Theologizing Illness and Testing God – A Meditation on Exodus 17:1-7

This Sunday many churches will be preaching on Jesus as the living water which, once given to a person, ensures they will never thirst again. The infinite spring of Life which allows for us to enter into the rest of God. Love that transcends people groups and gender, such that all people – whether they are a Jewish man, a Samaritan woman, or any other combination of identifiers – can become part of the new life in Christ. A divine life defined by God-likeness.

However, on the other end of the lectionary we see God giving water in another circumstance. Here God’s people complain against their lack of water and God gives them water from the rocks around them. The stones are named Massah and Meribah – the place of testing and the place of complaining, for the people had tested God and complained to God. The land itself is called “Rephidim,” – Land of Support, Land of Supply.

We lose track often of what it means to test God. It is not simply to ask God for something – or else our prayer would constantly be testing God. It is not simply doubting God’s provision – because we do this more often than any of us care to admit. Despite our uncertainty about what scripture means by, “Testing God,” it is one of the most consistent traditions in scripture. This Massah tradition is so central to the Christian tradition that it is even in the Lord’s Prayer.[1]



The word Jesus uses to describe, “Temptation,” in the Lord’s prayer is “πειρασμός” (Peirasmos.) This word is more often translated, “Testing.” The testing of a person that leads them to be better is peirasmos. The testing that comes from the suffering naturally in life is peirasmos. However, it is not only people who experience it. After all, Massah in the Greek Old Testament (LXX)  is called, “πειρασμός”

Jesus was sent into the desert to be tempted (πειράζω.) While there the Devil urged him to throw himself from high up, plummeting but being saved by a God who would never let his Son be hurt. Jesus rebukes the Devil, saying that we are not to put God to the test – to not  ἐκπειράζω (2nd Person Future Active Indicative of πειράζω.) This testing of humanity and of God comes down to the same concept of testing.

So, what does this have to do with our theologizing of illness?

We are currently experiencing a pandemic across the world. Many countries are taking steps to prevent its spread through quarantines, closed borders, and social distancing. We in the United States are beginning to feel the effects of these preventative measures. Schools are closing, businesses are conducting work at home, and before long more than just a few churches will likely stop meeting in person. The question has been raised again and again, “Don’t these steps show we lack faith? If the churches close what does that tell people?”

It is irresponsible to relate the church and society taking reasonable steps to prevent infection to a lack of faith. Timothy was told to take medicine when he was ill. (1 Tim. 5:23) The people of God frequently took steps to avoid disaster. (Gen. 12:10, 27:41-46, 46:1-4, Matt. 2:13–23, 24:16, to name a few) The message of scripture is not that we should live recklessly because God will take care of us. We are told we will be saved from serpents, not that we should drink their venom. In the same way, we are told we will see healing from disease not that we should chase after catching it.

We must be willing to take extreme measures. If that means closing churches for a time, then we will meet some other way. We must care for those who are vulnerable, if that means we stay away from them then we must retreat. We must take all the steps necessary to protect those around us.

God will not punish us for our caution, but if we choose to test God by blindly acting against the recommendations of experts then we will suffer. We do not need to give into despair, but we also should not assume we are immortal. God is the giver of life and wisdom. Wisdom demands we make unpleasant choices sometimes. The fact is that we are in a new wilderness, one of contagions and diseases we do not understand. Our responsibility in trusting God is not that we sit silently and hold our worries within, that will not do. Our responsibility in trusting God is not that we chase after new ways to harm ourselves so that God’s grace may abound, that is putting God very plainly to the test.

Pursuing God, trusting God, sometimes means that we step away from the comfort of proximity. Sometimes we have to disrupt our routine. Sometimes we must close ourselves off. Will this impact our life? Of course. Will it lead us into difficulties of income, difficulties of loneliness, difficulties of luxury? It definitely will. However, we cannot afford to sit on our hands when the world grows sicker minute by minute. Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Stay at home, stay safe, and do not let this virus spread beyond our ability to treat it. God will provide, but we cannot chase down streams in deserts and then be upset when we do not find them.

[1] Cornelisu B. Houk. “Πειρασμος, The Lord’s Prayer, and the Massah Tradition” in Scottish Journal of Theology. 19 no 2 Jun 1966, p 216-225


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