Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. â€”James 1:13-15
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. â€”James 1:2-4
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that the forces against you were so overwhelming that you could just give in 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 today 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 leads 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 into 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 of turning" (Jas 1:17).
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 evil's origin. Because each of us has a fallen nature inherited from our forefathers, 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 to evil.
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 evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will 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 againâ€”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 commit 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 to not only not kill, but not even to hate; to not only not commit adultery, but not even to think lustful thoughts. As James says in his letter, there is another insidious type of evilâ€”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 they had committed, but for the good they failed to do:
For I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me. (Mt 25:42-43) We can be tempted to sin. We can also be tempted by being lulled into being smug and thinking 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.
Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me. (Mt 25:45)
What Is a Test? "In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet 1:6-7).
Tests strengthen us spiritually. They may be some form of suffering at the hands of others or at the mercy of a general circumstance. 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 tests can ultimately be of benefit to us if we can endure. There is always a lesson that can be learned. 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 lifeâ€”God and the work of the kingdom, rather than our own material gratification; seeking 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 needs improvement within us.
Let us note a relationship between temptation and test that 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 him and all around. If his thoughts and feelings had appealed to his weaknesses in the fleshâ€”for example, if he had the desire for bodily comfort or wealth, 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 were able to endure, and let the evil remain external to himself rather than springing 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 except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it" (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 determination 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 need only to get ourselves out of that immediate situation to a place or a 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 was 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 wait till we are in dangerous situations before we resort to prayer, 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 the road.
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 physical nature abhors a vacuum, so does the spiritual nature. We are like empty vessels that 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. Contrary to the works of the flesh, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23).
We need to have a rich spiritual life. A rich spiritual life consists of daily prayers and study of the Word of God. It is one that makes us belong to the body of Christ, the church. It is 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.
May God guide us in our Christian life, and give 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 towards the perfection of our spirit for the glory of our Lord. Amen.