Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s a familiar saying, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” which has inspired a number of humorous add-ons. “If what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger than at this point, I should be able to bench press a Cadillac. Or if what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger than I should be expecting my new super powers and cape any day now.” It may surprise you, but that familiar saying was actually penned by the son of a Lutheran pastor, who know something about pain and suffering, Friedrich Nietzsche ,. In 1888, Nietzsche wrote “Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens.—Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker,” which can be translated as “Out of life’s school of war—what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” Nietzsche expanded on the idea in his autobiography Ecce Homo. Here, he referred to the select individuals who experienced hardship as “nature’s lucky strokes…These people divine remedies for injuries; they know how to turn serious accidents to their own advantage; for that which does not kill them makes him stronger.”
For generations, theologians have read the story of our Savior’s 40 days in the wilderness as the supreme test. Jesus was weak and alone, famished and hungry, and there the devil came to meet him. Yet from the very beginning of the gospel reading, we are taught that it was no accident that the devil appeared before Jesus. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness in order that he might be tested and tempted by the devil to make him stronger.
Testing is after all a normal and regular part of every student’s academic life. But we are a little surprised when testing comes back to haunt us as adults. From an early age children grow to expect that their teachers will test them, and that there will be positive and negative consequences. As adults, most of us object to retaking our driving test, so we take AARP Drive Alive 55 Class instead. Youth, however, see it differently. Nearly 40 years ago, when I was a teacher at a boarding school in India, I had the evening duty of gathering the students into one class room and observing them as they completed their evening homework. They all looked up at the clock on the wall, which had an attached placard. “Time will pass. Will you?” As adults, however, we are just not as open to testing. So we don’t understand the purpose of Jesus wandering in the wilderness for 40 days and nights.
So let me ask you a question. How do you build up your faith for challenges ahead? Do you take a regimen of vitamins and supplements for it? Is there some kind of therapy you go through to have your faith strengthened? Is there an all-day seminar that you can attend? No? So here’s the secret to a stronger faith, and I know that it may not be something that you want to hear. But the truth is, like Jesus, God builds up your faith by testing it. He builds your faith by placing hurdles before you. Faith is like a muscle and when it’s stretched and pulled it develops and grows stronger.
There is another word, very similar to testing and temptation, which describes this process- and it is called tempering. It is an ancient process of heating and cooling for strengthening the elasticity of steel. Interestingly, the oldest known example of tempered metal is a pick axe which was found in Galilee, dating from around 11 centuries before Christ. My friends, if whatever does not kill you, but makes you stronger, then perhaps God is tempering you with a deeper, stronger faith- for even greater challenges ahead. This morning, I would like to suggest four common ways that God tests your faith.
First of all, God tests your faith through difficulties. The testing and tempering of faith occurs whenever and wherever God brings events and challenges into someone’s life in order to reveal that person’s own true character. It’s like an academic exam intended to make you more aware and confident of what you know. The Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, and the Holy Spirit was there to accompany Jesus in his prayers, in his thoughts, and in his moments of human weakness. The Devil, however, decided that Jesus’ 40 days of self-examination would be an opportune time for temptation in his human weakness. The nature of temptation, you see, is to entice a person into breaking away from trusting God and into placing one’s confidence and trust in other powers
If we are honest with ourselves, we may all have something that prevents us from truly going out into the wilderness being tested. There is something that is preventing us from being drawn closer to his heart of love and compassion and understanding. It is often something that offers a more immediate assurance, explanation or gratification. That is where the devil tempts us. It may be the temptations of the world, the so called vices of luxury and indulgence. Often, the devil uses the glittering images of logic, intelligence and rationalism to distract us. They are the socially acceptable habits, vices, patterns and attitudes that keep us from exploring and experiencing God’s holy purpose for our life.
Second God tests your faith through your loyalty to him. God asks us to do things that are seemingly impossible. There are 1050 commands in just the New Testament alone to obey. Of all these commands, some of them seem unreasonable, some inconvenient and some seem down right impossible. So what do you do when you have an impossible, godly command that feels like a demand on your life? It may be easy to avoid them, to dismiss them as uncomfortable truths, but God is using them to temper you and make your faith stronger, if you truly want to grow stronger and deeper in your faith.
We live in a world where we are challenged daily to be loyal to one group or another, one political party or another, one sports team or another, one socio-economic class or another. Jesus was challenged as well. The devil brought him to a high mountain and offered him half the world’s kingdoms. Frankly, a small kingdom in Northern Europe would have been temptation enough for me. I’m not that greedy. It’s hard to embrace loyalty when everyone else is chasing after their own dream of success. It’s oh, so tempting to let go. Jesus refused.
Third, God tests your faith with money and wealth. Did you know that money is one of the greatest tests of faith? Few people truly understand how God uses material possessions as a test of character and a tempering of faith. Yet, we hear it over and over again in scripture, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” For many people finances are the greatest treasure of all- and the greatest temptation. They have no idea that God is actually testing them when they get into debt, or when they’re going through problems, or when they have too much and they asked to give. All of these things have to do with faith.
The truth is what you and I do with our money really does measure our faith in God. When I’m willing and ready and able to generously return to the Lord as he has richly given to me -knowing that this money could be spent for other things, I know it is a test. Just as God uses difficulties and loyalty, to temper me, he also uses money.
Finally, God tests your faith and patience through delays. Sometimes, I think Jesus had it easy. He only had to wait 40 days and nights for his testing to be over. Many of you have wrestled with illness for months, or for the return of a lost, prodigal son or daughter for years. Worship, Bible study and prayers are all helpful rituals in nurturing your faith, but if every prayer were immediately answered, if your every need were automatically met, if your every problem was instantly solved, well you wouldn’t need faith and your faith wouldn’t need to be stretched. But life is not that way. We have to wait on things. It is human nature that we have to wait, but seldom do we like it. A great portion of our life is spent waiting. As we joke about serving on a standing committee, they take minutes and last hours. If you and I can’t learn how God wants to stretch and grow our faith during times of waiting, we miss out on many of the most important faith lessons that God wants us to learn. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
My friends, perhaps it feels as if God’s testing and tempering is pushing you to the brink right now. It’s not pleasant and it’s certainly not comfortable. Nobody likes walking through the wilderness alone, but it is there in those difficult moments and hours that you can experience and discover God’s true capacity to provide for you. He sends you into storms on life’s most unlikely seas so that he can demonstrate his ability to come to you walking on water. He surrounds you with conflict so that he can show you that he can provide for you a table even in the midst of your enemies.
You don’t have to endure these tests and tempering alone. No one has the inner strength and resilience to exercise their faith on their own. The strength to endure trials when we’re pushed to the very brink only comes by reflecting on the one who was pushed past that brink—pushed into death itself—Jesus.
So do not be afraid of the forty days and nights in the wilderness and its time of testing- if that is where the Spirit is leading you. For it is there in the wilderness, that like Jesus, God will make you strong, and more confident and free. And through his tempering, he will give you life’s assurance, not the word of Nietzsche, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” but in those hours of testing, you will grow to know and trust God’s ultimate promise, that, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.