Spiritual Discipline Series
This year, Expository Files will features 12 articles on Spiritual Disciplines For Every Christian. Our writers will convey to us from the Bible, the simple disciplines that need our attention, to please God and be effective, disciplined people.
By “spiritual discipline” we mean those things God has given us to do. When done consistently, we not only glorify God and serve others well, we build discipline and long-term strength into our lives.
To resist temptation, one needs to better understand its nature. Human beings are the creation of God, and we each are given by our Creator the ability to make free moral choices. It is because of free will that there is temptation at all. The human will plays an integral part in the course our lives take, good or bad. It is my own individual will, shaped, by my heart, by which I will be successful at resisting temptation. The first step in resisting temptation is to be willing to obey the Father. If I am willing to do the will of God, my outlook, priorities and perceptions will develop toward that goal. Jesus said “If any man is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself.” (John 7:15).
To learn about resisting temptation, how can one do better than to look at Jesus? The Hebrew writer suggested that we “fix our eyes” upon Jesus as we run our race. But is that being fair to us when dealing with temptation? He is God, the Son, incarnate. Did Jesus have some kind of unfair advantage that made it easier for Him to resist temptation? James confirms that it is impossible to tempt God with evil: “Let no one say when he is tempted, " ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” (James 1:12). And yet, the Hebrew writer affirms that there is nothing in the temptations that we face that Jesus did not face as well. “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16 ).
So, we will consider the example of Jesus later in this chapter. We most certainly are encouraged to do so, and with good reason. But first, we need to solve the supposed dilemma posed here regarding Jesus being God in the flesh and being tempted to do evil while at the same time God cannot be tempted by evil.
God’s Holy Nature and Temptation
Consider how temptation works. We find a very enlightening revelation of the process given to us in the Book of James. It is not very complicated at all and well illustrated. James begins by saying, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13). The idea of the Greek (peirazomai) is to be tried, put to the test, or enticed. In the context it refers to temptation rising from within, from uncontrolled appetites and from evil passions (Vine IV-116). Also, Thayer states that evil (kakos) is “thinking, feeling or acting” which is “base, wrong, wicked” and adds “that which is contrary to law, either divine or human.” (320). So, we are charged not to say that any enticement to do evil comes to us from God. God cannot be enticed to do evil and He does not entice anyone else to do evil. There are no exceptions to this. James says, “Let no one say…”, not “Let almost no one say…”. God is good. He is completely holy and perfectly righteous and absolutely pure. James affirms that He is without variation or shifting shadow (James 1:17). God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). There is no inclination to moral evil within God, and none comes from God, in prospect or in fact, ever.
While God does not tempt us with evil, He does put us to the test in other ways, and there are ways in which He, Himself, can be tempted. For example, the Israelites tried God’s patience with their rebellious attitudes (1 Cor. 10:9). We also find that God put Abraham’s faith to the test by giving him commands to obey (Heb. 11:17). But He never tempted Abraham or us with sin by prompting us to lose control of our appetites. He never appeals to our desires to create within us evil passions.
There are actually two different parallels used by James in this text which inform us concerning the nature of temptation and sin. The first illustration is that of using bait to lure prey to its destruction. The second is that of the birth process, but in this case the result of the birth is not life, but death.
Carried away and Enticed
“But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.” (James 1:14). James traces temptation to its very origin. We learn here what temptation is even before it become a temptation. The first order of business is to accurately assign the responsibility for a person’s sin. My sin is not your fault, my parents’ faults, my friends’ faults, or my enemy’s fault. It most certainly is not God’s fault. Whose lust was it that led to temptation and sin? It was the sinner’s “own” lust!
The body of a human being can be used for good or evil, and it is the person who makes the decision. One can use his or her body to glorify God and make it a temple of the Holy Spirit or one can use it to bring dishonor upon oneself by partaking in the deeds of the flesh. One walks either according to the spirit or according to the flesh. Paul says the two, flesh and spirit, are opposed to one another. He tells us that those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh and its passions and walk according to the spirit. However, those who practice the deeds of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God.
The sinner was first “carried away”. This means that he was drawn out of safety and security much as “game is lured forth from its covert.” (Thayer 222). What causes an animal to leave the safety of its burrow to confront the danger of a trap? What is it that is considered worth the risk? What causes the bird to perch on the net ready to spring? What makes a fish divert its course and head toward a hook that will mean its death?
