Tag Archives: Temptation

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:17

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:17
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Certainly James does not want his congregation to misunderstand the serious ramifications of sin which lead to death. Nevertheless, his warning in verse 16 is perhaps more directed to the positive truth which now comes into view in this verse: he especially does not want them to be deceived about the constant, consistent and unchanging goodness of God. We have already noted that some among his listeners have been deceived about God’s goodness, including assigning evil intention and temptation to God. In this verse James counters this view with a firm declaration that God is always and only good, and that God never changes. Therefore God is not the one who tempts them, nor does God send evil upon his people. Rather, God is the source of every good gift, the giver of “perfect” gifts, single-mindedly good and generous (v. 5).

The opening phrase of the verse is thought by many commentators to be an ancient proverb because it forms a hexameter, a series of words whose syllables form six rhythmic sections (Vlachos, 47). Davids suggests that the original saying could have been something like “every gift is good and every present perfect” (86). Applied in this context, it affirms the divine goodness in simple and homely terms.

The NRSV translates the phrase as “every generous act of giving (pasa dosis agathē), with every perfect gift” (kai pan dōrēma teleion; cf. NASB, Holman, and others). While it is correct that dosis may be translated in terms of an act, it is more likely that James is using the two terms dosis and dōrēma as synonyms and as such does not intend any distinction of meaning between them. McKnight (124) also suggests that given the poetic nature of the phrase, neither should we seek to draw distinction between “good” (agathē) and “perfect” (teleion); in the whole phrase James has one thought and one intent, which is to declare the goodness of God.

These good and perfect gifts are from above (anōthen estin), “coming down” (katabainon) from the “Father of lights” (apo tou patros tōv phōtōv). The phrase indicates the heavenly origin of these gifts, and the present tense suggests that such gifts are continually descending from above. What are these gifts which continually descend from above? James does not say. However, he has already spoken of God giving wisdom to those who ask in faith (v. 5). In chapter three he will speak of the wisdom which is “from above” (3:15, 17). We might readily, therefore, consider wisdom as one of the gifts that God gives. But we need not limit God to this gift; every good gift and every perfect gift is from above. Not only the blessing of wisdom, but salvation, healing and forgiveness (5:15), answers to prayer (5:16-18), eschatological redemption and reward (1:4, 12)—all these and more besides are the generous gifts that the Father of lights gives to his children.

While the overall thrust of the verse is quite simple and clear, the details are less so. The term “Father of lights” appears only here in Scripture, and probably intends to designate God as the creator (“Father”) of the heavenly lights—the sun, moon and stars, recalling Genesis 1:3, 14-18. That God is associated with light rather than darkness adds to the emphasis that he is not the source of temptation.  The final phrase adds to our picture of God’s character by insisting that with respect to God there is “no variation” (par’ hō ouk eni parallagē) “or shadow due to change” (ē tropēs aposkiasma). Not only is God good, he never changes; that is, God is only and always good. Although none of the terms used here are technical astronomical terms, parallagē and tropēs are commonly used in astronomical contexts. This adds support to the idea that “Father of lights” refers to God the creator of the heavenly bodies (Moo, 76).

How the phrase is to be interpreted, however, is less clear. James could be simply likening God’s goodness to the regular and dependable movements of the heavenly bodies, or he could be saying that God is unlike the heavenly bodies, for they are ever shifting in their course, subject to change and shadows during the lunar cycle or eclipses. The final phrase of the verse, “shadow due to change” suggests that the latter interpretation is best. Thus God never changes nor is he changed. Does he therefore send tests and temptations? No, he sends that which is good, and, since he is unchanging, he could never send evil (Davids, 88).

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:14

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:14
But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it;

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.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:13

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:13
No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.

With this verse James transitions from peirasmos as trials to peirasmos as temptations. In fact, many commentators identify the transition by translating the text, “Let no one say when he is tested, ‘I am being tempted by God.’” It is worth noting that James would certainly draw a distinction between God testing his people and God tempting his people. The Old Testament has many accounts of the former, from the test established in the Garden of Eden, to Abraham’s test in Genesis 22, to Israel’s tests in Exodus 16 and Deuteronomy 8, etc. It is certainly the case that one’s faith is regularly tested as we noted in our comments on verses 2-4. It is certainly the case that God will at times test particular individuals, either through the circumstances they face (e.g. Psalm 105:17-19) or by presenting them with a particular challenge (John 6:5-6). Nevertheless James insists that God never tempts his people. The verse begins with an imperative followed by two supporting reasons. James’ command is very simple: whenever one is tempted one must not blame God for it as its source or origin.

Why might someone assign the source of our temptations to God? Perhaps they have a theological perspective in which God is the ultimate cause of all things, even if he uses secondary agents. If we believe God is the source of our trials and temptations, we may be less likely to resist them, and more likely to be double-minded with respect to prayer. Some people may indulge in the temptation, justifying their sinful actions by claiming it is God’s will (cf. Romans 6:1-2). James will have none of this and insists that no one assigns responsibility for temptations to God. Here, there is no place for divine omni-causality.

Instead, James grounds his imperative in a twofold reflection on God’s character. First, God cannot be tempted with evil (ho gar theos apeirastos estin kakōn). The key word, apeirastos is found only here in the New Testament, and may have been coined by James (Vlachos, 43). Several translations have been suggested. It may mean simply that God is not temptable, that his supreme holiness denies any place whatsoever to evil; or it may mean that God is inexperienced and therefore “untouched” (NEB) with respect to evil; or, as Davids (82-83) has suggested recalling the command of Deuteronomy 6:16, God ought not to be tempted by evil people. In the immediate context here, the first possibility is usually chosen by translators and commentators. The second possible meaning requires changing apeirastos to the more commonly used aperatos, while Davids’ suggestion does not do justice to the balanced movement of thought in the verse whereby James’ second rationale (“and he himself tempts no one”—peirazei de autos oudena) issues from the first: God cannot be tempted, and he does not tempt any. Thus God’s supreme holiness precludes his being tempted; evil has no foothold or place in God. Because this is true, neither does his holiness entice others towards evil for this would be utterly alien to his holy nature. Further, we see once more that for James, God is wholly and single-mindedly good (cf. v. 17). God remains the gracious and generous God whose will is to bless his people.