“The Gods are testing you.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that statement. Though more frequently, I’m told “God” or “Goddess” or “the Universe” is testing me – I don’t hear the testing claim from polytheists very often. Any time I’ve gone through a long difficult stage in my life, someone has told me it’s a test that I have to pass before I can move on to whatever comes next. Sometimes I’m told that whatever is wrong is going to stay wrong until I learn some great cosmic lesson.
Interestingly, I’ve never had someone who’s going through a hard time smile and say “it’s OK – it’s just a test. I just have to learn what They want me to learn and everything will be fine.” If what someone else is experiencing is a test then it’s just for them – I can convince myself it won’t happen to me. I can also convince myself it’s all for their own good and so I have no obligation to help them.
We humans have a strong desire to find meaning in suffering. I addressed this a couple years ago: while suffering can be educational and transformative, it is never redemptive, and mainly it just is. As the Facebook meme says, everything happens for a reason – the reason is that you’re stupid and make bad decisions. I would substitute “stubborn” for “stupid” – very smart people occasionally do very dumb things, myself included. A lot of suffering is simply bad luck – life is far more random than we like to think.
The stories of our ancestors tell us of small tests, such as Odin disguising Himself as a lowly traveler to test the hospitality of various people. And they tell of great ordeals, such as the Twelve Labors of Herakles. But “tests” and “lessons” that drag out for months and years? That’s just ordinary life with ordinary suffering that must either be remedied or transcended.
Three times in the past week I’ve heard a story of someone who went through a long difficult period in their life and came out much better for it. They concluded that this was a test from the Gods, and they passed.
Is that correct? Were the Gods or a God testing them? What they experienced – hardship, struggle, pain – is a matter of fact. That they learned something helpful is also a matter of fact. Whether a God or Gods were involved is a matter of interpretation that’s impossible to verify objectively.
Maybe the Gods really were testing them. The fact that we can’t be sure They were doesn’t mean we can be sure They weren’t. The Christian God is not the only one who works in mysterious ways.
The period from mid 2009 through early 2011 could easily have been a test for me. My paying job got very stressful. I started the blog and struggled with it. I was finishing my OBOD coursework and had no idea what to do next. I kept up my public and private spiritual practices but with a few exceptions they brought only momentary relief. I was in a bad place and I couldn’t see any way forward. I never prayed the very dangerous prayer “I’ll give you anything if only you’ll fix this!” but I made it clear I was open to pretty much any opportunity for growth and service.
Meanwhile, in the back of my head I wondered if my “Pagan thing” was over and I needed to go do something else instead.
I stayed with my practice. In 2011 I contacted Thorn Coyle and engaged her services as a spiritual director. That got me off my spiritual plateau and moving forward again. And the mundane stress returned to normal, manageable levels.
Was this a string of coincidences or a test that I passed? Honestly, I don’t know. None of the deities I work with have ever said it was, either in UPG or in divination. And I don’t believe “the Universe” makes plans for individuals. But in retrospect it sure looks like a test.
There are several reasons why tests – as they’re commonly experienced and described – can be a good thing.
Tests can confirm your commitment to the Gods. My experience with the Gods – or at least, with the handful I’m familiar with – has been very straightforward. They ask people They think can help Them to do the things They want done. Show you can handle that and They’ll keep giving you more. Tell them “no” and They’ll move on to someone else. Tell them “yes” and then don’t keep your word and things will get unpleasant. But in all this, I’ve never been told “first prove you’re worthy.”
On the other hand, it’s been helpful to prove my commitment to the Gods to myself. I know They’re important to me and will continue to be important to me. So I can make long-term plans based on that commitment and be confident I’m not going to regret it five years down the road.
Tests can remind you of your true priorities. I began my professional career with the idea that I’d become a corporate executive. When I got a taste of what all that requires (short answer: a 24/7 obsession with your job) I figured out that wasn’t my true calling.
Lots of people want to be Pagan priests. A lot fewer want to do all the hard and unglamorous work that being a priest entails. Even fewer want to do it day after day, season after season, year after year. And that’s OK – our Pagan and polytheist religions need to have a place for people at all levels of interest and commitment. But if the reality of priestly work isn’t something you want to do, you’re better off realizing that sooner rather than later.
Tests can clear the deck for something new to come in. Feeling overwhelmed? Perhaps you need to cut back from five or six major commitments to one or two. Feeling drained? Maybe you need to remove some unhealthy people from your life so you’ll have the energy you need for your next project.
Tests can force you to learn new skills you’ll need further down the road. Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s also the mother of learning. The need to lead rituals forced me to learn public speaking. The need to get spiritual direction helped me learn how to provide spiritual direction. The need to keep writing helped me learn to be a better writer. Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury said “everyone’s first million words are crap” – the sooner you can get through those million words of crap the sooner you can start writing good stuff (go read some of my posts from 2008 if you don’t believe me).
Perhaps the greatest skill these tests teach is perseverance, the willingness and ability to keep going even when things get difficult… because sooner or later, everything gets difficult.
You don’t get to tell someone else “the Gods are testing you”! In your search to understand a painful time in your life, you may come to the conclusion that this is a test and that if you can just get through it (or over it, or under it, or around it) things may not be wonderful but they’ll be better. You may realize you have family obligations that prevent you from doing everything you want to do but you can still study and learn and be ready when your obligations are less constricting. You may come to some other positive interpretation that helps you get through a difficult time. This is a good thing.
You cannot jump to this conclusion for someone else. It’s their life – they have to find their own interpretation. Even if they’re your closest friend – and especially if they aren’t – you don’t know all the details of their situation. Telling someone “the divine beings you love and trust are doing this to you for reasons unknown” is not going to a be helpful comment.
Just listen to them. Don’t listen to offer advice, unless they ask for it. Some people get mad when you offer unsolicited advice. I don’t object to it, but I very rarely pay much attention to it. Instead, listen to hear how you can help. Most people won’t ask for help, even if you say “just let me know if I can do anything” – even if you mean it. If in doubt, the old Southern tradition of coming over and bringing food is still a good one.
So, do the Gods test people? I still don’t know. The Gods have many virtues – transparency is not one of them. We often look for meaning where none exists. Some suffering is random, some is due to other people behaving badly, and some is our own damn fault.
Yet I cannot deny that I’ve been through long difficult periods in my life where I came through better than I was before. There very well may have been a divine purpose behind it, or behind some of it. No experience is a total loss, if we can learn from it.