I don’t know anyone who hasn’t grappled with temptation. To start we need to consider the text.
James 1:13-16 “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.”
James tackled the subject of temptation by helping us understand where temptation comes from. He did so by defying any who might think that temptation comes directly from God. That, James explained, is impossible for the simple reason that God has no inclination to do evil, nor does “He Himself tempt anyone.”
Let’s stop here for a moment. You may remember I suggested that James gives us bits of information like Power Point bullets. This is an example of that. The point is true, but it benefits from some elaboration. God and evil do not have the kind of relationship that we have with it. The very definition of evil is that which is against God. So God cannot be against Himself. That’s why James is so clear that God cannot be tempted to do what is contrary to His own character or purposes, nor does He try to influence us to act against Him. Indeed, much of the Bible is devoted to helping us see who God is and encouraging us to align ourselves with Him.
However, though evil holds no attraction for God, it does for us. Even Christians retain a human rebellious streak which leaves room for us to find evil very appealing. Tainted, as we are, with a grandiose opinion of ourselves, we are inclined to use any means possible to get an advantage, to experience pleasure, to find comfort. If that means rebelling against God, so be it. That’s us, but it’s not God.
God gains nothing through our rebelliousness, so He would never do anything to encourage us in it. That said, did you notice that James clearly stated regarding God that “He Himself” does not tempt anyone. Sin and the inclination to sin is part of us, so temptation is a real part of our lives. While this is not part of God’s direct plan for us, He does not hesitate to use temptation for our benefit.
He does this by using our response to temptation to show us things about ourselves which is an important factor in our spiritual growth. God doesn’t need to be active in this regard, we are surrounded by plenty of temptation without God adding anything directly. Let’s shift our attention to an illustration. Metals are often stress tested to determine their specific qualities before being used in practical application. You can see videos of this process on the web. In one I watched, a sample of the metal to be tested was placed in a machine which increased pressure on it until it broke.
Computer security systems are tested by having experts attempt to defeat them. Testing is also used in medical settings. The patient is carefully monitored and subjected to physical stress on a treadmill. His or her physical responses to the exertion tell the doctors about the health of the heart or lungs.
Every day, our character is tested in a variety of ways. Will we eat responsibly? Will we drive safely? Will we keep our promises? Will we do our work diligently? Will we care for others? And on and on it goes. Every once in a while, we have a specific test, we notice that someone has dropped an amount of money as she is leaving the bank. Do we keep it or chase her down? Does the amount make a difference?
Then there are tests of character that come through illness or accidents. Do we respond with bitterness or joy? When we lose a job do we look for someone to blame or look for what God has for us to do next?
God doesn’t tempt us to do evil. As fallen people living in a fallen world, we are surrounded by opportunities to sin. God uses our responses to temptation to provide us with insight into our character.
So, then, if God is not responsible for temptation, where does it come from. James took considerable pains to make this clear for his readers. He laid it out in a logical sequence beginning in verse 14. First of all temptation occurs when we are motivated by our own desires. That desire is like an egg cell that gets fertilized by opportunity and begins to grow. Eventually, just like a baby, when it gets to a certain size it is delivered. But in this case it is a sinful act which is born. Once that sin is out in the open and acted upon, it continues to develop. Finally, when the sin is full-grown it produces death — it kills us. James ends his philosophical argument with a word of caution: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.” Let’s go back and consider the sequence carefully. It all starts with desire. That desire in itself may not be bad. It becomes bad when we begin to entertain thoughts about satisfying it outside of the boundaries God gives us in His word. Eating is not bad, but abusing our bodies with too much or too little food is. Sex is not bad, but engaging sexually outside of marriage is. Owning things is not bad, but stealing them from others is. Having money is not bad, but hoarding it for ourselves when others are cold and hungry is. I’m sure you can think of other examples.
