In Matthew 15:21-28, we come across a disturbing exchange between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. The woman approaches Him as a mother desperate to get help for her daughter, who is “suffering terribly from demon possession” (v22). Although He knows this woman has great faith, Jesus ignores her. He won’t even acknowledge her. Instead He walks on as if she isn’t even there. Desperate for help, the woman follows, continuing her pleas until the disciples start feeling awkward. They tell Jesus:
“Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” (Matt. 15:23)
Jesus’ answer should surprise us because it is completely hypocritical:
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matt. 15:24)
For a guy claiming to be only sent to Israel, Jesus has sure been healing a lot of foreigners. He’s even praised a Roman centurion for having greater faith than all of Israel. And Who initiated a conversation with the Samaritan woman by a well? By now everyone has noticed Jesus going out of His way to help foreigners, and when He does talk about Israel, it’s usually to express frustration over her lack of faith. So why is Jesus toying with this Canaanite woman? Why is He suddenly making this phony claim that He only came to help Israelites when everyone knows that this isn’t true? The disciples don’t seem to care about His hypocrisy, they just want the woman to go away. But she doesn’t. When Jesus blows her off, she rushes in closer and kneels down at His feet.
“Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Matt. 15:25-26)
Wow. Jesus is really acting mean. He can see into the woman’s heart and knows how much faith she has, let alone how much humiliation she’s enduring from Him in this moment. Yet though He is publicly shaming and rejecting her, she still does not give up. Instead, she answers His dog comment with:
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their Master’s table.” (Matt. 15:27)
The woman is determined to get as close to Yahweh as she can, regardless of her inferior bloodlines. Maybe He does love the Jews best, but she is hanging on to the hope that He will accept her as well. Even though Jewish Jesus is being difficult, she is putting her faith in Yahweh’s Character and refusing to budge from her belief that she also has the right to call Yahweh her Master. Now Jesus finally stops His little game and says:
“Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matt. 15:28)
Whew. We’re relieved to see Jesus finally acting nice again, but why did He put that poor woman through all this? He did it for the same reason that He stonewalls His devoted followers today: to strengthen her confidence and deepen her trust.
If I rig you a parachute, you might sincerely trust that I did the job right when you strap the pack on your back. But when you jump out of a plane, you start trusting me on a whole new level. Trust grows through testing. It gets stronger by being challenged with doubts. This is why God puts us through such horrifying experiences with Him—this is why He plunges us into those “dark nights of the soul” and cuts us off from all sensual awareness of His Presence.
We all know what we mean when we ask God to draw near to us—we want some strong sense of His Presence that our souls can detect and be comforted by. But just as God can come near, He can also withdraw—replacing that detectable sense of His Presence with a chilling void. Even though He is technically still with us, He can overwhelm us with spiritual readings that make it seem as though He is in a different universe. He often pulls such stunts on those who are fully committed to Him—not so much on those who really don’t care. At first it seems terribly cruel and unfair of Him to put His most loyal followers through such traumatic experiences. We can’t help but fear that God has changed His mind about us and that He is trying to drive us away from Himself. We feel the sting of rejection in His silence, just as this Canaanite woman heard rejection in Jesus’ cold reply to her. But God’s real purpose in testing us like this is not to discourage us, nor is it to prove our loyalty, for He already knows our hearts. Instead He tests us like a metal worker who liquefies gold in order to drain out its impurities: His goal is to strengthen our bond with Him. When we find ourselves clinging to the truth that God loves us even when He acts like He does not, we end up believing it on a deeper level. When we cling to the idea that He will never cast us aside even when it feels like He has, we end up trusting Him even more. By going through periods of wrestling with intense doubt and deep insecurities, we end up unshakably secure and confident in our relationship with God.
It’s clear that the Canaanite woman’s faith had already undergone some testing before she ever met Jesus because she was ready to fight when He came at her with resistance. Being the mother of a demon possessed girl is no picnic. No doubt she’d prayed many desperate prayers to Yahweh and struggled to believe that He had a good purpose for all the torment He was allowing. Obviously the trials Yahweh had put her through before this point had accomplished their good purpose for this woman was convinced that God was on her side and would not accept Him telling her otherwise. When Jesus tried to leave, she came after Him, verbalizing the truth she was clinging to inside: Yahweh was her Master, too. She belonged with Him every bit as much as the Jews did and she could march right up to His Servant with her requests. Jesus was thrilled, of course, and He wanted everyone standing with Him to learn from this woman’s excellent example. Yahweh does indeed love us all, and those who are willing to endure His refinement will have more of Him than they ever imagined possible.