Well, what does the Bible say?
"You shall not put the LORD your God to the test" - Deuteronomy 6:16
That seems straightforward enough, right? Why did I even bother to write this post? Isn't this an open-and-shut case?
Not so fast. Let's apply the principles of Bible interpretation, and look at what the Scriptures have to say on the matter as a whole. First, we consider every instance where the word "test" appears in the ESV version of the Bible (The choice of translation is not particularly important - I just needed a specific text to do the search.). We then select only the verses where humans are said to test God. That gives us the following list of passages:
This is the story of the waters at Massah and Meribah. The Israelites test God by demanding water, while complaining that God was going to let them die of thirst. This takes place in the context of the exodus event, where Israel frequently rebelled against God and was repeatedly described by him as a "stiff-necked people". This passage is, by far, the most referenced passage when it comes to the mention of man testing God. In fact, all of the following passages about "testing God" refers directly to this event, or to the exodus event as a whole: Numbers 14:22, Deuteronomy 6:16, Deuteronomy 33:8, Psalms 78:18-41, Psalms 95:8-10, Psalms 106:14, Matthew 4:7, Luke 4:12, 1 Corinthians 10:9-11, Hebrews 3:9.
Among these numerous references is Deuteronomy 6:16 (which was quoted at the top), and two instances of Jesus quoting that verse (Matthew 4:7, Luke 4:12). Because of these prominent verses and the sheer number of times that this event is referenced, it sticks out in most Bible reader's mind. But this makes it easy to forget that all these verses refer to the same event, and that the command to not test God was given in that specific context. In fact, my quote of Deuteronomy 6:16 at the beginning is actually incomplete: the full verse says: "You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, AS YOU TESTED HIM AT MASSAH" (emphasis added). But that context is often forgotten while only the high frequency of the injunctions against testing God is remembered.
This is the second story of Gideon testing God, by placing a fleece on the ground to manipulate the morning dew. Gideon himself seems to acknowledge that he's doing something wrong, as he asks God to not be angry with him even as he's performing the test. Overall, this passage must be counted as saying that we should not test God.
God tells king Ahaz to ask for a sign - any sign whatsoever, no matter how great. But Ahaz refuses, by citing that he will "not put the LORD to the test". God is exasperated and strongly rebukes Ahaz's answer, and responds by saying that he WILL give a sign, the greatest sign of all: the incarnation of Christ. Clearly, Ahaz was wrong to not ask for a sign. He SHOULD have tested God. Contrast his behavior with that of his son, king Hezekiah, who is endorsed by the Bible as a righteous king. When Hezekiah was given the opportunity to ask for a sign in 2 Kings 20:1-11, he actually asks for a harder sign, and it is granted to him.
God says in this passage that bringing him the tithe will result in great blessings. He then explicitly says, "Test me in this". One can hardly ask for a stronger proof text to support the idea that we should test God.
Just a few verses later, Malachi 3:15 also mentions testing God, but it is hard to draw firm conclusions from it.
Matthew 16:1-4, Matthew 19:3-11, Matthew 22:17-22, Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 8:11-13, Mark 10:2-12, Mark 12:14-17, Luke 10:25-37, Luke 11:14-23, John 8:4-11:
These passages describe the numerous times people came to test Jesus. His response is quite varied. Sometimes, he flat out refuses their test (Mark 8:11-13). Other times, he's exasperated, but gives them an answer anyway (Matthew 22:17-22). At still other times, he graciously answers them fully and even commends his tester (Mark 12:28-34, a parallel passage to Matthew 22:35-40). It's also worth nothing that some of the answers Jesus gives under testing are among his greatest hits, such as "render onto Caesar" (Matthew 22:17-22), "the greatest commandment" (Matthew 22:35-40), and "the good Samaritan" (Luke 10:25-37). Overall, testing Jesus gives mixed results, and it is difficult to say that one should or should not test him from these passages.
Ananias and Sapphira sell a piece of property, then offers a portion of the money to the apostles while pretending it was the whole sum. Peter equates this to "test[ing] the spirit of the Lord", and Ananias and Sapphira are supernaturally struck dead for this action.
