Tests in school used to set my stomach on fire. When I began college at age 39, my synapses weren't firing as quickly as they once had, and so I feared exams even more. But in time I came to view tests as gauges of whether I had learned what I was supposed to know or not, rather than as the sadistic inventions of deranged educators.
In our personal lives we may sometimes view tests and trials as ordeals to be endured by gritting our teeth and calling the prayer chain, rather than seeing them as opportunities to measure our spiritual growth and our understanding of who God is. The reality is that tests are painful! And we don't like pain.
Preparation, Not Cramming
Esther, that Old-Testament paragon of beauty, seemed to have sailed through her tests like a Bermuda sloop designed for upwind sailing. But did this young woman in fifth-century-B.C. Persia score an A+ easily?
Orphaned at an early age, Esther grew up under the tutelage of her cousin Mordecai. Their family had been taken captive by Babylon when Jerusalem was ransacked—now Esther and Mordecai lived among other Jews in exile under the rule of Persia (present-day Iran).
Scripture doesn't indicate whether there was a Mrs. Mordecai or any other female influence in Esther's life as she grew up. Yet by God's grace, Mordecai taught Esther well and she developed a beautiful spirit, enhancing her pretty face and great figure. Looming tests in Esther's future would soon measure what she had learned about how far she could trust God and what she was willing to risk in order to stand up for what's right.
King of Showoffs
Here's the setup: In the lush palace gardens in Susa, Persia's King Xerxes threw lavish, marathon banquets to show off his incredible opulence and power. Meanwhile, Queen Vashti invited all area women to a girls-night-out-with-the-queen banquet of her own inside the elegant palace.
Xerxes—more than a little tipsy—decided to show off his trophy-wife queen and demanded that she leave her banquet to walk the catwalk before the guests at his.
Fast forward: Vashti refused. Xerxes was furious. Advisors said, "You can't let Vashti get away with this! We'll all lose control of our women." Vashti lost her crown and was banished. Xerxes got depressed without his queen. His young male attendants' solution? Let's get some girls in here. Have a beauty pageant. Get a new queen!
So the call went out for the most beautiful virgins in the land to participate in a beauty contest. Esther, along with other unmarried women, got carted off to the king's winter palace in Susa.
Most of us would gladly suffer through this test of Esther's: a one-year all-expense-paid spa-cation, complete with fragrant oil massages and makeup makeovers. But Scripture implies that this wasn't a voluntary contest; these young women were subjects of their king, likely with little say about their selection. Imagine Esther's apprehension as time ticked down to her queen audition: sleeping with the wine-loving, anger-prone, demanding, super-powerful, King Xerxes! What kind of faith in God did it take for Esther to cross the threshold of his bedchamber that night?
And after she was chosen to be queen, what kind of fear must have gripped her heart when she learned that Xerxes' right-hand man, Haman, planned to kill her people, the Jews, because her cousin Mordecai refused to bow before him (a la Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego)? Would God give her the strength to do what was right regardless of the consequences? Remember, she knew what had happened to Vashti when she defied the king!
In her culture, initiating an audience with the king could mean death. And Esther knew that admitting her Jewish heritage—in light of Haman's planned genocide—would certainly invite her own assassination. But Mordecai told her, "If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14).
Esther craved wisdom and courage beyond herself. So she asked Mordecai to gather together all her people in Susa for a three-day fast before she approached the king.
Since the Persian royals loved banquets so much, Esther took that tack: Feed the king—and his sidekick, Haman—and when they're happily full, plead for the lives of her people.
But why did Esther give two banquets for the king and Haman? Was she cunning? Building anticipation? Or is it possible that she was terrified and couldn't muster the courage the first time around to confront her enemy—and the dire future of her people?
We don't know for certain what motivated Esther, but she likely did experience fear just like any of us would. Fear is a natural emotion. We can choose whether to fight or flee when we face fear-inducing tests—when relationships fall apart, when we get frightening lab results, when our financial situation gets scary, when depression grips us in its vice.
How will we fare in these tests? If we fight, how do we battle? Do we try to wrestle with it on our own or in God's strength? And if we run, to whom do we run first? And where do we get the strength to keep our legs moving beneath us?
Like Esther, we can also find ourselves squirming under tests of character—challenges to stand up for what's right and confront wrong in our families, jobs, churches, government, and world. It's not easy being the only one willing to confront ungodly behavior or stand up for injustice. "Speak up," God says, "defend the rights of the poor and needy" (Proverbs 31:9, NIV). God challenges us to be people who stand up for those who've been wronged.
When we try to get involved, it will cost us time we don't think we have in our already too-busy lives. It may cost us friendships with people who don't understand our calling. It may even cost us ministry opportunities if we get blackballed for obeying a prompting from God to speak truth.
So we can relate to Esther: to her passion to do what's right, her fears, her longing for God's wisdom, and her cry for others to stand with her. After much wrestling within herself and with God, she was able to say, essentially, "I will do what needs to be done and stand up for what's right, regardless of the consequences" (see Esther 4:15-16).
Esther courageously risked her life and saved her people. She had learned what she needed to know. And Haman was executed on the stake he'd built for Mordecai—an irony bearing the fingerprints of our invisible God.
Esther passed her tests. Are we learning what God has intended with ours?
Joyce K. Ellis, author of more than a dozen books, including The 500 Hats of a Modern-Day Woman, writes from her home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and speaks for women's groups across the country. www.joycekellis.com.