The Apostle Simon Peter is an example of someone who went through many difficult times of testing. We can read about one of Peter’s tests in the Gospel of Luke – it takes place just before the crucifixion.
The Lord said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to me, strengthen your brethren.” [Peter] said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you, both to prison and to death.” Then [Jesus] said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know me.”Luke 22:31-34
Peter was warned of the trial he was about to face, yet he still stumbled and denied Jesus. If we can learn from Peter’s experience, perhaps we will be better prepared when our time of testing arrives.
Learning from tests
… that he may sift you like wheat.
I read the story of a man who had attended medical school in Edinburgh around 1800. At that time, medical school was much different than it is today. It was more of a self-directed course of study. On the first day of class many professors would give an examination. The exam was something of a sifting in that it helped the students separate the material they already knew from the material they did not yet know. Without the exam, the students may have focused too little on the material they had not yet mastered.
In the same way, it is important for us to identify the strengths and weaknesses in our spiritual life. We are in many ways self-directed in our spiritual education. Certainly the Holy Spirit guides us, and we receive help from our brothers and sisters, but whether we learn and what we learn is pretty much up to us. It is, therefore, helpful to know what we do well and what we do poorly, where we are strong and where we are weak. A time of testing helps reveal to us the areas in our spiritual lives that need some work.
Giving the right answer
I have prayed…that your faith should not fail.
Jesus prayed that Peter would give the correct “answer” as he went through his testing. The answer that Jesus was looking for was faith (and hope and love, as well as courage and the other virtues). Unfortunately, there was something lacking in Peter’s faith. In the Gospel of Matthew, Peter correctly identified Jesus as the Son of God – an astounding confession of faith at the time. Yet just moments later, Peter doubted God’s plan and God’s power by trying to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem to die (Matthew 16:13-23). Peter had the faith to see that Jesus was God (believing faith), but he lacked the faith to trust fully in God’s plan (trusting faith). This lack of faith appears again, when in the courtyard he denies even knowing the Lord Jesus.
Peter was tested many times and repeatedly got the answers wrong. He lacked faith and hope when he rebuked the Lord and tried to hinder the Father’s plan. He lacked love and courage when he denied the Lord, as Jesus was being sentenced to crucifixion. Failing these tests painfully revealed to Peter his faults and weakness. In the same way, when we are tested, the Lord reveals to us areas in our lives that need some work.
We will be tested many times in our lives. The Lord is looking for us to respond with “correct answers” as we experience these trails. Here is a hint: the correct answers are faith, and hope, and love – and prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. The Lord looks for virtue and strength of character. He also looks for the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Often, people seek miraculous deliverance as the answer to their tests. From time to time deliverance may part of it, but normally the right answer is virtue.
Giving the wrong answers
I don’t know him.
So very often we respond with the wrong answer in times of testing. Some common wrong responses are: anxiety, despair, resentment, fear, and recklessness. If you look at your life and see anxiety, despair, resentment, and fear – you are in a time of testing, (perhaps without realizing it) and you are getting the answers wrong.
When we fail a test – give the wrong answer – it really is important to recognize that failure and repent. If we keep giving the wrong answer over and over we will never become the person that God wants us to be. We will wallow in fear, anxiety, resentment, and despair instead of growing in the virtue and fruit that pleases our Lord and makes us useful in building his kingdom.
There is life after tests
When you return … strengthen your brethren.
Our life is not mainly about tests. Peter’s ministry and all he accomplished for the Lord is not defined by the tests he failed; it is defined by what he did after the tests. We can see how Peter obeyed the “strengthen your brethren” part of Jesus’ prayer – he did spread the gospel and strengthened the early church. In John 21:17 Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Peter’s answer is always “Yes,” and the Lord commands him to “feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” Jesus is reviewing with Peter his test and his failure. He is also pointing out that Peter has a job to do, that he should not wallow in self-pity, but strengthen his brothers.
There is fruitful ministry following our tests – even if we do not score 100%. Tests today prepare us to serve the Lord tomorrow. It is important to respond rightly during a test; it is also important to respond rightly after the test. It is especially important to respond rightly after a failed test: like Peter we need to return to the Lord Jesus in love, repentance, and obedience.