Here the leaders of the early church are considering how much of the Jewish law gentile believers have to follow. Peter says that it would be "putting God to the test" to impose the full Mosaic law on these believers when they have already received the Holy Spirit. This passage clearly portrays "testing God" as something bad.
Here Paul says that we may discern the will of God by testing. Other translations are more direct - the NIV says that we can "test and approve what God's will is". Clearly, in this passage, testing God's will is something good.
1 Thessalonians 5:19-21:
These verses tell us to test everything - even prophecies, which ostensibly come from God.
1 John 4:1:
This verse tells us to test spirits, even if they ostensibly come from God.
That is all of the passages in the ESV Bible about a man testing God. So, what have we learned from this comprehensive list?
It seems that the record is mixed. Some passages endorse testing God, while others treat it as a sin. What are we to make of this? Now, if you're lazy, you may just shrug and default to saying "you can't test God", because it's easy to remember. If you're a bellicose atheist, you may jump up and say "aha! Contradiction!" But we are to do neither. The principles of Bible interpretation says that we are to find an explanation that makes sense of this seeming mess of verses.
So, can we do that? Is there a simple, common sense interpretation that makes perfect sense of all of the above verses?
Yes. Here it is:
We are to test God on his own terms.
This explains all of the verses above. At the waters of Massah and Meribah, The Israelites were not testing God on his own terms. They were imposing their own terms on what God must do, instead of figuring out what God had planned for them. They were testing God by conditions that are external to what God said he would do. Had they considered what God had actually revealed, they would have seen that God had planned to save them from Egypt and bring them to the promised land, and given them ample evidence for this plan. But they ignored all this and and cried out about being left to die in the desert.
When Jesus referenced this incident by saying "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test", he was replying to the devil, who had just tried to tempt Jesus into jumping off the top of the temple. Again, this would have resulted in Jesus attempting to impose his own conditions on what God must do. The devil's test was wrong for exactly the same reason as the Israelite's test at Massah and Meribah: it would be trying to force God to do something, instead of testing him on his own terms on something that he said he'd do.
It also explains why Gideon's fleece method of testing was incorrect. He, too, was imposing an external test, asking God to do something of Gideon's own invention. Had he heeded what God had been saying to him, he would have been satisfied with the signs that God had already given him on God's own terms.
This interpretation also explains why, in Isaiah, Ahaz was wrong to not ask for a sign. He had been explicitly offered one - God had said, "ask for a sign", yet Ahaz refused to act on the terms that God had given him.
It also explains why God tells Israel to test him in Malachi. God dictated the terms: he just told them to test him by bringing in their tithes. In these circumstances, we are to oblige and carry out that test.
It also explains the variety of ways that Jesus reacted when people came to test him. When they attempted to get him to do something by imposing terms of their own ('hey Jesus, do a miracle!'), he refused. But when they asked questions relevant to his role as a teacher, which is a role that Jesus himself chose to take on, he answered their questions.
Ananias and Sapphira are easily explained: they were testing God in betting that they could successfully deceive him. The council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 is also easy to explain: they could not keep gentiles out of the church after they had received the Holy Spirit. In both cases, it would have been wrong to test God by going against his previous revelation.
It also make sense of how we can test God's will, as described by Romans 12. We are to first be "transformed by the renewal of [our] mind[s]". That is, we are to first understand what God is offering us, on his own terms. Our minds are to be transformed and renewed to conform to his, so that we can understand his will. Only then we can test that will, and see that God passes the test. This allows us to affirm that his will is good and acceptable and perfect.
Lastly, it explains why we must test prophesies and spirits, even though they ostensibly come from God. Because God has laid out his message in clear terms - by prophets, Scriptures, and ultimately in Christ - we are to test thing according to those terms.
So, we are to test God on his own terms. This simple interpretation explains all of the above verses about testing God. But it doesn't stop there. We can be confident of this interpretation because it can furthermore be generalized to all other relevant "tests": all hypotheses, not just God, are to be tested on their own terms.
Let's first look at Bayes' theorem, which is a critical component of what it means to be a rational, logical, scientific person. Literally, look at the equation:
P(hypothesis|observation) = P(observation|hypothesis)/P(observation) * P(hypothesis)
You see that "P(observation|hypothesis)" factor? That means we are to evaluate the observation while considering the hypothesis to be true. The observational evidence, which tests the hypothesis, is to be tested on the hypothesis' own terms.
