My preference would be to just come out and say "God doesn't test us." I considered that as the title for this piece because it's more incendiary, but it's not entirely accurate. Institutional education has given us a definition of "test" that is hard to shake, one whereby we are measured to a standard and we either fail or pass the test based on our performance against said standard. In some cases the standard is not predetermined, but is that of our highest performing peer, and it is against them that we are directly measured and our status of pass/fail is judged. As children, we heard that God was a just and righteous Judge, and we became familiar with his standards. I think bad theology, ill-equipped parents, and over-simplified children's Bibles all combined to give us a view of a testing God that we were never meant to have. Because when God tests us, and test us he will, he is not measuring us against his righteous standards. That is not and never has been, the definition of his testing, and it's time that we all got past this.
When the authenticity of a piece of gold is in question, an acid test is performed to evaluate whether the gold is real or not. Gold is a "noble metal," meaning that it is resistant to corrosion or oxidation in moist air, unlike iron, lead, copper, etc. A piece of gold is rubbed against black stone, leaving a gold mark. The gold mark is then cleaned of any non-gold items by the use of nitric acid. If the mark itself is removed during this process, then the gold was fake. If the gold mark remains, then it is tested again with a combination of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, under which real gold should dissolve entirely. If the mark remains at this point, then it is not real gold either.
While not a perfect illustration, the acid test is more like the way that God tests us, because the test is to display the true qualities of the object, not to compare the object against a standard. When the Father tests us, it is always to display something about either our character, or his character, and often both. This is good news, because it means His tests are not ones that we can pass or fail! When Daddy tests us, he is in fact putting himself through the acid test, allowing corrosive, otherwise destructive material to be applied to himself, to evaluate his purity/resilience/faithfulness/truth/etc.
What tends to complicate our theology in this area, however, is the waiting, wondering, hurting stages of life. The wilderness. Life sucks in the wilderness. I have a few friends and family that have been very thoroughly in the wilderness for the last year or more, and it's certainly no party. I wrote last August that the wilderness is where we learn to hear God's voice, to trust him, and to believe in his goodness; and that if the wilderness journey was successful, then in the deepest core of our being we will know that God is Good, and that he worthy of all pursuit. What I have come to learn since then, is that the wilderness also exposes every area in which we feel entitled to happiness, health, and a pain-free life. The American Christian dream, right?
But it's bunco, I'm afraid. You see, God isn't committed to us being happy. Nor is he committed to us being healthy, or even living pain-free. The prosperous earthly life is one in which our Father has made no investment for us, and the sooner we realize how tainted our Western gospel is by this idea and reject it, the sooner, I believe, we'll be on our way out of the wilderness. In every way that we feel entitled to contentment, wholeness, health & wealth, for our souls to be at peace, and that our Father will give us all these things, we are living in a foolish, fleshly delusion. God doesn't want to improve your life, he wants to end your life. Ideally, he wants you to end your own life, not by slitting your wrists or taking pills, but by placing your soul-life on the funeral pyre just as Abraham placed all of his hopes and dreams on the altar ready for sacrifice.
Because whoever seeks to save his life, will lose it, but whoever gives it up for My sake, will save it.
The wilderness journey, I believe, is what brings us to the place of surrendering all of our dreams, hopes, goals, desires, passions, even our very hope of breathing another breath, at the foot of the Cross. And trusting the lot of it to our Father. Not trusting Him to give it all back in His due time, but trusting Him with the lot... no matter the outcome. I have been struck so mightily by Jesus' trust of his Father, evidenced in the Gospels; I think we could plumb its depths forever and not reach the bottom. Consider just the fact that Jesus was God's son, OK, and that he was constantly and repeatedly asked to prove to others whether this was true or not (including to the devil, now THAT is temptation). And Jesus' incredible, unparalleled response, was that his Father would prove whatever needed to be proved, and Jesus would wait for his Father to do so, no matter how long, no matter the cost. "Even death on a cross," to borrow from Paul in Philippians.
