This week we’re looking at the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. (See Monday’s post if you missed the intro to the series, as it’s foundational for all of the others.) Today we look at James 1:12-18.
Back in the opening verses of the letter, James said that “the testing of your faith” (the temptation to be double-minded) produces perseverance. Here (sounding a bit like his brother in The Sermon on the Mount) he describes the person who perseveres when their faith is so tested as “blessed.”1:12 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.
The “blessedness” that results from perseverance is described as “the crown of life,” probably using the image of a victory crown or wreath that the winner of an athletics contest received. If we persevere as single-minded friends of God, a gold medal is (metaphorically) up for grabs.
James is using the language of sporting contest and struggle for a reason. (It was common in the ancient world, as it is now – how often do we describe business using sports metaphors? Team players prepared to do the hard yards, putting some runs on the board, on the ropes but fighting back, etc.) In sport, overcoming adversity is courageous, adversity is expected as part of the contest, and winning makes the effort worth it. So, too, is our struggle for single-minded loyalty to God. Trials shouldn’t be seen as a negative, but as “pure joy,” because they give us the opportunity to display our loyalty, as we saw a couple of days ago in verse 2.
This positive view of temptation-as-opportunity could, however, give rise to the conclusion that God is the one who tempts us. James is quick to get onto the front foot to defend against this:1:13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;
He seems to be echoing a Jewish wisdom writing popular among those Jews scattered across the Mediterranean. This is significant, as the wider context is about human sin as a result of human choice:Sirach 15:11-15 Do not say, ‘It was the Lord’s doing that I fell away’; for he does not do what he hates. 12 Do not say, ‘It was he who led me astray’; for he has no need of the sinful. 13 The Lord hates all abominations; such things are not loved by those who fear him. 14 It was he who created humankind in the beginning, and he left them in the power of their own free choice. 15 If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
James describes how this choice to sin happens:1:14-15 …but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
That is, our desire to do evil (or “sinful nature” as Paul would put it) is what tempts us, not God. That desire “entices” us – just like the desire to gain wisdom by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – to repeat the pattern of Adam and Eve in the garden. The result of which is not the crown of life (verse 12), but its opposite – death.
The implication, then, is to resist evil desires to avoid giving birth to sin and death. But more on this when we get to chapter 4.1:16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters.
Don’t be deceived (like Eve was). Know that God only gives good things (not temptations):1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
The Genesis echoes continue, with God described as “the Father of the heavenly lights” – the creator of the sun and moon. And unlike the length of sunlight each day, or the phases of the moon, God doesn’t change. (See Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians, p435.)
What good gifts does God give?1:18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
There’s a contrast here between evil desires and God:
- Evil desires give birth to sin and lead to death.
- God gives birth to a people who might be the firstfruits (“downpayment”) of his new creation.
Which one are you going to choose? Evil desires or God? Death or new life? Friendship with the world or friendship with God?
Except James doesn’t even have to ask the question, because the choice is obvious.
To think about
What is your attitude to temptation? Does it fit with how James wants us to see it?
What are the “evil desires” that give birth to sin in your life? Do you take responsibility for them, or do you seek to deflect the blame onto something or someone else (other people, or even God)?
Is my daily life reflecting the choice I’ve made to be friends with God?