Temptation or test?
JULIUS TSAI (PHILADELPHIA,
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted
by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and He Himself tempts no one; but
each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire
when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings
Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet
various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces
steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be
perfect and complete, lacking in nothing
Have you ever been in a situation
where you felt that the forces against you were so overwhelming that you could
just give in at any moment? Two paths lay ahead, to obey God or not, to remain
true to Him or not. Moses once said to the children of Israel,
“See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.” (Deut
30:15). If only things were always so clear! Why does good and evil often seem
to merge so maddeningly before us, so that we are left in confusion, so that
what is wrong might be right if it were just looked at from another angle, or
if we shut our eyes to what we know ought to be?
James, who was gifted with a rare
wisdom, perceived that we often do not possess sufficient knowledge of
ourselves and of the situations that we find ourselves in. This leads to
weakness and eventually spiritual defeat. In the worst case, not being able to
see a temptation for what it is, or not being able to perceive a test with all
of God’s higher will behind it, could mean the difference between spiritual
life and death. Since the stakes are so high, we had better take a close look
at the spiritual realities of temptation and test.
What is temptation?
Temptation is evil, and tempts us
to evil. James uses a reverse definition, by first telling us what it is not,
and where it does not come from. Lest some believers accuse God of leading them
to fall through temptation, James says that God “cannot be tempted with evil
and He Himself tempts no one.” The very definition of God precludes the
possibility of evil. Jesus, as is well known, could not be tempted to sin. And
correspondingly, God will not tempt His children. James describes God as “the
Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas
Where, then, does temptation come
from? Temptation comes when a person “is lured and enticed by his own desire.”
This brings us closer to the heart of temptation, and hence the heart of evil’s
origin. Because each of us has a fallen nature inherited from our forebears,
who first sinned, we have the inclination within us to do evil, just as we have
the aspiration to do good. We are pulled in both directions, and often succumb
Ultimately, temptation can be
traced to Satan, who has been called in the Bible, the Father of Lies, the
Accuser, the Evil One. All these are simply titles, and the Bible portrays
Satan in a number of guises, from serpent to dragon. Whatever the form, what is
being represented is the sheer force of evil, all that is not of God and that
works towards sin and death; not just death of the flesh, but of the Spirit.
Evil gives rise to inclinations,
and then to action. Paul says, “Now the works of the flesh are plain; fornication,
impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger,
selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the
like, I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall
not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 5:19 -21).
Although the above may seem to be
a list of things that obviously none of us would ever do, think again, for sin
does not originate in the act itself, but somewhere further back. Perhaps it
seems innocent to read a certain book, watch a certain movie, talk to certain
friends. Yet often, it is from these small actions of ours everyday that we
allow ourselves to move on to situations where we see, hear and think things
that are contrary to Christian beliefs. These are not harmless, but like tiny
viruses, they implant within us the tiniest tendencies to consider committing
sin. If we do not constantly examine ourselves and purify ourselves through
prayer and the Word of God, these tendencies will lead to sin, perhaps only years
later. That is why Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, cautions us not only not
to kill, but not even to hate; not only not to commit adultery, but not even to
think lustful thoughts. As James says in his letter, there is another insidious
type of evil — the good we have neglected to do. In Jesus’ chilling parable of
the sheep and the goats, He chastises the goats, or those whom He has
condemned, not so much for the sins that they had committed, but for the good
had they failed to do:
I was hungry, you gave me no food, I was thirsty
and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked
and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me…Truly, I
say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to
me.” (Mt 25:43-45)
We can be tempted to sin. We can
also be tempted in the way of being lulled into inertia, being smug and
thinking that all is well, when in fact we may be like the lukewarm church that
Jesus rebukes in the Book of Revelation and threatens to spew from His mouth.
What is a test?
“In this you rejoice, though now
for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the
genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is
tested by fire, may rebound to praise and glory and honour at the revelation
of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:6-7).
Tests strengthen us in who we are
spiritually. Although they come in the form of suffering at the hands of others
or at the hands of general circumstance, tests from God do not originate from
our own inclination to evil. Rather, they may arise precisely at the moment
when we are doing right in the eyes of God.
