The mature person is patient in trials. Sometimes the trials may be tests sent by God or they may be temptations sent by Satan, and encouraged by our own fallen nature. If we are not careful the testings on the outside may become temptations on the inside. It is this second aspect of trials—temptations on the inside—that James deals with in this section.
When our circumstances are difficult, we may find ourselves complaining against God, questioning His love, and resisting His will. At this point, Satan provides us with an opportunity to escape the difficulty. This opportunity is a temptation.
There are many illustrations of this truth found in the Bible. Abraham arrived in Canaan and discovered a famine there. He was not able to care for his flocks and herds. This trial was an opportunity to prove his devotion to God; but Abraham turned it into a temptation and went down to Egypt. God had to chasten Abraham to bring him back to the place of obedience and blessing.
While Israel was wandering in the wilderness the nation often turned testings into temptations. As soon as they had been delivered from Egyptian oppression, their water supply vanished and they had to march for three days without water. When they did find water, it was so bitter they could not drink it. Immediately, they began to murmur and blame God. They turned their testing into a temptation and they failed.
Temptations come from evil desires within us, not from God. It begins with an evil thought and becomes sin when we dwell on the thought and allow it to become an action. Like a snowball rolling downhill, sin grows more destructive the more we let it have its way. The best time to stop a temptation is before it is too strong or moving too fast to control.
Certainly, God does not want us yielding to temptation, yet neither can He spare us the experience of temptation. We are not God’s sheltered people; we are God’s scattered people. If we are to mature, we must face testings and temptations.
There are three facts we must consider if we are to overcome temptation.
God’s Judgment (James 1:13–16)
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters.
This is a negative approach, but it is an important one. James said, “Look ahead and see where sin ends—death!” Do not blame God for temptation. He is too holy to be tempted and He is too loving to tempt others. God does test us, as He did Abraham (Gen. 22); but He does not and cannot tempt us. It is we who turn occasions of testing into temptations.
People who live for God often wonder why they still have temptations. Does God tempt them? God tests people, but He does not tempt them by trying to seduce them to sin. God allows Satan to tempt people in order to refine their faith and to help them grow in their dependence on Christ.
A temptation is an opportunity to accomplish a good thing in a bad way, out of the will of God. It is not wrong to want to pass an examination; but if I cheat to pass, then I have sinned. The temptation to cheat is an opportunity to accomplish a good thing (passing the exam) in a bad way. It is not wrong to eat; but if you consider stealing the food, you are tempting yourself.
We think of sin as a single act, but God sees it as a process. Adam committed one act of sin, yet that one act brought sin, death, and judgment on the whole human race. James describes this process of sin in four stages:
Desire (v. 14). The word lust means any kind of desire and not necessarily sexual passions. The normal desires of life are given to us by God and, of themselves, are not sinful. Without these desires, we could not function. Unless we felt hunger and thirst, we would never eat and drink, and we would die. Without fatigue the body would never rest and would eventually wear out. Sex is a normal desire; without it the human race could not continue.
It is when we want to satisfy these desires in ways outside God’s will that we get into trouble. Eating is normal; gluttony is sin. Sleep is normal; laziness is sin. Some people try to become “spiritual” by denying these normal desires or by seeking to suppress them; but this only makes them less than human. These fundamental desires of life are the steam in the boiler that makes the machinery go. Turn off the steam and you have no power. Let the steam go its own way and you have destruction. The secret is in constant control. These desires must be our servants and not our masters; and this we can do through Jesus Christ.
Deception (v. 14). No temptation appears as temptation; it always seems more alluring than it really is. James used two illustrations from the world of sports to prove his point. Dragged away carries with it the idea of baiting a trap; enticed in the original Greek means “to bait a hook.” The hunter and the fisherman have to use bait to attract and catch their prey. No animal is deliberately going to step into a trap and no fish will knowingly bite at a naked hook. The idea is to hide the trap and the hook.
Temptation always carries with it some bait that appeals to our natural desires. The bait not only attracts us, but it also hides the fact that yielding to the desire will eventually bring sorrow and punishment. It is the bait that is the exciting thing. Lot would never have moved toward Sodom had he not seen the “well-watered plains of Jordan” (Gen. 13:10). When David looked on his neighbor’s wife, he would never have committed adultery had he seen the tragic consequences: the death of a baby (Bathsheba’s son), the murder of a brave soldier (Uriah), the violation of a daughter (Tamar). The bait keeps us from seeing the consequences of sin.
When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13), He always dealt with the temptation on the basis of the Word of God. Three times He said, “It is written.” From the human point of view, turning stones into bread to satisfy hunger is a sensible thing to do; but not from God’s point of view. When you know the Bible, you can detect the bait and deal with it decisively. This is what it means to walk by faith and not by sight.
Disobedience (v. 15). We are moving from the emotions (desire) and the intellect (deception) to the will. James changes the picture from hunting and fishing to the birth of a baby. Desire conceives a method for taking the bait. The will approves and acts; and the result is sin. Whether we feel it or not, we are hooked and trapped. The baby is born and just wait until it matures!
Christian living is a matter of the will, not the feelings. I often hear believers say, “I don’t feel like reading the Bible.” Or, “I don’t feel like attending prayer meeting.” Children operate on the basis of feeling, but mature adults operate on the basis of will. They act because it is right, no matter how they feel (see Perseverance Produces Character). This explains why immature Christians easily fall into temptation: they let their feelings make the decisions. The more you exercise your will in saying a decisive “no” to temptation the more God will take control of your life: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose” (Phil. 2:13).
Death (v. 15). Disobedience gives birth to death, not life. It may take years for the sin to mature, but when it does the result will be death. If we will only believe God’s Word and see this final tragedy, it will encourage us not to yield to temptation. God has erected this barrier because He loves us. “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” declares the Sovereign Lord. “Am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek. 18:23).
These four stages in temptation and sin are perfectly depicted in the first sin recorded in the Bible (Genesis 3). The serpent used desire to interest Eve: “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v. 5). Eve saw “the tree was good” (v. 6) and her desire was aroused. This desire led to sin.
Paul described the deception of Eve in 2 Corinthians 11:3. “I am afraid just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” Satan is the deceiver and he seeks to deceive the mind. The bait he used with Eve was the fact the forbidden tree was good and pleasant, and eating of it would make her wise. She saw the bait, but forgot the Lord’s warning: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil… or you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17).
Eve disobeyed God by taking fruit from the tree and eating it. Then, she shared it with her husband and he disobeyed God as well. Adam was not deceived, but sinned with his eyes wide open. For this reason, it is his sin that plunged the human race into tragedy (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Tim. 2:12–15).
Both Adam and Eve experienced immediate spiritual death (separation from God) and ultimate physical death. All men die because of Adam (1 Cor. 15:21–22). The person who dies without Jesus Christ will experience eternal death in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11–15).
Whenever you are faced with temptation get your eyes off the bait and look ahead to see the consequences of sin: the judgment of God. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
The first fact we must consider if we are to overcome temptation is God’s judgment.
In Part 2, we will look at two more facts we must consider if we are to overcome temptation.
1. What is the difference between tests sent by God and temptations sent by Satan?
2. What temptations are you facing at the moment? Name some steps you can take to ward off temptation.
3. What can we as Christians do to increase our awareness of the depravity of sin?