes of grappling is exhausting and it was just one fresh an dressed student after another.

    Yes, technique was part of the test but I very quickly saw that technique was only a small part. Because it really didnt matter if I won or lost each match. What mattered was if I could endure. After 20 minutes I was sure I was going to pass out…but I didn’t. After 30 minutes I found a second wind. By 45 minutes I had settled into a kind of exhausted peace and every motion was meant to conserve energy. As the time went by I found myself thinking “how am I even still alive out here? How can I still be fighting, and mostly winning?”

    That test has stuck with me forever because where I thought it was Summative – it was actually Formative. I came away from that having discovered that the was WAY more reserve left inside me than I thought. It was a tremendous confidence builder and the lesson was simple and profound- if they can’t break your spirit, then they cannot defeat you.

  9. Bruce Yocum says:

    You are a very good teacher. As your brother Peter said, the distinction between summative and formative tests is key. When I was an undergrad in Philosophy at U of Michigan I encountered an instructor who gave me a “C” on a paper. No one ever did that! The effrontery! But when I went to protest that he didn’t realize I was a genius, he pointed out that the thinking was vague and confused. I re-wrote that paper five times in his class. The last version got an “A.” His testing was formative, with the goal of making me think better. When I reached the goal, he declared it summative. That is the way God uses tests.

    • Hi Bruce, great to hear from you.

      So, you had a teacher that didn’t recognize your latent genius? Shocking.

      Or maybe he did and he was drawing you out to become the man God had made you. So, God was at work, even in the University of Michigan philosophy department.

      I bet they didn’t like that.

  10. […] the Greek verb agape. It was technically correct. We took notes like good little students. If tested, we would have answered […]

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