I recently shared my belief that the Holy Trinity is composed of soul, body and spirit, and that only a God-like soul, as humans possess, could ultimately be a worthy Bride for the Son of God. God is not at war with the human soul, God is desperately in love with the concept, but he's looking for that rare human soul that gives up it's own life entirely for the sake of the Father seeing his will be done. That rare human was Jesus, and his spirit lives within us empowering us to live the same way. This is not a "get out of the wilderness free card" but coming to live in this understanding that everything is His, nothing is ours, and that every good or bad thing we think is ours must be surrendered on the altar, should prepare us for what lies ahead.
And in that understanding, lies the key to understanding God's tests. Because the question is not "Will you measure up?" but "What is inside? What is inside you, and what is inside Me?"
God asked me on the 15th of January if I would let him test my love for him. I replied as Jesus did, because I think it's the best option: "Father, I would really prefer that you didn't. If there's any way that this can be taken from me, I would appreciate it immensely. BUT, please oh please, don't stop at doing my will. Let your will be done, because I know that it is better."
Two days later my daughter was admitted to hospital (where either my wife or I have stayed for the last 10 nights). A few days after that I had to take one of my sons to emerg as well, who was screaming in pain from a persistent ear-ache. I also happened to be under extreme pressure from work with major deadlines within sight, and I was developing a cold. Plus the air-circulation in my house was broken, and my chimney was still leaking. My eldest son had his 4th birthday during this time, and I had no money to buy him anything, as I had already run out of grocery money. And almost ran out of gas. I had been away from home on business since the 7th of January, and so now at time of writing (at the hospital) I have not shared a bed with my wife in 20 days.
But pity me not! Because this entire time, as I have felt the corrosive acid of life applied to my every facet and surface, I have discovered within me a fountain of joy that refuses to run dry, and have found an immediate nearness of the Holy Spirit each and every time I lay down my head. I am being tested, and the contents and authenticity of my innermost self are being exposed and shown true, as is the faithful character of the One whom I have chosen to life for.
Christ makes it very clear when he instructs us to take up our cross daily that the surrendering and dying-to-ourselves-that-his-Father's-will-might-be-done, is an ongoing, continual thing for us. But we don't do this under our own power, indeed, we can't. He goes on to say "and follow me", which is as much "go where I go" as it is also "do as I do", which is so much more than just "do the things I do" but encompasses "do them by the same power with which I have done them" which is the Holy Spirit. And here we have God allowing the corrosive acid to be put on himself to display the contents and authenticity of His innermost self. That is the way, and the basic purpose for which God tests.
The full, eternal purpose of his tests, one can never fully know. Who knows the battles being fought and won in the spiritual realm, right now? Who knows the generational treasures I may be storing up for my descendants? I can't answer those questions, and I won't promise an end to your trials, nor a quick exist to your wilderness time. I won't promise you you'll be healed of your sicknesses, or that your children will honour you, or that your husband/wife will come home, because frankly, I don't believe God has promised us these things. But I will promise you that He has a plan, and that plan is to prosper you and not to harm you, on His terms and against his definition of both prosperity and harm. But He is good! The question is, will you trust that He is good, regardless of the outcome? Mother Teresa lived with a lifelong feeling of distance from God, and of intense inner darkness and loneliness. And yet her last few words were "I love you Jesus... I love you Jesus".
When God tests us, he's inviting us to see what he's accomplished in us (whether we felt him accomplishing it or not), and to see more clearly who he's accomplishing it in us for: His Son. It was never about us in the first place.
 Find me a fully-equipped parent and I will buy you a bottle of Pétrus.
 Some might suggest that God is the cause of my present earthly woes. That question is on such a lower plane of morality that I don't even care to discuss it. I barely even made this footnote.
The photo of the gold sample is from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/radioactiverosca/6915772233