In the time of Christ, a newly-forged sword would be heated until it glowed like the evening sky. It was then thrust into cold water. This “testing” made the sword stronger and better able to hold a sharp edge. (It was because of this technology that the Roman army won so many wars. Their swords could literally cut their opponents’ swords in two.) In the same way we are made stronger and more useful to our Lord as we experience the fire of testing.
Seeing the test in progress
I am ready to go…to prison and death.
Peter’s test at this time was not to go to prison and death: that test would come in the future. The test at hand was answering the statement of a servant girl in the courtyard, “This man was with him.” Jesus warned Peter that he would be tested, that the test would come before dawn, and it would involve denying the Lord Jesus. We can look at it now and say that Peter should have been prepared, but the test seemed to catch him unaware.
Often times we fail to recognize tests as they happen, even when we are warned of them in advance. Jesus warned Peter he was going to be tested just as he has warned us we will be tested. Will we recognize the test when the time comes? Often tests are subtle, like a servant girl asking, “Aren’t you one of his followers?” If we are expecting something dramatic, we may miss the subtle test, just as Peter did.
When tests are small, more like quizzes, the smallness, the ordinariness, blinds us to the fact that a test is taking place. What kind of spiritual “quizzes” might be going on right now?
- A relationship problem with your spouse
- A relationship problem with your children
- Trouble with finances and work
- An area of persistent sin
- Failure in your personal Christian disciplines.
How can we learn from our tests and be strengthened in our walk with the Lord if we don’t even realize that we are being tested? Learning to recognize small tests like these can help us recognize larger tests when they come our way.
Note: Those who we are close to will also go through times of testing, and their tests can spill into our laps. For example, the Lord Jesus was going through a huge test as he was preparing to die for us. Peter’s test in the courtyard was the result of Jesus’ test. When we see that a brother or sister is being tested, perhaps a test will come our way as a result. Will we respond to our brethren in faith, hope, and love – and prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.
Preparing for a test
Pray that you may not enter into temptation.
In Luke 24:40, Jesus instructs Peter to pray that he does not enter into temptation. The Greek word translated temptation here is pirasmos, meaning a trial or proof. God allows temptation – He allows tests – but never beyond what we can endure. “God…will not allow you to be tempted (to be tried or proven) beyond what you are capable, but…will also make a way of escape that you may be able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:13).”
We should prepare for tests through prayer. When the Lord Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he included the phrase, “lead us not into temptation”: literally “lead us not into hard testing” (Matthew 6:13). The Lord has been telling us as a community that a test is coming. He is doing this for a reason. I think the reason is so we can prepare. We should pray for his strength and for his grace; we should pray that we will recognize the test when it comes and answer it with faith, and hope, and love.
I thought it was supposed to be easy
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:30).
How does this passage from Matthew 11:30 fit into difficult times of testing? Trials almost never seem easy nor do their burdens seem light. Looking at the Greek can be helpful in coming to an understanding of what this scripture passage is communicating.
The word easy is translated from the Greek word chrestos, which means useful, good, or manageable. Testing is useful for us, although not always easy in the English sense of the word; but it is good for us and the Lord never gives a test that is unmanageable. Tests are useful because they prepare us for the future work God has for us. Difficult is not always bad, nor is easy always good. The Lord’s yoke, the harness that makes our work purposeful, is good, and useful, and manageable.
The word light in the text is translated from the Greek word elow’no, which means “driven by the wind.” I see this as implying the power of the Holy Spirit, as wind in scripture is often associated with the Holy Spirit. Along with the yoke and burden, the Holy Spirit fills us with his power. He enables us to bear the burdens that come in his service by supplying his own power – the power of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).
For what son is there whom a father does not chasten? (Hebrews 12:7)
Brothers and sisters, the Lord has told us that testing will come.
- We should be praying.
- We should be on the alert.
- We should keep the correct answers close at hand.
- We should remember that tests are useful.
- We should rely on his power and his grace.
- In all of this let us seek to strengthen our brethren – that is, one another.
This article was first published in Living Bulwark in January 2009.
Top image above: Apostle Paul in prison writing a letter, photo from Bigstock.com, © by CWMCary, stock photo ID: 2859601. Used with permission.
Jerry Munk is the senior coordinator of the Work of Christ Community, Lansing, Michigan, USA. He and his wife Jan are members of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Lansing.