US Catholic Faith in Real Life

When your faith is tested, remember these biblical characters

From Jacob tussling with the angel to Jesus in the wilderness, a lot rides on biblical tests of character.

By Alice Camille | Print this pagePrint |
Article Your Faith

In an earlier era of media broadcasting, the system that produced the radio and TV programming we all enjoyed underwent frequent tests. From 1963 to 1997, the two-tone attention signals these tests emitted became a familiar, if irritating, feature of tuning in. As their creators noted, the two combined sound waves were “suited to draw attention due to their unpleasantness.” Contrary to what I thought as a kid, these tests weren’t intended to ensure that the entertainment equipment we used at home was in good repair. Rather, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) was put in place to provide the president “with an expeditious method of communicating with the American public in the event of war, threat of war, or grave national crisis,” as the U.S. Defense Civil Preparedness Agency helpfully explained.

Such a need, gratefully, never arose. Instead, the EBS was activated some 20,000 times with warnings regarding severe weather or other midlevel emergency messages. In addition, the annoying two-tone tests were run randomly once a week on every station to keep us on our toes. Like other repetitious warnings, we learned to ignore the EBS as soon as it began its rote message: “This is only a test. If this were a real emergency . . .”

If it had been a real emergency, most of us would have been in the kitchen getting Oreos and missed it.

The word test has multiple connotations. The first evaluations to which we’re subjected are normally the academic kind. These experiences range from the unpleasant to the terror-inducing. We would seldom dismiss the exams of our school years as “only a test.” Each one required preparation, nerve, and a skill set that some of us, unhappily, were born without. Kids with undiagnosed learning disabilities—and that meant most who were atypical before recently—fared badly on pop quizzes and scheduled exam days alike.

Since our survival felt at stake in these unavoidable episodes, some of us got rather good at ferreting out the giveaway clues on true/false lists. Others were better at eliminating the obviously incorrect answers on multiple-choice tests, eeny-meeny-miny-moe-ing our way through the remainder. Essay exams were designed to smoke out anyone hiding behind answer roulette. While we might hide our ignorance or inattention for a time, sooner or later the relentless evaluation to which we were subjected would find us out.

Certain tests are more consequential than others. IQ scores, SATs, and GREs threaten to determine our ability to continue our formal education—and perhaps to foreshadow our future success. Despite the fact that many remarkable and prosperous people opt out (or are thrown out) of the education system early, we still hang great significance on the numbers assigned to us, remembering them long after they have no relevance or application. Other tests, in fact, have more functional impact on our lives. How we read the eye chart in the optometrist’s office, the results of blood tests and lab work, or even the capacity to pass a driver’s test may prove more fateful than whether we can recall the date of the Normandy invasion.

A meditation on tests is valuable at the start of another church season, since the ministry of Jesus begins with a test, and so does the season of Lent. We tend to consider this standard story on the first Sunday of Lent as a saga of temptation. But some scholars prefer the translation test. Character is tested in the Bible, from the Genesis story of the serpent in the garden, to Jacob’s midnight tussle with an angel, all the way to the anguish Jesus suffers in another garden. The test of character is often staged as a pop quiz and is always an ordeal one must face alone. One thing’s for sure: It’s never “only a test.” A lot rides on these biblical evaluations. If you flunk, you’re out of the story, and possibly all the way out: Just think of Judas, slipping off into the solitary night to hang himself.

The first proving ground in the gospel arrives at first contact with Jesus. He offers the same invitation to all he meets: Come follow me. We only hear about the folks who say yes, revealing that gospel tests are more yes/no than true/false. The correct answer to this simple pop quiz is an unequivocal yes. 

But saying yes has to be accompanied by doing yes. This is the kind of test that’s more like an audition: You have to demonstrate you’ve got what it takes to perform as a disciple. So Peter is invited to step out of a boat and walk on water. He tries—and loses his nerve. No problem, since Peter will get to take this test again. Even though he fails three times on another fateful night to provide the correct answer before the cock crows, Jesus patiently permits him a retest after the resurrection. On that last try, Peter demonstrates that he’s finally learned the correct answer is trust.

We might take hope from the fact that the disciples who follow Jesus closely for years rarely score well in exams. The twelve are positive proof that there is such a thing as a dumb question, and they’re often reproved for their lack of understanding, if not their lack of faith. The twelve are also good at producing a dramatically wrong answer, as when most desert Jesus completely at the time of his arrest.

Meanwhile, Israel’s teachers who arrive now and then to test Jesus find themselves examined instead. Most are unable to match his wisdom. Yet only one admits: “Teacher, you have answered well.” Jesus rewards this scribe with what amounts to a New Testament A-minus, telling him: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

The testing hour isn’t something from which Jesus is exempt. Every gospel account but John’s is bookended with Jesus in the exam room. The first test site is a desert, the last one a garden. But the test remains the same: Is Jesus going to do God’s will or his own? The desert setting of the first test, with its 40-day fast, mirrors Israel’s wilderness sojourn. We recognize that Jesus is the obedient son of God by contrasting his test score in that context with that of the Israelites. They were examined for 40 years in the desert, yet botched it every time. 

The final exam comes for Jesus in a garden, echoing that original garden when humanity chose the willful path over obedience. Once more, Jesus finds himself alone in the unfriendly silence, heaven curiously unresponsive to his struggle toward the right answer. Of course Jesus had once taught his disciples to pray: “Do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13). Only someone who knew the hour of testing and had encountered the evil one intimately would include such a petition. And because Jesus knew this hour well, he also knew the final answer required of him. It was the response he’d taught his disciples in the same prayer: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done” (Matt. 6:10).

The devil had once promised Jesus bread, security, and all the world’s kingdoms in exchange for his allegiance. In the darkest hour, when his security was entirely forfeit, Jesus still chose a kingdom not of this world over which to rule. On a multiple-choice test of such profound and personal magnitude, it was an extraordinary answer.

This article also appears in the March 2020 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 3, pages 47–49). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Published: 
Thursday, March 26, 2020

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