|Picture from the Oxford University Facebook page|
Sometimes I think Christians have a tendency to confuse temptation with sin. And I do mean myself included! However, I was just looking again at the first chapter of James today, and I was amazed at how explicit he is about the difference between the two.
Sticking closely to the Greek, James 1.13-15 goes as follows:
“Let no one, when he is tempted, say, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with bad things, and He Himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted by his own desire, being lured out and baited (by it). Then, when desire has clasped and been clasped, she gives birth to sin, and sin, when it has fully grown up, gives birth to death.”
If you notice, everything here starts with our desires—desires for food, health, love, security, status, satisfaction—the list could go on and on. James personifies desire, at first as a stealthy hunter who lures us out and dangles his bait before our eyes. Surprisingly, though, sin has not yet come into the picture. As insidious as desire appears, there is no sin attached to the experience of that desire per se. Desires are fundamentally untrustworthy, and clearly here can lead us into sin, but the experience of being baited by some desire or other is simply what James calls temptation.
The Apostle Paul tells us elsewhere that our response to these natural desires is what really matters to God: we are to make them dead to us, to “crucify” them, along with the various emotions that so often accompany them. Happily, as this image suggests, when we refuse to legitimate the power of these desires over us, they have a strong tendency to die away, or at least to diminish in their effects on us.
Returning to James, however, the final sentence shifts from the metaphor of a hunter into that of a seductress. Notice that it is when desire is embraced that she also grabs hold of the one who is clasping her, and that is the moment when sin is conceived (it’s a bit difficult in English to capture the graphic picture described in the Greek). Again, it is our response to temptation that James sees as the determining factor in whether we have fallen into sin. The experience of a natural desire or emotion is not sinful in itself, but rather, our immediate reaction to that experience. Do we allow our desires to draw us out, luring us with their bait; even more, do we reach out and take hold of that desire, simultaneously allowing it to clasp us to itself? This is the action that grieves the heart of God, the action that Jesus Himself—the sinless One, yet “tempted in every way”—never took.