Several years ago, a popular Christian magazine conducted a survey of its readers, asking them to rank the areas of greatest spiritual challenge. The top 5 answers were materialism, pride, self-centeredness, laziness, and (tie) anger/bitterness and sexual lust. The respondents also noted that temptations are stronger when they had neglected their time with God (four out of five) and when they were physically tired (more than half).
There isn’t a day that goes by that we are not tempted in some way. Temptation comes in many forms. We are tempted not to tell the truth, to take something that does not belong to us, to take advantage of someone, to gossip, to hold a grudge, to feel superior and look down on others, or to give in to that part of us that constantly wants more money and things.
So how do you handle temptations? Do you struggle a little. Do you struggle a lot? The good news is that the Bible tells us it is possible to resist temptation.
In the first message in our series in James we learned that we are to count it all joy when we fall into trials. It is not difficult to see a connection between adversity and temptation. In the midst of adversity, we may be tempted to think or act in a sinful manner. Many people wrongly conclude that times of stress somehow justify ungodly responses. We are tempted to strike out or strike back, to feel resentment, or to respond in other ways that are harmful to us or to others.
James deals with temptation in James 1:12-19. Interpreting this passage is made difficult by the fact that the word for trials (verse 2) and temptations (verses 12-18.) is the same word in Koine Greek, the original language in which James wrote this letter. But a trial is not the same experience as a temptation. The word can refer to external stresses that press us, or it can refer to internal attractions that tempt us. It is the context that determines the proper translation and application, and the context of our passage today is the matter of the temptations with which we are faced.
There is not always a connection between trials and temptations, but often the trials on the outside can become temptations on the inside. In the midst of adversity we may be tempted to think or act in a sinful manner—to respond selfishly, lash out, complain, question God’s love, and resist His will. In our trials and difficulties, Satan loves to show us the opportunity to escape the difficulty in a sinful manner, and we are tempted to take the bait. The point of the 1:1-11 is that trials can help us grow. But the point James makes in verses 12-18 is that we can recognize and respond in a righteous manner to temptations.
Temptation is inevitable and we can be victorious over it (12-13)
James presents the first truth in verse 12: it is, indeed, possible to endure temptations. The word “endure” relates back to verse 3, in which he teaches that patience or endurance results from successfully facing trials. The sense in that verse and in verse 12 is that we can experience a victorious outcome or success when facing temptation. He tells us that the person who endures temptation is blessed, because he or she has “been approved.” That term might better be understood as “passed the test” or “faced the test with success.” James further writes that the person who has faced the test with success will receive the “crown of life,” which might be better translated “the crown which is life”; that is, eternal life.
James is not saying that God tests us, but his assumption is God allows trials and temptations, and it is those trials and temptations that test us. He elaborates in the verses that follow.
James leaves no question that temptation’s assault will come. Notice in verse 14: he states “when” one is tempted,” not “if” one is tempted. As Christians, we are not exempt from temptation. The fact is, we will never be without temptation until we are with Christ. That is because as Christians we are in a spiritual battle. There are opposing forces constantly trying to draw us away from God. Even though people around us may not appear to be doing so, everyone is wrestling with temptation just like you and I are.
Verse 13 almost goes without saying. Temptation does not come from God. He does not put our favorite vice in front of us to help our endurance grow. He does not test our faith with the invitation to sin. Temptation comes from Satan, who puts some very alluring choices before us to try to attract us to the pleasures he offers.
Remember, too, that temptation itself is not a sin. The writer of Hebrews points out that Jesus Himself was tempted: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Temptation is simply the invitation to sin. We sin when we decide to accept the invitation.
There's no excuse for giving in to temptation (13-15)
By “no excuse,” I don’t mean unforgivable. I mean there just isn’t a good excuse for it, because as Christians we know about the spiritual battle that is going on and which choices are the righteous choices.
James points out that we have personal responsibility for handling temptation. We can’t blame God when we are faced with temptations, we can’t blame God or someone else when we give in. We are responsible. Temptation is not from God, and God is not the one responsible when we give into it. And yet, sometimes people point an accusing finger at God when looking for an excuse. It is true today and it was true when Solomon wrote the proverb: “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the Lord” (Proverbs 19:3).
God allows temptations, but he does not send them. He is never involved in tempting anyone to do evil.
But we have always had the tendency to want to find someone to blame. When I was growing up, a comedian named Flip Wilson was popular. He had comedy routines based on the famous line people sometimes use to excuse bad behavior: “The devil made me do it.” The point of the comedy routine was that his character tried to excuse bad choices by blaming it on the tempter. Satan is, indeed, responsible for the temptation, but not for our yielding to it.
Trying to avoid accountability for yielding to temptation is almost as old as creation itself. When Adam and Eve gave in to temptation in the Garden of Eden, and God confronted them, and asked “What have you done?,” do you remember what they said? Adam said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Notice that this is not what God asked. Adam was saying, in effect, “God, it’s her fault, and You are the one Who brought her here.” Eve then said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:13). In other words, like Flip Wilson’s signature line, “The devil made me do it.”
