Life is full of tests and challenges. No one escapes this fact.

The deeper question is: Why? What is the purpose of all of these tests? Is there a way to prepare for them? And what is the rubric for “passing” them? The answers to these questions can be found within the very language we use to construct and consider them.

A test or trial is typically understood as a means to determine the state of development someone or something has achieved prior to taking it. This can be gleaned from the etymology of the words themselves. Test, or teste, is a Middle English word that was borrowed from Old French, which refers to “an earthen vessel, especially a pot in which metals were tried.” Similarly, the word trial is based on an Anglo-French word triet, meaning an “act or process of testing, a putting to proof by examination, experiment, etc.” In either case, the subject or object being tested was viewed with a necessary degree of doubt. The test or trial was thus administered as a way for an outside party to verify the integrity or acuity of the one being tested.

In Judaism, however, a test is not meant to assess or establish the current qualities of the one being tested; rather, it is meant to elicit and evoke the dormant strengths and unique talents that lie within!

Notably, the Torah1 tells us that G‑d tested Abraham. Our Sages2 enumerated ten Divinely orchestrated tests that Abraham encountered. The first3 was when Nimrod forced him to choose between renouncing his belief in the one Almighty G‑d or be thrown into a fiery furnace. The tenth and final test was G‑d’s instruction to bind his son Isaac on an altar.

What was the purpose behind such a series of unremitting spiritual challenges?

Along these lines, the Zohar4 asks: “If G‑d is all-knowing, why did He need to test Abraham?” Didn’t G‑d already know the outcome? The answer is that G‑d tested Abraham to provide him with an opportunity to activate the latent potentials for courage and commitment that G‑d knew already existed within him.

In other words, these ten tests were not for G‑d to see how faithful Abraham was; they were for Abraham to actualize the depths of his own spiritual potential.

Appropriately, the Hebrew word for a challenge or test, nisayon, is rooted in the word nes, which means to raise up. As the Zohar explains: “G‑d tests the righteous only to elevate them to greatness.” But for such elevation to occur, we must rise above our natural fear and aversion to challenges, which is alluded to in the related word lanus, meaning to run away.

Judaism teaches us to lean into our challenges instead of running from them, because our personal and collective trials and tribulations are designed to help us unlock hitherto untapped energies and abilities, empowering us to exceed our own expectations of our capabilities. This realization itself is an integral part of the process of unlocking the infinite potential hidden within.

Daunting as our struggles often feel, defeatist attitudes must not prevail. G‑d is never against you. In fact, according to the Jewish view, any test or trial you may experience is not an expression of G‑d’s doubt in your capacity, but of His faith in your ability.

As the Talmud5 poignantly teaches: “G‑d does not make impossible demands of his creations.” Just as it is inconceivable that loving parents would knowingly give their child a task that is beyond their abilities, G‑d, our loving Father, would not present us with a challenge that exceeds our capabilities or is not for our own good.

Accordingly, whenever a person encounters one of life’s many tests, it is actually a sign of G‑d’s trust in them and their potential.

Rather than being an expression of Divine reservation, every test in life is actually a cosmic vote of confidence.

In fact, our personal struggles can even be seen as signs of favor, for G‑d chastises those He loves.6 A test is G‑d’s way of saying: You’re ready for the next level.

Interestingly, the word nes also refers to a banner, because each person’s unique tests in life are like a badge of honor that represents their particular journey of personal growth and achievement. In other words, our struggles are what shape and form us, giving us our distinct stamp and signature based on how we respond to them.

This empowering idea is expressed in the paradoxical Talmudic statement7 : “The more righteous one is, the more powerful their inclination to evil.” This is counterintuitive. One would think that a person’s level of righteousness is determined by, and should directly correspond to, the degree to which they have managed to diminish or uproot their evil inclination. Yet, according to the Talmud, the contrary is true—the more one grows spiritually, the greater their struggle with ego and temptation becomes. This is because the more righteous one becomes, the more capable they are at overcoming ever subtler and more substantial challenges.8

In other words, serious moral and spiritual struggles are not a sign of weakness but of strength and latent potential that we might unlock and activate through our productive perseverance in the face of life’s challenges.

Significantly, another meaning of nes is miracle, implying the elevation of the supernatural over the natural. Indeed, Chasidut9 teaches that, from the Divine point of view, every test in our lives provides the exact conditions conducive for us to surpass our own “natural” limitations, thus enacting a “miracle” within our own personal sphere.

As such, no situation in life, no matter how challenging, should be seen as impossible to deal with in a constructive manner. We always have the opportunity to exercise free choice in the way we respond to any circumstance.

Every test of our faith or character is thus a potential portal of transformation for our own, as well as the ultimate good; it all depends on how we approach, process, and pass through it. As the great Chasidic master R. Nachman of Breslov famously taught10 : When you search for G‑d and encounter an obstacle, do not try to avoid it or seek to go around (or even over) it, for G‑d Himself is to be found within that very obstacle.

This perspective is deeply rooted in the concept of Divine Providence, hashgachah pratit, the belief that G‑d is in charge of our world and oversees its minutest detail with deliberate intent.

The knowledge of such a Divine design behind reality compels us to overcome our naturally instinctive feelings of fear and despair when faced with any challenge, especially one we thought we were above or beyond. Instead, it empowers us to find the hidden blessing built into every hardship.

G‑d, like our own personal trainer, is intimately aware of both our perceived limitations and our true abilities. He therefore strategically orchestrates our unique obstacle courses in order to help us access our deepest strengths and achieve our highest potentials. For, truly, each and every one of us is nothing less than a miracle in the making. Our tests and struggles in life are but the dark backdrop against which our inner light might shine.

The Big Idea

Tests and trials in life are an indication of inner strength, not weakness; they are G‑d’s way of letting us know we are ready for the next level.

It Happened Once

A traditional Jew who found himself in the grips of a spiritual struggle once visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe to discuss his religious quandary 11

He desperately wanted to live his life according to Jewish law, yet his heart was persistently leading him in a different direction.

After presenting his situation to the Rebbe, the man fell silent. He braced himself for a strong rebuke, expecting to be told in no uncertain terms how spiritually compromising his passions were.

The Rebbe, too, remained silent for a while.

“I envy you,” the Rebbe finally said. Caught off guard, the young man did not quite grasp the Rebbe’s meaning.

The Rebbe continued: “There are many ladders in life, and each person is given his or her own. The ladders present themselves as life’s challenges and difficult choices. The tests you face are the ladders that elevate you to great heights—the greater the challenge, the higher the ladder. G‑d has given you these difficult tests because He believes you can overcome them, and He has endowed you with the ability to do so. Only the strongest are presented with a ladder as challenging as yours. Don’t you see, then, why I envy you?”