Thomas Jefferson said, “The goal of life is the avoidance of pain.” I suppose that if Jefferson were to issue a beatitude of his own it would be something akin to, “Blessed is the man who escapes every difficulty and hardship in life.” Jeffersonian Christianity is a far cry from the Christianity James presents in this epistle. James has already shown the paradox of pain: a Christian should rejoice in the midst of trials (vs.2-4). This is contrary to everything within man who would rather escape the trials of life.
James shifts gears in verse 12 to move from trials in which Christians are to rejoice to temptations Christians are to reject. Just as trials (pain) is unavoidable, so too is temptation. So what do we do and who is to blame for temptation? James makes it abundantly clear what Christians are to do when faced with temptation as well as the origin of temptations.
James 1.12-15 (ESV)
12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.
14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.
15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
The Beatitude of the Steadfast (v.12). “Trials” (Gk. peirasmon) has a broad meaning. On the one hand, it carries the meaning of temptation or solicitation to sin (i.e. temptations). On the other hand, it carries the meaning of afflictions from persecution (i.e. trials). These Greek speaking Jewish Christians would have known and identified this. This is important to note since it has bearing upon the present passage. God does allow and cause “trials of various kinds” to come upon His children to test the genuineness of their faith. However, God, who is free from any and every evil thing, does not and cannot tempt His children to sin.
We’ve already seen the exhortation to remain steadfast in trials. The other meaning seems to be in view here: remain steadfast in the midst of temptations. This is a different kind of test which comes upon the child of God not from God but from within (desires) and without (Satan). There is a blessing attached to being steadfast under temptation, namely, a crown of life.
This verse is strikingly similar to the words of Jesus in Revelation 2.10. The point for these Christians and even reaching to Christians today is that faithfulness to God will result in life – eternal life! Note this progression: pressure (or temptation) comes, steadfastness works its full effect, life is bestowed by God. Life is bestowed on the lover of God by the life-giving God. Love for God is the best motivator to steadfastness in temptations.
Some will fail the testing of their faith; they will give into temptation and sin. There is no blessing attached to failure. Rather, blessing or congratulations is given by God to the one who remains steadfast in temptation. How many give in to the temptation and do not allow steadfastness to finish its work? James, knowing that there would be those who fail the test from the trials, goes on to explain that those who fail have only one person to blame: self.
Theory 1: God made me do it (v.13). This is the excuse, even the heresy, that is as old as time. From the beginning, man has been trying to blame God for temptation and (ultimately) sin. Man is prone to ascribe authorship of temptation to God. Adam tried it in the Garden of Eden: “The woman You gave me…” Do we not even hear this today? “I can’t help it; God made me this way!” James dismisses this theory outright with a firm, “No, He didn’t!” Do not say that “I am being tempted by God.” The participle used here is passive, meaning the temptation is from without, in this case from (Gk. apo) God.
The reason you do not say that is because 1) God cannot be tempted, and 2) God tempts no one. First, God is “untemptable” ( Gk. apeirastos). We frail children of dust have a difficult time wrapping our minds around this concept since we are constantly bombarded with temptations to sin. Balaam, in his second oracle, best explains this when he says “God is not man” (Num 23.19). God is of an altogether different nature and therefore stands outside of temptation. God’s whole nature is for good (v.16) not evil and thus evil has no appeal to Him.
Second, James says God tempts no man. How can James say that God “tempts” (or tests) no one? Doesn’t he remember Abraham and how God “tempted” (same word as here in Greek) him (Gen 22.1)? Surely he does since he references that well known story in Jewish theology (see 2.21). And if that isn’t enough, the writer of Hebrews says that Abraham was “tested” (same word used here) when he offered up Isaac. What’s the key?
James offers us the explanation in the description of the nature of temptation: when God “tested” Abraham, Abraham was not “lured” or “enticed” with a desire within himself. For it to be a temptation it must stem from the heart of man. Since this test had its origin in God it was a test of obedience for Abraham to God even when faced with the unthinkable. The other thing to consider is who is being informed about obedience in the Abrahamic episode. Does the all-knowing God who declares the end from the beginning need to be informed about obedience or does Abraham need to learn about obedience? And in turn, are we also not informed about obedience when we read this Abrahamic episode? So while God may test men concerning obedience, James can say that God tempts no man because temptation lies in the desires of man.
Theory 2: The Devil made me do it. It was Flip Wilson who popularized this motto in modern times. But in his explanation of the true nature and genesis of sin, James also by implication deals with this theory. While the devil may tempt people, manipulating and distorting our desires through lies, he does not and cannot force someone to sin. This seem to be in back of the words “lured” and “enticed” – Satan can bait the hook and use it, but it is man who bites! Really, though, the lies of the devil are not appealing until man begins to believe them. That’s the point of James – temptation begins with man.
Theory 3: I made me do it (v.14-15). James explains that temptation begins in the heart of man with his own “desires” (Gk. epithumias). Desires can be either good (Phil 1.23) or evil (here, Rom 7.7). The two words used by James to describe this process in temptation carry two different metaphors: “lured” we would recognize as a fishing term, as when a fish is taken from the water with the hook sunk deep in his gullet; “enticed” is a word which is connected with a seductress who would try to seduce a man to illicit sexual conduct. Both of these verbs are passive voice meaning that something is being to us is the luring and enticing. As mentioned above, we’ve bought into the lie presented to us. It’s as old as Eden – “You will not surely die.” The lie is then made our own when the bad thing begins to look good. Then we bite.
As there was a progression toward life (pressure to steadfastness to life) so there is a progression toward death here: desire breeds in the heart of man, he is lured to sin, and death results (desire to sin to death). The language used by James to describe this is quite bold and graphic: the desire which this person has conceives when the will yields to lust rather than yielding to God. This impregnated desire “gives birth” to sin when will and action are coupled and the desire is gratified. The sin grows and matures by repeated indulgence of the desire and then it “brings forth” its own spawn: death. Sin kills, mortifies; if not met with prayerful resistance and the power of God, spiritual death will result.