Question: "What does it mean to test God?"
Answer: In the Bible, there are examples of both an acceptable and unacceptable kind of testing God. It’s acceptable to “test” God in regard to tithes and offerings, for example, but unacceptable when the test is rooted in doubt.
Malachi 3:10 says, “‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.’” This is the only situation given in the Bible in which God tells His people to “test” Him. Interestingly, the Hebrew word used for “test” in this verse is bachan, which means “to examine, scrutinize, or prove (as in gold, persons, or the heart).” Just as gold is “tested” with fire to prove its quality, God invites Israel to test Him in tithes and offerings and see that He proves His faithfulness in response.
There is another Hebrew word for “test” used elsewhere in the Bible. Nacah means “to put to the test, try, or tempt.” It is used in Deuteronomy 6:16, where God commands Israel to not test Him: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.”
This second, unacceptable kind of testing is when doubt leads us to demand something of God to prove Himself to us. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:16 in the wilderness, in response to one of Satan’s temptations. “The devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”’” (Matthew 4:7—10). Essentially, the devil was telling Jesus to “prove” God’s Word was true by forcing God’s hand—if Jesus was in peril, God would have to save Him. Jesus refused to test God in such a way. We are to accept God’s Word by faith, without requiring a sign (see Luke 11:29). God’s promises are there for us when we need them; to manipulate situations in an attempt to coerce God into fulfilling His promises is evil.
The occasion where the Israelites tested God at Massah is found in Exodus 17. As God was leading Moses and His people toward the Promised Land, they camped at a place where there was no water. The Israelites’ immediate reaction was to grumble against God and quarrel with Moses (Exodus 17:1–3). Their lack of trust in God to take care of them is evident in their accusations toward Moses: “They said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?’” (Exodus 17:3). The Israelites were obviously in a situation where they needed God to intervene. The point at which they tested God, though, is when doubt and fear overtook them and they came to the conclusion that God had abandoned them (see Exodus 17:7). They questioned God’s reliability because He was not meeting their expectations.
The difference between these two kinds of testing God is faith. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and the assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). The Israelites at Massah tested God because they lacked faith in Him. The Israelites in Malachi’s day were invited to test God because they had faith in Him.
Faith, by definition, takes risk. When true faith is present, obedience follows. It is that faith-inspired action of obedience that God loves. As seen in the example of Israel’s tithes and offerings, when we give out of our faith in who God is (faithful), He proves Himself to be just that. By contrast, when we view God through our doubt and demand something of Him as a way of determining whether or not He can be trusted, we’re in danger of testing God (see Mark 8:11–12).