At the age of 17, Joni Earekson Tada was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident. Joni acknowledge that she was no different than anyone else as she faced temptations through the valley of her experience. In her book, Secret Strength, Joni wrote:
“I was in my late 20’s, single, and with every prospect of remaining so. Sometimes lust or a bit of fantasizing would seem so inviting and so easy to justify. After all, hadn’t I already given up more than most Christians just by being disabled? Didn’t my wheelchair entitle me to a little slack now and then?”
Joni went on to ask her readers:
“When God allows you to suffer, do you have tendency to use your trials as an excuse for sinning? Or do you feel that since you’ve given God a little extra lately by taking abuse, that He owes you a “day off?”
That is the common response to temptation today….especially temptation born out of our tests, trials, and problems. When James wrote his New Testament letter, he understood this reality and offered two practical insights on how to face our temptations.
1. RECOGNIZE THE CAUSE AND THE CONSEQUENCE
Every path we choose arrives at a destination filled with consequences. In fact, in large part, your life and my life today are the consequence of our decisions yesterday. Most of us can point to decisions we made when we were younger that have produced specific, sometimes very painful, consequences that we live with today. And when we look at those consequences it’s really easy to cast blame. We blame friends, family members, ex-spouses, former girlfriends, bad bosses, unmerciful teachers…we even blame God. And that’s where James starts his comments:
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. (James 1:13-16)
This passage addresses the Cause of temptation and the Consequence of sin by giving us a picture of a Cycle. Warren Wiersbe paints a picture of temptation in his commentary on the book of James using a four-stage process of sin. I like to refer to this process as the cycle of temptation illustrated in the diagram below:
The cycle begins with DESIRE. James 1:14 says, “But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire…” Notice that “desire” is not the problem. Desires are good. We all have desires to eat, desires to sleep, desires for sex, etc. It’s when the desires are perverted that we face temptation. Gluttony is the perversion of the desire to eat. Laziness is the perversion of the desire to sleep. Immorality is the perversion of the desire for sex.
The cycle continues with DECEPTION. Verse 14 wraps up with, “…he is dragged away and enticed.” James is using an illustration from the world of sports. Wiersbe observes that to “drag away and entice” has the idea of a hunter or a fisherman baiting a trap or baiting a hook. Animals don’t deliberately step into a trap and fish don’t deliberately bite a hook. The idea of “dragging away and enticing” is to hide the trap with bait. In our deception we like to say, “God, since you gave me the desire, then you must be the cause of my deception.”
Then the cycle of temptation moves to DISOBEDIENCE. Verse 15 begins, “Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin;” This is where our temptation actually translates into sin. The cycle concludes with DEATH as James notes, “…and sin, when it is full-grown gives birth to death.” Romans 6:23 captured it best when it says, “For the wages of sin is death…”
So how do we defeat the cycle of temptation? That brings us to our second point.
2. REFLECT ON THE GOODNESS OF GOD
Notice what James has done. He begins by saying, when you’re tempted don’t say God is tempting you because God cannot be tempted by evil nor does he tempt anyone. So since God doesn’t tempt people, James gives us a picture of the true nature of God.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)
James brings up God’s goodness immediately after talking about temptation because he’s contrasting temptation with the goodness of God. He’s saying, “Why would you throw away all the good gifts God has given you by giving in to a temptation that is nothing more than a temporary moment of self-gratification?” When we reflect on God’s goodness during a temptation, we have to ask ourselves:
- Why would I throw away the goodness of my marriage for the deception of a one-night fling?
- Why would I throw away the goodness of my college education for the deception of cheating my way through school?
- Why would I throw away the goodness of my job for the deception of an ethical lapse in judgment
- Why would I throw away the goodness of God for the temporary satisfaction of my messed up desires.
Here’s the point: To acknowledge God’s goodness, you have to stop fantasizing about the short-term satisfaction and start fantasizing about the long-term consequences. That happens best when you acknowledge God’s goodness.
Satan wants you to pervert the goodness of God. Rather than saying, “Since God’s good…” Satan would rather you say, “If God was good…” That was the approach he took with Eve in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 3:4 says:
“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
In other words, Satan was saying to Eve, “If God was really good, why would he withhold something good from you?” Satan was perverting the goodness of God.
James brought up God’s goodness at this point in his letter for an important reason. He knew that temptation often follows trials. He understood that the Christians in the church of Jerusalem would be tempted to sin because their severe persecution would cause them to doubt the goodness of God.
In the Old Testament, Joseph understood the power of focusing on God’s goodness to overcome temptation. When he was a servant in Potiphar’s house, Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph to sleep with her. But look what Scripture says:
Joseph was a strikingly handsome man. As time went on, his master’s wife became infatuated with Joseph and one day said, “Sleep with me.” He wouldn’t do it. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master doesn’t give a second thought to anything that goes on here—he’s put me in charge of everything he owns. He treats me as an equal. The only thing he hasn’t turned over to me is you. You’re his wife, after all! How could I violate his trust and sin against God?” She pestered him day after day after day, but he stood his ground. He refused to go to bed with her. (Genesis 39:6-10)
What did Joseph do?
First, he reflected on the goodness of God. He said, “How could I violate his trust…” The fact that Joseph had gained so much trust from Potiphar was an expression of God’s goodness on his behalf. Why? Because just a few verses later it says: “He [Potiphar] put him in charge of all his personal affairs, turning everything over to him. From that moment on, God blessed the home of the Egyptian—all because of Joseph. The blessing of God spread over everything he owned, at home and in the fields, and all Potiphar had to concern himself with was eating three meals a day.” Joseph wasn’t going to ignore the goodness God had extended to him.
Second, Joseph recognized the consequence for sin. He said, “…and sin against God.” Joseph knew the consequence of his sin would create a wedge between him and God…not to mention risk being put to death by Potiphar. Joseph looked at the consequence of sin and he reflected on the goodness of God that he would throw away if he gave in to temptation.
James concludes this section of his letter with these words:
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (James 1:8)
Here’s what’s amazing. James started off by saying that our evil desires give birth to sin. But he concludes by saying that we can have a new birth through the word of truth. His point is clear: Our old nature was born with a desire to sin, but through Christ, we are born with a new nature that desires to please God. And while the two natures are always at war with each other, we find strength and power through Christ to face, and overcome, our temptations.
Question: What are your greatest takeaways from James’ insights to overcome temptation?