The answer is found in the word “enticed” Thayer has “to beguile by blandishments.” (128). The danger is hidden or obscured by something that is attractive and inviting. The deadly hook is covered with a lure. The trap is hidden and some tasty morsel is put in the center of it to attract a victim. Normal caution is temporarily forgotten as plans are made to possess the bait. It looks safe, as it was intended to look, but that is a lie. The Hebrew writer exhorts, “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:13).
An excellent example of the way this works is found in Satan’s approach to Eve. His goal was to remove Eve’s sense of danger and heighten her expectation of reward. Satan had a long list of reasons why to sample the forbidden fruit would be a good thing. He omitted mentioning the reasons why disobeying God would be a tragic mistake. It is a crafty Satan that that made evil seem good, or at least advantageous. It was a deceitful Satan who said, “You surely shall not die!” It was an alluring Satan that said "For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." When Eve looked at the fruit, she saw what she wanted to see. It was good for food, and it was a delight to the eyes, and it would make her wise. She had stopped thinking about the consequences, and that was a fatal error. The bait was set and the trap was ready to spring (Genesis 3:1-6).
It is our own lust by which we are carried away. This is precisely how Adam and Eve became sinners. There is no difference in our natures from theirs. There was human desire in the world before sin, corruption and the fall. The word “desire” refers to longings and cravings which we all have. The root word itself is morally neutral, and it must be determined from the context in which it is used as to whether it is an evil desire or not, though it is by far most often used in a negative sense in the Scripture. One desires food when he is hungry and water to quench his thirst. Sexual desire was given as motivation to propagate the human race. Paul desired to depart and to be with Christ (Philippians l:23). Desire in and of itself is not sinful, but to transgress God’s will in order to satisfy desire is to sin. For Eve to desire wisdom was not a sin, but for her to break God’s commandment with a view to becoming wise was indeed a sin.
Natural desires were given us by God, and they have a purpose. But the lust to do evil comes from within us, not from our God. Our giving in to this temptation results in sin and death. We must not allow ourselves to become captivated by desire and be ensnared by sin.
Sin is Born
“Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin….” (James 1:15a). James now begins the second metaphor. No longer is he using the idea of the bait and trap. The point is to show what happens when lust is aroused, and this illustration brings us to the very same conclusion as the previous illustration did; that sin brings forth death. This time, the process leading to sin is paralleled to conception and birth. The parent is lust, and when lust conceives, a birth will result. The offspring’s name is sin.
Not every temptation results in the conception and birth of sin. There is such a thing as spiritual birth control, which when practiced consistently, will keep our lusts from ever becoming proud parents. Our Lord has challenged us in His Book to do those things necessary to keep our lusts childless. Allowing the words of Christ to take firm root within our hearts will help us not to fall away in time of temptation.
But when lust has conceived, sin is born. The phrase “gives birth to” means “to bring forth” as in the KJV (Vine I-153), or to “bear children, generate.” Sin, the child of lust, is transgression of God’s Law (1 John 3:4). When the decision to do evil in order to gratify desire was made, sin was conceived. When the misdeed was carried out, sin was born. The result is a departure from the way of righteousness and a missing of the mark of what is acceptable unto God.
But here is the key to overcoming temptation: our aim should not only be to keep the birth of sin from occurring, but also its conception. Repeatedly, Jesus warned of the consequences of harboring evil thoughts within our hearts. He taught that it was at this stage that our battles with temptation must be fought and won. To wait until lust has already conceived is to wait too long. One simply must not permit his heart to become an incubator where sinful plans and thoughts take shape and mature. For example, Jesus said, “…everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart” and "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.” (Matthew 5:28; 15:19). How many have fallen because they thought they could conceive evil in their hearts and somehow avoid the inevitable birth of sin? Far better for us is to listen to Jesus on the importance of maintaining purity of heart; "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8).
When Sin is Accomplished There is Death
“…and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” (James 1:15b).Sin and death are close partners in Scripture. They seem to enjoy each other’s company and are practically inseparable. When sin is accomplished (or “finished” as in the KJV) it brings forth death. Thayer suggests “having come to maturity” (69). There is a conception followed by a maturing process which leads to the birth of sin, and sin results in death.
To those who would suggest that they are being tempted by God to do evil, it is said that it is each one’s own lust that is the origin of an individual’s sin, and sin “brings forth” death. God, on the other hand, is the giver of good gifts. It is “in the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures.” (Jas. 1:17,18). See the contrast? Sin brings forth death, but God brings forth the first fruits of His creatures by the word of truth.
