March 24, 2016By Brittnee Taylor Newman
It’s been ages since I was a student, but I still distinctly remember taking tests. I remember the linen feel of a scantron sheet in my fingers, the scratch-scratch whisper of pencil against paper. Trace the outer edges of the bubble; fill it in full, shiny and gray. Scribble in the essay answer, quick to jot down the facts, dates and names before they slip through the cracks of your memory. One section at a time: slow enough not to make a mistake, quick enough that none of the details pinned to my short-term memory are lost.
Answers to tests are memorized long before they’re asked of us. Before a game, a star athlete takes thousands of reps, memorizing the trajectory of the ball in his pitch, or the angle of her hips during the swing of her racket. The ultimate test comes during the game, when reflex overtakes response. Likewise, a medical student will memorize and practice an application over and over. When the test arrives, and the studied surgeon finds himself under the glaring lights of the operating room, he will react from reflexes honed during the hundreds of hours of study and practice.
Life is often quite a bit like those tests, except that the test questions disrupt the normalcy of our every day, announcing themselves with the startling audacity of “what if”:
“What if I take this new job, but then I hate it?”
“What if I never meet anyone else like him again?”
“What if all of my biggest accomplishments are behind me?”
“What if I can’t get out of debt? Finish school? Get past this addiction?”
Questions. Large, looming and exacting in their measurement of perfection. You know the answer or you don’t. You’re right, or you’re painfully wrong.
We’re familiar with the feeling that arises at not knowing the answer during an exam. The moment of panic, the quickening heartbeat, the circular, chasing tumble of thoughts in the head like clothes in the dryer. “Quick, before the silence becomes too loud, grab hold of it again. The answer was just there…”
Our performance on life’s tests depends on two things: how prepared we are for a test to pop up in the first place, and how prepared we are to answer the questions. Are we well-studied, with a sharpened pencil in hand? Have we spent time preparing and memorizing the things we will inevitably be quizzed on?
Memorization. There is a difference between having heard the answer and knowing the answer. You may read in Psalms that God counts your tears. If you don’t know it to be true with indestructible certainty, the test of a broken heart will be enough to make you question his plan. You may understand the idea God promises the future you hope for, but if you don’t know you’ll let a deterred dream derail your entire journey.
If memorization is the method that prepares us to answer the questions, faith is the pencil which puts the pronouncement of your belief on permanent record.
Tests will come, and when they arrive, reflex will overpower response. If you merely read the answers beforehand, panic and doubt will cause you to forget what you read under pressure. You’ll grasp at any solution found within doubt’s short-armed reach. It’s how Abraham ended up with Hagar; why Peter was surprised to hear his own lips denying Jesus. It’s all lip service until the test.
A year ago, I found myself in a string of tests. Staring down a could-have-been dream, a why-me question, and a nagging “God has forgotten me” doubt, I failed a test. In a fit of self-pity, with a broken heart in hand, I furiously demanded answers from a quietly patient God. Then I realized the truth.
God hadn’t forgotten me. I had forgotten his promises to me.
I wasn’t prepared for the test. I didn’t show up studied, with pencils and faith in hand. Instead, I showed up having heard the answers, but not believing them. And when the panic of unpreparedness set in, fear and doubt took over and I blamed God.
They’re funny things, broken hearts and sharp lead pencils. The former births nothing but questions; the latter comes only to publicize the answers. And while questions tell us to quit, faith-based answers give us confidence, a jumping-off point, and wings.
I know two things to be true at this juncture: I still don’t like taking tests, but I don’t mind them near as much when I’ve studied for them.