The truth is, we sometimes think that way, too: “I just couldn’t help it” . . . “It’s not my fault.” . . . “He made me so angry” . . . “He knows not to say something like that, because I always react that way” . . . or my own favorite, “That’s just the way I am.”
But the fact is, God puts before us righteous alternatives when we are tempted. Paul tells us in the book of 1 Corinthians: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, Who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
In verses 14 and 15, James describes the process that leads to sin. First, he writes, comes our own desires. That’s pretty clear to me. We want something we don’t have. We see a way to experience pleasure, satisfaction, or fulfillment. Temptation may involve anything—a material possession, a man or woman not our spouse, a promotion on the job, the satisfaction of vengeance, or anger that just feels righteous. Temptation can be anything that offers short-term satisfaction in an unrighteous way.
James writes in verse 14 that temptation is enticing. The term “enticing” to us might be a positive term. A new car is enticing, that outfit at Macy’s is enticing, a nice vacation can be enticing. But that is not exactly what James is communicating here. The term “enticing” he uses is a fishing term that literally means “to lure with bait.” Bait is something the fish sees as good—a satisfying meal—but it is a deception. Buried in the bait or the fishing lure is the hook. In the same way, Satan entices us with something that looks good and appeals to our desires, but buried in the promised pleasure and fulfillment can be a disaster for us.
James adds in verse 15, “Then when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; . . .” Once we let desire to sin grow strong enough, it will give birth to the act of sin. James adds to the progression: “. . . when it (sin) is full-grown, brings forth death.” Even though sin sometimes brings a temporary period of pleasure, it always leads to negative consequences, even though this may not be immediately apparent.
Now obviously we have all sinned, and God did not strike us dead that very moment. But we must not be misled about the ultimate result of sin because of God’s mercy. If we continue to sin and do not respond to God’s mercy by forsaking our sins, James says the sin “brings forth death.”
This has been a difficult verse for theologians to reconcile with the promises of the Bible that Jesus paid once and for all time for our sins. His death is our atonement for sin. Literally, sin, which is giving in to temptation to act unrighteously, made necessary Jesus’ death as our atonement. It can be a difficult concept to accept. God wants a relationship with us, but He cannot abide evil in His presence, and our sins are acts of evil. So Jesus became the atonement for our sin so that we can commune with God.
The process James describes—desire, sin, death—is the same as in Genesis 3. The desire to be like God led to the sin of Adam and Eve, and both their separation from God (spiritual death) and the institution of physical death. David longed for restoration of his relationship with God after his long period of sin with Bathsheba, which included continuing adultery as well as arranging the death of her husband. In Psalm 51:12, David prayed “Lord restore unto me the joy of my salvation,” because until he repented and turned back to God, he lived a death-like spiritual existence—no joy in the salvation God had given him.
Charles Swindoll, in his book James, Practical and Authentic Living, offers a good explanation of verse 15: “James is not referring here to physical death, for then none of us would be alive. Nor is he referring to spiritual death, for then no one could be saved. The fulfillment of our lust brings about in the believer’s life a death-like existence.” I would add, however, that James would, indeed, mean physical and spiritual death had it not been for the atonement, in which Jesus sacrificed His own life so that we might be saved and spend eternity with Him.
We should not allow ourselves to be deceived by temptation (16-18)
James tells us in verse 16: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.” In other words, don’t see a temptation as something good and rewarding. I am reminded of his earlier use of the word “entice,” the fishing term referring to the bait. Don’t be fooled by the bait of sin, he is telling us, but realize the hook is buried in it, waiting to pierce you and pull you in. Reject the temptations that you experience, because you have the ability to see evil for what it is.
That is the key: seeing evil for what it is, even though it lures us like the bait lures the fish. We need to see our world through eyes that are spiritually mature, firmly rooted in God’s truth, and then we are able to realize that the things that tempt us are evil and do not lead to any good, no matter how great they appear to be.
In verse 17, he draws a contrast with the preceding verses about temptation and what it can lead to. His point is that Satan does not give good gifts. Only God gives good gifts. Remember that James began by saying that God did not cause temptation to come to us. God is not the source of our temptation. Temptation is not a good thing. It is a bad thing. And God does not give bad things to us. Satan would like for temptation to look like a good thing. Don’t be fooled. Reject that lie outright. Every good gift comes from above, from our Father. In Him there is “no variation or shadow of turning,” that is, we judge for sure between His gifts, which are pure and good and without a doubt from Him, and Satan’s temptations, which offer fleeting pleasure and fulfillment but at a terrible price. Peter elaborates on this idea in 2 Peter 1:3: “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue.”
Finally, in verse 18 James tells us that we are different. We are born again into a new spiritual existence entirely separate from the spiritual nature of those who are not born again. The good news is that those who are born of God can resist temptation. We no longer have to be servants of sin and sinful human nature. We have the ability to see that what Satan tempts us with is a baited hook trying to separate us from the righteousness of God.
And when we waver in the face of temptation, we can fall back on the promise of 1Cor 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, Who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” And we can fall back on the promise James gives a little later in his letter: “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).