The end result of sin is death. There is such a close connection between all kinds of death and sin in the Scripture that one needs to look at the context to determine exactly what is meant by “death” in each passage where such a connection exists. Sometimes it is physical death; sometimes spiritual death; sometimes eternal death, which the Bible also refers to as the second death. Here, death refers to spiritual death.
What About the Temptation of Jesus?
What are we now to do with the teachings that Jesus is God, and that it is impossible to tempt God with evil, while also showing how Jesus was tempted in the wilderness?
The solution is that we let James answer this supposed dilemma in the context. Satan tempted Jesus in the sense that he tried to create within Jesus the willingness to satiate His hunger by disobeying God. Satan solicited Jesus to sin (Thayer 498). Satan is sometimes referred to simply as “the tempter” because he entices to sin. But he did not succeed in creating such willingness within Jesus. We have seen that James defines his use of the word “temptation” as one being carried away and enticed by his own lust. Though Jesus’ hunger was great, Satan found it impossible to carry Jesus away through enticing Him by His own desires (cf. Matthew 4:1-11). With all of Satan’s encouragement, there was not the slightest hint of even a momentary struggle with the “moral dilemma” within Jesus’ heart as to whether He would break His fast and turn the rocks to bread. He would not even consider it a possible course of action. Satan tempted Jesus only in the sense of making an appeal which focused on the desires of Jesus, but not in the sense of creating within Jesus a confused loyalty to God by causing Him to consider that He might potentially choose to disobey God to satisfy His desires. Jesus’ own moral excellence would not permit Him to disobey the Father. It is this quality of absolute perfect integrity on Jesus’ part that assures us that we can be confident that everything He taught and claimed is flawlessly true. It is impossible to carry God away by enticing Him with His own lust.
There have also been times when mere men responded to temptation with this very same kind of moral excellence, even in the face of very powerful incentive to do otherwise. I am caused to think of three young men threatened with being thrown into a blazing fire if they did not relent and partake in the pagan religious rituals of their captors. “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego answered and said to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.’" (Daniel 3:16-18).
These examples could be multiplied. But the Lord God is the Giver of good gifts. He is not the giver of temptation to do evil, and most certainly is not responsible when one yields to temptation. He, Himself, cannot be carried away by enticements. Let no man say otherwise.
Victory Over Temptation
“The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:23). Even as Paul contrasts sin and death with God’s gift and eternal life, James does the same thing in the context of our passage. James tells us not to be misled about the situation because it is God who gives us good and perfect gifts by which we are brought forth from sin to be blessed. God is not the giver of temptation to do evil, but of the good things which allow us to triumph over temptation, sin and death.
It is those who are approved by persevering through temptation or trial that are promised the crown of life (James 1:12). The word crown refers to a victory crown, and is distinct from a crown of royalty. Vine states that this crown was a symbol of triumph in the games or some contest. At other times, he also suggests that it was a sign of public honor, given for some great service rendered for king or nation (I-258). A victorious general, for example, might be presented with such a crown in his homecoming victory parade. It was woven as a garland of oak, ivy, parsley or olive. In the Scripture, this crown is an emblem of life, joy, reward and victory. But where the crown of the athlete or warrior would soon shrivel and fade, this crown will not fade nor lose its glory to time, it is an “unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).
King Jesus promises that He will give a victor’s crown of life to the faithful (Revelation 2:10) and Paul said he looked forward to the victory crown of righteousness that was laid up for him, but not only for him, but also for “all who have loved His appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8). But again, this champion’s crown is given only to those who persevere under trial; for they must first be approved, showing that their professed love for God is genuine. “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12).
James encouraged us not to be deceived (James 1:16). There is hope in this admonition. We have discussed the deceitfulness of sin, and the dangers inherent within, but there is no law that says we must be deceived and defeated. It may be easier on our psyche, at least for the moment, to blame someone else when we sin, but it is much harder on our souls because to do so is to forfeit our victory crown.
This admonition against deception is given between the negative assertion that God does not tempt anyone with evil and the positive proclamation that “Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow.” Do not be deceived, you do not have to suffer defeat but you can win the victory! As God is the Maker of the stars, He is also the Giver of our salvation. He is not the cause of our being drawn away, but He is the One who graciously gives us the remedy for our own failures. He is the Father of Lights, and His goodness never varies and is never obscured by any variation or shifting shadow or hint of evil.
To Him who made the great lights, For His lovingkindness is everlasting:
The sun to rule by day, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
The moon and stars to rule by night, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
Thayer, Joseph Henry. The New Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon. Layfeyette: Christian Copyrights, Inc. 1979
Vine, W.E. Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1966
Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 23.12; December 2016