Because Bayes' theorem is the basis for the scientific method, our interpretation on testing God can be generalized to science as well. All scientific hypotheses, not just God, are to be tested on their own terms. For instance, if you want to test the theory of special relativity, you can't just say "so according to relativity, there should be faster-than-light particles moving backwards in time, right? Well, where are they?" That is not what relativity says. In order to actually test relativity, you must first understand it, then test it according to the predictions that it actually makes. It is tested on its own terms, by interpreting the data according to the hypothesis itself.
Likewise, concerning the theory of evolution, you can't say "I'll believe in evolution if you can give birth to a monkey right now". That is not a valid test for evolution, because that's not something allowed in evolution. You are imposing a condition on the theory that is external to the theory itself. You must first understand what the theory actually says, then test it by making observations, and seeing how well the observation agrees with the theory. But that judgement - the agreement between theory and observation - is to be evaluated in terms of the theory itself. The theory decides what observations agree or don't agree with it.
In the Bible, recall that some people mocked Jesus by telling him that they would believe him if he could come down from the cross. This was not a proper test for Christ's claims, because the mocker's demands were in fact in complete opposition to Jesus's purpose in going to the cross in the first place. If they had been actually listening to Jesus, they would have known that he had repeatedly predicted his own death and resurrection. So then, judged according to the terms that Jesus himself set out, his death on the cross was actually evidence FOR his claims about himself. The mockers did not understand this, because they did not test Jesus on his own terms.
So, we are to test any hypothesis - not just God - on its own terms. But that's not all. The idea that we are to test God on his own terms also generalizes to our personal relationships. We test God this way, because the same rule applies to how we interact with our loved ones. Imagine that, at a time of genuine need, a close friend sincerely says to you:
"Look, we both know that you're financially in a tough spot. I want you to know that you don't have to worry about paying your college tuition. I'll take care of it. I think that your pursuit of an education is a noble goal, and you shouldn't be held back by not having enough money. You can count on me. Just do the best you can at school."
In this case it would be fine to test your friendship by actually expecting your friend to come through with the money. This is, in fact, what God is asking us to do in Malachi 3:10, when he asks Israel to test him by holding him to a promise that he himself had already made. We ought to graciously accept the promise and expect him to fulfill it.
But let's say that you responded by saying:
"No. I refuse to take your money. I know you're rich. You don't need to prove it to me. I believe you. But I'm not having you do anything for me. After all, I don't want to test our friendship."
Would this not be rude? In fact, wouldn't it be a demonstration of how little you valued or trusted your friend? This is what Ahaz does in Isaiah 7:10-14 in refusing to ask God for a sign. When God himself offers the sign, it is wrong to refuse. Instead, we are to hold on to his words and test him by actively relying on those words.
As a third scenario, consider that you say to your friend:
"Hey, you're rich, right? I want a mountain made of gold. You're my friend, right? Give me a gold mountain. Otherwise, obviously you don't care for me and can't meet my needs."
This is how the Israelites tested God at Massah and Meribah. It's how the devil asked Jesus to test God. It's how some Pharisees tested Jesus by demanding a sign. This is clearly the wrong way to test a friendship, and it is an equally wrong way to test God. It is the difference between taking a friend at his word, and demanding something from that friend. When God makes us a promise, we are to test him by saying "wow, you would really do that for me? Thank you. I accept, and I will hold you to your promise." But we are not to test him by saying "I demand you do this for me" on something that he's said nothing about.
So, we are to test God on his own terms. The Bible on the whole is actually very clear on this matter, since every verse about testing God falls into this pattern. Furthermore, God created the world so that this principle can be generalized to as a rational rule of logic, a proper scientific procedure, and a principle of interpersonal relationships. There is unity in the Biblical passages, and throughout all other forms of God's revelation.
But at the end of the day, the Bible itself says it best. You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah - that is, by demanding things from him and imposing your own terms on him, without regard to what God has said for himself. Instead, first be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you can understand what God has actually said, on his own terms. Then you can rightly test the will of God, and you will find that it is good and acceptable and perfect.
You may next want to read:
The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 1)
How should we interpret the Bible? Look at it as scientific data.
Another post, from the table of contents