Origen recounted a story from the life of the stoic philosopher Epictetus who was said to be crippled. His condition was the result of his leg being twisted by his master Epaphroditus as punishment. During the torture, Epictetus said “You will break my leg if you continue,” but the master persisted until it snapped. Afterwards, Epictetus calmly remarked “Didn’t I say so?” The story has come to illustrate the grand strategy of stoicism which is the transcendence of affectation of circumstances on one’s person. This is perhaps the highest aspiration of humanism, but it falls short of providing context to the imago Dei. The image of God in man is refined by testing.
Suffering is universal to the human experience. That is not to say that each human being experiences suffering equally, nor (more importantly) that all suffering is detrimental. Answers to this dilemma are certainly philosophical in implication, but they are theological at their core. Dr. Greg Smith has provided an essential voice to the scholarly conversation with his book The Testing of God’s Sons: The Refining of Faith as a Biblical Theme. This book review will discuss suffering in its larger context of testing as refinement, and will include relevant biblical foundations and contemporary application. Testing will be found to transcend its temporal circumstances when experienced in the life of a God-fearer, as a pathway to a continuous conformity to the image of Christ.
Testing as Refinement
The Bible employs many literary devices, each of which are designed to convey truth. Among the most powerful are narrative stories from exemplary lives and the interwoven mechanisms of metaphor and simile. Dr. Smith’s work explores the unified theme of testing as refinement and finds substantial evidence in both biblical and extrabiblical sources. This review’s limited scope of the biblical foundations finds no shortage of thematically consistent material in the long arc from Genesis to Revelation.
The premise of Dr. Smith’s thesis is that testing is essential to God’s loving desire to refine His children to completion where nothing is lacked (Jas 1:2-3). Thus understood, it becomes the means to the end of conformance to the image of Christ (Rom 8:18ff). In this context, lessons from history are informed by the revelation of God’s intentional design and provide ongoing, relevant understanding to difficult circumstances. Here we see the counterintuitive reality of God’s love as the motivus for His intentionality. Far from passivity (or worse, absence of care), difficult circumstances demonstrate God’s active involvement in the betterment of His children.
A Biblical Understanding of Testing
As a basis to his work, Dr. Smith provides significant etymological attention to the main Hebrew testing terms נסה, בחן, and צרף. Each term is explored pragmatically with attention to hermeneutical context. This exploration includes nuances related to military training, the more general theme of examination and the specific metallurgical application of refinement respectively. Each is found to reveal or authenticate, and considerable attention is devoted to the concept of the touchstone as rich in spiritual metaphor.
The academic merits of Dr. Smith’s analysis achieve their best resonance when applied to the life of Joseph. Core to the Pentateuch’s foundation of testing as refinement, the Joseph narrative serves as an archetype for Israel’s covenant relationship with God. The intentionality of God’s goodness is understood, both explicitly and implicitly to prevail over evil (Gen 50:20). Joseph’s experience echo’s both Abraham individually and Israel in the wilderness collectively in that God employed testing as a refinement process though which he was ultimately glorified by the faithful’s loyalty despite circumstantial difficulty.
Following the specific analysis of the Joseph narrative, Dr. Smith surveys several motifs and scenarios from the Pentateuch to demonstrate testing as refinement as thematically unified. This includes the testing of Abraham, the midwives of Egypt, Moses, the Israelites at Sinai, prepatriarchal accounts, Shur, Sin, Massah, the wilderness and generally in Deuteronomy. The preponderance of evidence affirms both aural and experiential categories conclusively.
The apex of the book is the chapter bearing the title of the work at large. “The Testing of God’s Sons” maps the robust biblical context of testing as refinement through an exegesis of Adam, the Patriarchs, Israel, Jesus and the church. This ambitious chapter sweeps broadly from Adam to modern day and finds the human condition to be essentially the same. The essence of man juxtaposed to the essence of the Divine in many regards finds man in the same need of mercy today as when he was banished from Eden. What has changed in the millennia since is the continuous and unfailing love of God, steadily progressing His creation back to the garden. Redemption’s requirement of sacrifice surely rests as the primary cause for much of man’s suffering, but the price of his refinement pales in contrast to that which God Himself has borne on our behalf.
The Divine Currency of Love
In his conclusion, Dr. Smith writes “The value of the divine currency of love is established through the suffering of the saints and authenticated through testing. Jesus addressed a questioner who seem to be overwhelmed by all of the laws associated with following God. “Which is the greatest?” the man asked. Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets (Matt 22:36-40.) Here we succinctly find the litmus test of all right standing to which all refinement points. Each experience of our life is meant to help us better achieve each commandment.
All efforts of pastoral care in our churches should ultimately be based on soul care. As in the book of Ruth, the covenant community finds right standing with God as it honors Him in the care of the hurting. A proper understanding of testing will always point to a fulfillment in Christlikeness.
Dr. Greg Smith’s book The Testing of God’s Sons is clearly the work of both pastor and professor. Here we find a resource rich repository to be frequently revisited for insight to the gospel ministry. Beyond its academic value is the apparent spiritual maturation of an author whose experience bears out the truth of his work. The humanistic worldview so prevalent in its inward gaze for eternal answers has been expertly answered by one who hastens us to look to God, who so loves the world.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
Meet The Author
Associate Vice President for Academic Technology and Associate Professor of Bible
Dr. Gregory Smith came to Southwestern Seminary after serving as an assistant to the associate vice president for doctoral studies at Southern Seminary and children’s pastor at First Baptist Church of Sellersburg, Ind. He has a Doctor of Philosophy degree and an Advanced Master of Divinity degree from Southern Seminary, a Master of Arts degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., and a Bachelor of Science degree from Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, Institute for Biblical Research and Society of Biblical Literature.
Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kent., May 2005; M.Div., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, May 2000; M.A., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Chicago, Ill., May 1997; B.S., Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., May 1986