So it all begins with a desire which is morally neutral. Then along comes an opportunity to satisfy it in a way which is clearly outside of God’s standards and purposes. Our minds instantly go to work. You know how this happens. Either you quickly decide that you are not even going to consider this, or you begin to fantasize about it. You turn your mind over to contemplating what you would do with it now, how you could arrange to get it, how you could convince the other person to cooperate, how you could get away with it. Little by little it turns into an obsession, then you give in.
Now you might think that giving in would be the end of it, but no sin ever satisfied anyone. Once you’ve given birth to that sin (as James puts it) you can’t prevent it from growing. So you do it again, and again, and again. Soon, you can’t stop. It affects your thinking, your relationships, your health. None of that matters now. You have set your course against God and there is no way, outside of His help, for you to turn it around.
Eventually, this sin will end in death — in some cases premature physical death, but in every case, spiritual death — estrangement from God. To those who would like to argue about this, all I can do is remind you of what James said: “Do not be deceived.” You did not invent this system, but you are subject to it. You cannot avoid it outside of the mercy and grace of God.
When we admit to ourselves and to God that we are trapped, and ask Him to intervene, He does. He reminds us that our sin was defeated when Jesus died on the cross. The hold that we have given it over our lives can be broken. Since God has erased the charge of that sin from our account, we are no longer obliged to continue in the process and pay for it. This is great news for someone today! Hey! It’s great news for all of us today!
It’s time to move on,let’s read James 1:17 and 18,
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.”
I love the way James switches from the negative to the positive here. He had been talking about sin, and its inevitable progression toward its deadly consequences. Then, he suddenly starts talking about God’s gifts. Good gifts. Perfect gifts. These are gifts that bless us, benefit others and honour God. Then, almost instantly, he shifts his attention from the gifts to the giver.
He calls God the Father of lights. This is worth thinking about for a moment. Think of God as the physical sun that shines out in every direction. James says there is no variation in God’s shining out. There is no shadow caused by turning. You see, God is like the sun in that He is the source of light. He is not like the moon. The moon is just a reflector of the light of the sun, consequently, it has a bright side and a dark side. God is not like the earth spinning on its axis so that the light and dark places on earth are constantly changing. God is active, to be sure, but His character, His qualities, and His purposes never change. There is no light and dark with Him. God is only light.
Let me interrupt myself for a moment here, because I’ve been challenged about that point before. How can I say God is only light when we read such sweeping acts of judgment in the Old Testament? To that question I would say this. Judgment is not some dark side of God which is only revealed at times. It is part of His brilliant light. Often the people who ask this question are engaged in dark activities and refuse to abandon them. Rather than confessing them for what they are, they charge God with evil.
But God is only good. He is only light. He is all love and all holy. When evil breaks out, His light consumes it, removes it, and cleanses everything. We happen to be living in a time of God’s grace — a time in which He is patiently inviting people to abandon their personal darkness, their evil, and to turn to Him, the Father of Lights. As they do so, they become light themselves. Only those who remain in darkness will be overtaken by God’s light in the end.
Listen to what Jesus said about this:
John 3:17-21 “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.
The problem is not that God is evil. The problem is that humans are evil and refuse God’s invitation to come to the light. God is not looking for people to judge. He’s looking for people who want to be saved from judgment. We’re already condemned people. The ship is sinking. We’re going down. God is offering us a lifeboat — believe in Jesus, come to the Light.”
Let’s return to James 1 for the last verse we’ll look at today. Here it is again, verse 18 “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” Notice that this verse reminds us of God’s will to bring us forth by the word of truth. Just as sin is born in our lives and results in death, the word of truth in us results in life. I know there is a lot of concern over black and white statements these days. We all would prefer to live with our preferred shade of grey, but we can’t avoid the polar opposites here. Either sin is at work in us, slowly but effectively killing us, or truth is at work in us, slowly but surely making our life to abound until the day when we awake in God’s presence.
God doesn’t offer us the option of settling for something in between. It will be one or the other. Which one is up to us.