Dear Sisters and Brothers,
One of the necessary parts of childhood was school. One of the most stressful parts of school was testing. From spelling bees, to history quizzes to fitness tests in Physical education, to mid-terms, finals, and placement tests, there were a lot of stressful times there. I know many people who still have dreams of walking into a high school or college classroom and being told it is exam day. In my case, I have an occasional dream of showing up to a final exam for a class that I forgot to attend for most of the semester. It is not what I would call a nightmare, but it is unpleasant.
In our daily life, there can be things that feel like tests of character and a temptation to sin. You can imagine all the scenarios you like, but I imagine we can all remember times of testing when we succeeded and when we failed. Of course, different things tempt different people. If most people found a bag of illegal drugs it would be no temptation at all, but for a recovering addict it could be catastrophic. Upon finding a wallet dropped in a city park, one person only considers returning it to its rightful owner while another is tempted by the cash, and others are tempted by the credit cards. Some people are tempted to break promises or even vows. Some soldiers are tempted to run from battle. Some people are tempted by laziness and others by greed. Anything can be a temptation to anyone. To a starving man, a grocery store is full of temptations to steal.
In writing his letter, James is very adamant that temptations do not come from God. James does not believe that God is waiting to pounce on us with an opportunity to fail. God is not even portrayed as a responsible teacher who believes in snap quizzes.
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
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. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.
God can lead us away from temptation and deliver us from evil, but James says that God never leads us into temptation. He is saying that we really do have free will and that all our temptations are born in the human heart. “Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.” To entice means “attract or tempt by offering pleasure or advantage.” So, temptation begins in ourselves or in other people who wish to tempt us.
I have heard people use the word temptation in an overt way. “Can I tempt you to another glass of wine?” or “Can I tempt you with another piece of chocolate cake?” But most often, tempters don’t even admit that they are tempting you. Around the world, lots of government officials (even police officers and judges) are sometimes offered bribes. Some resist temptation and some do not. Drug dealers offer first-timers free samples and then charge excessively once the person is addicted. Some people are tempted by promises of wealth. Many of the victims of human trafficking are tempted by the promise of a job and/or transportation.
James is saying that God only gives us things that are good. We are free to reject good things and free to misuse good things in a sinful way, but God does not lead us to evil. On the other hand, God does not always protect us from the drawbacks of our free will and the free will of others. In fact, James make it clear that God gives us plenty of opportunity to use our free will to do good or to do evil, but he is saying that the evil does not come from God. To say that we are “dragged away by our own evil desire” is to say that we human beings are a source of evil. It is a by-product of our free will linked to our weaknesses that are expressed in greed, lust, laziness, arrogance, gluttony, envy, and rage. All of these sins are defects that come from self-centeredness.
James guides us to have perseverance in our two major battles. The first major battle is with the temptations that come from outside ourselves. The second major battle is with our internal evil.
The basic impulse to sin is simple. Sin is a rebellion against God, because we see an easier way to pleasure, comfort, safety, and joy. Sin is never a good choice because these pleasures and comforts are temporary and keep us from receiving permanent gifts from God. The temptation to sin is always a cheat or swindle, because we are exchanging the infinite gifts for shoddy experiences that don’t last.
We usually sin because it is habit, or an easier path, or we doubt the rewards of our future with God.
Most of the New Testament says that it is hard or even impossible to be unfailingly righteous, but James is challenging us to do our best today. Seek to be righteous by persevering in the good fight against temptations from without and from within. Our job is not to fight other’s battles, but for each of us to fight our own battles. Your battle with sin and temptation may not resemble your neighbor’s battle, but we are all challenged to try and keep trying to live according to God’s will.
The last thing to consider in this is if you are in the habit of tempting others. You can tempt others by leaving money about, or by leaving your car keys in your car, or by offering them gifts while asking for a favor. Try to remember that people are tempted by many different things, and it is your job to be mindful of their needs and weaknesses. You don’t have to be a busybody about it, but you know enough to not offer alcohol to a recovering alcoholic or a bag of sugar to a diabetic.
So persevere in your fights with temptation and don’t tempt others. All the work you do in these tasks is pleasing to God.
A question to ponder: If you have ever been tempted to be violent or destructive, how did you resist the impulse?