We may be tested in all kinds of
things, but the important point to note is that they ultimately rebound to our benefit
if we can persevere. There is always a lesson that can be learnt. Enduring the
company of an unwelcome companion may bring forth the fruit of patience.
Suffering an illness may bring us closer to seeing what is important in life
-God and the work of the kingdom, rather than our own material gratification,
to seek God’s will rather than our own. Just as God tested Job to reveal his
self-righteousness, He will give each of us tests according to what is most
needed to be improved within us.
Let us note a relationship between
temptation and test which is quite subtle. The case of Job is a good example to
illustrate how closely these two often operate. Satan intended to tempt Job.
God intended to use Satan to test Job. Job saw only the evil that was happening
to and all around him. If what had happened within him had appealed to his
weaknesses in the flesh, the desire for bodily comfort or wealth, for example,
he would have produced a situation where he would be tempted to forsake God.
Succumbing to that temptation, he would have been rejected by God. If, on the
other hand, he was able to persevere, and let the evil remain external to
himself rather than spring forth from within him, then he would have turned the
situation into a test, from which he could, with God’s help, emerge victorious.
It can be the case that one person’s test is another person’s temptation.
How to overcome temptations and pass through tests
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let
you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide
the way of escape, that you may be able to endure” (1 Cor 10:13).
The cardinal principle here is
that God will not allow us to fail. Certainly, we have the inclination for both
good and evil. This is known as yetzer
in Hebrew, meaning the root of good and root of evil, which inclines us
sometimes towards one and at other times towards the other. But God has
promised that as long as we have the will to walk in the path of the good, He
will see to it that we succeed. We must have this kind of faith, always.
Secondly, when we are faced with a
difficult situation, whether temptation or test, we just need to get ourselves
out of that immediate situation to a place or state of mind where we can
reflect and, more importantly, pray for guidance.
In Genesis 39, when Joseph was
being tempted by Potiphar’s wife, he first directly repudiated the evil by
saying, “... how can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” However,
there is a point beyond which direct confrontation is useless. Joseph knew
this, and thus at a later point, he simply fled from the scene so that he would
not be subjected to further temptation. The example of Joseph shows us two
approaches, one of direct confrontation, the other of avoidance. Both are
necessary, and we just need to know when to use which.
The next step is to pray to God
for guidance. God can renew our strength to resist evil or endure suffering.
God can show us the way that He wants us to tread. Of course, we should not
only resort to prayer in dangerous situations, we should be building the habit
of daily prayer as a preventive measure, as a bulwark against situations that
we cannot foresee. As a well-loved hymn goes,
“Oh, how prayer rests the weary,
Prayer can turn the night to day.
So, in sorrow and in gladness,
Don’t forget to pray.”
Thirdly, when the situation is
past, let us ask, “What can I learn from this situation? What can I learn about
my own weakness, and how can I overcome it? What can I learn that will add to
my spiritual character and help me thrive in the future?” If we do not learn
from our mistakes, we will only face the same situation again some time down
Finally, all of the things we have
been discussing have been in a more negative vein. Avoiding temptation.
Overcoming tests. But the mere absence of evil in our hearts is not enough. For
as nature abhors a vacuum, so does spiritual nature. We are like empty vessels
which may be filled with both good and evil. If we remove something that is
evil, we need to make sure that we are always filled with the good. If a person
quits smoking, for example, he suddenly has extra time and energy in his hands.
Why not put them to good use, such as making a commitment to exercise or taking
up a hobby? In the same way, we must strive to replace our spiritual
weaknesses, one by one, with spiritual virtues. As a contrast to the works of
the flesh, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23).
We need to have a rich spiritual
life. This includes our daily prayers and study of the Word of God, belonging
to the body of Christ, the church, and striving to manifest God’s love in our
lives. it is not enough for us to simply not be evil, or simply be a benign
presence in the world. It matters who we are, and what we do makes a
May God guide us in our Christian
life, giving us the wisdom to discern what is temptation and what is test, and
strength to overcome both. Whatever may come our way, we will strive to reach
ever higher towards the perfection of our spirit to the glory of our Lord.