In verse thirteen James insists that God cannot be tempted with evil, neither does he tempt anyone else. Whence temptations, then, if not from God? Perhaps temptations issue from a more malign source, from the devil. I have argued earlier (see comments on verse 3) that some tests faced by Christians may have a satanic origin. But James also refuses this option, and instead, lays responsibility for temptations squarely on each one of us. No one is tempted by God; each one (hekastos) is tempted (peirazetai) by one’s own desire (hupo tēs idias epithymias). Here the shift from external trials to internal temptations is clearly evident. The fault and so the cause, lie within. Desire in and of itself is not evil. Paul desired to “depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). In Galatians 5:17 he suggests that the Spirit has desires which are contrary to those of the flesh. Nevertheless the usual sense of the word in the New Testament—including in this passage—is negative and refers to those desires which are against God’s will; it is commonly translated as lust.
James goes further: he personifies this lust, making it the agent of the two participles which follow so that the person is tempted as they are “lured away” (exelkomenos) and “enticed” (deleazomenos) by their own desire. The two participles, drawn from the activities of fishing and hunting, describe the way in which one is tempted. The object of one’s desire becomes the attractive bait that lures them away from their love towards God. They are enticed away from obedience to disobedience. As Vlachos has memorably put it, they are hooked by their own bait (42).
It is not difficult, once again, to see double-mindedness at play in James’ exhortation here (cf. 4:8). But James is arguing something deeper. He emphasises that “each person” is tempted by “their own” desire. Perhaps it is not too much to suggest that James sees our sins and desires as individual. Although in some respects all our temptations are quite common and even banal, yet there is a personal twist to each one. More recently, Michael Mangis suggested that we have “signature sins,” individual and specific patterns of sin in our life that affect our thoughts, actions and relationships (Signature Sins: Taming our Wayward Hearts. IVP, 2008). We may find ourselves continually tempted by anger, for example, but the ways in which we express it, and the triggers that catalyse it are very personal and unique.
James’ practical analysis of the dynamic of sin presupposes an anthropology which was common in Judaism. According to Scot McKnight (118-119), Jewish thought, drawing on Genesis 6:5, suggested that each human heart harboured two conflicting powers: the yetzer hara‘ (an evil inclination or desire) and the yetzer hatov (a good inclination or desire). Sin finds its origin not in the will, but at the level of desire. In chapter 4:1-2 James will reiterate this point: “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and you cannot obtain, so you fight and wage war…”
Humans are desiring creatures; dependent, finite, longing creatures, created for God and made in order to love him. Under the impulse of sin and the conditions of the fall, however, our desires have been corrupted and misdirected. Instead of loving God and others, we turn our love inwards to love ourselves. Instead of seeking and finding our delight and our life in God, we turn to created things hoping there to find life, peace and joy, and so serve the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). Luther defined humanity’s predicament as homo incurvatus in se—humanity turned in on itself. In this, ironically, he is at one with James.