Putting God to the Test in Prayer

by Zach Barnhart August 23, 2017

If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself. – 2 Timothy 2:13

What does your prayer life look like when trouble comes?

When hard circumstances come galloping over our horizon, everyone wants to have the prayer life of David. Dust off the harps, go to our prayer closet, recite The Valley of Vision, and weep.

But, alas, there’s too much Ahaz in us.

We often treat prayer the way kids treat their green vegetables – we know it’s good for us, we know it will help us be stronger and grow more, but we mostly pick at it. It takes some sort of crisis moment, some malnourishment or severe weight gain, to cause us to turn to it.

For Ahaz, the crisis was imminent. The scene in Isaiah 7 opens in suspense, as the kings of Ephraim and Syria form an alliance and seek to infiltrate Judah. They hoped to coerce them into joining their pact against Assyria. The weak heart of the nation of Judah is shaken, “as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (7:2). The Lord commends Isaiah to go to Judah’s king, Ahaz, and share a message of comfort to him and his people – these threats will not prove fruitful by God’s sovereign hand, and Judah should wait on the Lord and what He has promised (7:4-9). Then God begins to speak directly to Ahaz:

“Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.’ And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isa. 7:10-14)

I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.

Perhaps Ahaz was just trying to stick to the words of Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” It’s possible, but not likely. Because I know my own prayer life when trouble pays a visit.

Prayerlessness in the Christian life, especially in seasons of being tried and tested, is a fascinatingly sad phenomenon. At the climax of a difficult situation, I usually make a point to pray, but in a challenging season, my prayers slowly become lesser and lesser. The harps gather dust. I begin to give up on God in a way. Oh, I know and recite all of the right answers. “Everything happens for a reason.” “God’s got a plan.” But judging by what my prayer life looks like, the theme of my heart seems to be, “I don’t believe; don’t help my unbelief.”

What happened to the confidence that allows me to draw near to the throne of grace, that I may find mercy and grace to help in a time of need? I can’t explain why we do this except for the fact that we are unbelievers by nature. God’s Word is often unbelievable when I consider what He has for me: An invitation to living water, with nothing in my hands to bring. God is magnificent.

Do we pray as if we are praying indeed to a magnificent God? I don’t know if we often do, especially in our times of need. What if our prayers put God to the test? I don’t mean the kind of testing like that from Satan or the Pharisees that means to catch our Lord in error, or the kind of testing that expresses doubt like the Israelites at Massah. I mean the kind of testing that is quite the opposite – the kind that God Himself encourages, even expects, in His Word.

We have a Father who is ready to give us Himself. Moses prayed, “Please show me your glory” (Ex. 33.18). A bold prayer! And while our capacities cannot yet swallow the fulness of God’s majesty, He gives us glimpses of His goodness.

And what of Christ’s words in Matthew? “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Mt. 7:7). “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). Surely there is something greater than circumstances and temporal blessings in these verses. Our Lord wants us to want Him, to need Him. Who is God if we don’t need Him, and of what use is prayer at that point?

God gave Ahaz the most glorious of invitations. “Allow me to prove myself worthy of your trust and praise. Let me help your unbelief.” And even though Ahaz rejected this invitation, God was still God. He still sent a sign (Isa. 7:14). When we are faithless, He is faithful. What unexplainable mercy it is when God chooses to act for our good despite our refusal to trust in Him. He doesn’t merely let us choose our own adventure; He has written the story already, and He gives us a spoiler as to its ending: “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

This season of trial and suffering for you is the prime opportunity to be putting God to the test in prayer. This means our prayers should look less circumstantial, more theological. This means our prayers should be bold and daring enough to petition God to act. This means our prayers will acknowledge that His wisdom is all-surpassing, even if He does what we don’t ask or expect. The Lord knocks; he tells you to pray big, because He is big. “Let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”

Make your requests known to God, because He is God and we are not.