Both Jesus and his brother James discuss how temptation turns into sin. For Jesus, hating or lusting mentally commits murder or adultery. James concurs with Jesus’ teaching and discusses how desire, temptation, and sin interrelate.
Since getting temptation, desire, and sin right matters so much for our personal growth, we need to get this right. And besides, current discussions on same-sex attraction revolve around these same subjects. So it is also a timely subject for discussion.
In almost every verse, James echoes or alludes to things that Jesus said. Small wonder: James was Jesus’ brother.
And similar to Jesus’ teaching on lust and hate in the Sermon on the Mount, James uses different words (temptation and desire) to speak about similar subjects in the first chapter of his epistle.
Now, James 1 might be so familiar to us, however, that it has lost its punch. For that reason, we can reread the key verses in the chapter without the words “temptation,” “trial,” or “to tempt.” These three words come from the same root in Greek. In that language, the word “temptation” or “trial” is peirasmon, and the word “to tempt” is peirazemein. In their place, I will use the noun “contest” and the verb “to contest”
These words badly translate the underlying Greek works. But I am using them as a tool to de-familiarize us with James 1 and so hopefully grow in our understanding of the passage. By reading the passage with another English word in place, we can arrive a keener sense of what James is getting at when he discusses both temptation and desire.
Here are the key verses:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet contests (peirasmois) of various kinds, for you know that the testing (dokimos) of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under contest (peirasmon), for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is contested (peirazamones), “I am being contested (peirazomai) by God,” for God is uncontestable (apeirasmon) with evil, and he himself contests (peirazei) no one. But each person is contested (peirazetai) 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 fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:2–4, 12–15)
Some comments follow. First, we should count it all joy when we meet various contests because, as James notes, they provide the means by which we can test our faith and grow.
Second, James declares a beatitude (“blessed is…”) on the person who endures a contest, since through this contest we will evince the endurance that will grant us “the crown of life.”
Third, we can not claim that God contests us; we cannot say “I am being contested by God.” The reason given is this: God is uncontestable. He is untemptable with evil and so never he contests anyone.
Fourth, since God does not contest who does? The answer is our desire: But each person is contested when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.
In sum, and let’s return to the standard English words here, we should count it joy when we experience various temptations (contests); these temptations (contests) provide opportunities to endure so that we can gain the crown of life. God does not tempt (contest) because he is untemptable (uncontestable) with evil. And we ourselves produce the desire that makes us enter into temptation (contests).
So what does this all mean? First, James intentionally links 1:2–4 and 12–16 together by repeating the keywords: trial, test, testing, and perseverance (Moo 2015: 78). The words mature and perfect appear in both 1:4 and 1:17 too as well as “the theme of God’s giving” in “both 1:5 and 1:17” (Moo 2015: 78). So James draws his readers to see the above-quoted paragraphs to be read together.
For this reason, the noun and verb forms of “temptation” must communicate similar things in each passage. Yet it’s not unreasonable for James to speak of temptation in terms of external trial or as an internal temptation because these are two regular senses of the word temptation.
Second, the word desire can either refer to evil or good desires in the New Testament. So, its meaning depends on context. In this setting, desire seems to be some internal principle that broods until it gives birth to sin. Doug Moo comments: “Desire is pictured as the mother (epithymia is feminine), who gives birth to sin, her child” (2015: 100).
So is the desire that tempts itself sinful? Moo answers no. He explains, “Desire, in itself, is not sin. It is only when a person, by an act of the will, assents to its enticement that sin results” (2015: 100).
Moo’s assessment agrees with Jesus’ teaching during the Sermon on the Mount. As I wrote elsewhere, Jesus specifies that looking at someone with lustful intent (Matt 5:28) is sinful; not merely looking at someone. To look for the purpose of lusting is sin. Elsewise, it is not (see the fuller argument by clicking here).
Paul does elsewhere speak of evil desire (Col 3:15) and the law of sin abiding in our members (Rom 7:23). So there has to be a desire that is sinful. Likely, we should follow Jesus’ lead here in Matthew 5:28 in which he defines unlawful desire as looking with lustful intent.
By purposing to look with lust, one commits adultery in his heart. Since the act of lustful intent occurs in the heart, we can assume that this internalized adultery is an evil desire or an example of the law of sin winning out.
Desire in James 1:14 should probably be defined as evil only if and when someone assents to that desire. And, of course, that desire has to be for some evil end for it to be classified as evil. Wanting to do right, experiencing the temptation to do evil, and then choosing to do right by the Spirit is a morally good thing.
This interpretation makes sense of the context of James in which trials/temptations should be counted as joy since they provide us with the opportunity to grow in an enduring faith. They also give hope to those who struggle with recurrent temptations. While these temptations are horrible, overcoming them by the Spirit means that we have experienced victory over sin.
To call all desire that tempts sinful seems unhelpful pastorally. I understand that some temptations can themselves be sinful. And I affirm that our fallen nature somehow contributes to our desire that tempts us to sin. Something is wrong here. We have inherited a corrupted nature. In the most general sense, sin taints everything we do.
And so, everything we do can fall under the category of sin. Yet the biblical idiom reveals that we can make war with our sinful nature and overcome it. And we make no provision for the flesh, despite its attacks via temptation. If I meet someone who battles recurring temptation and overcomes it, I would be hardpressed to affirm that recurring pattern of temptation is itself wilful sin.
And here is where Holy Scripture’s distinction between voluntary (Heb 10:26, Ἑκουσίως) and involuntary sin (Num 15:24, ἀκουσίως) helps. While both are wrong, voluntary sin carries greater condemnation. Voluntary, high-handed sins impose “a fearful expectation of judgment.”
If we do want to call all internal temptation sinful, then I suppose the category of involuntary sin makes good sense here. We’d have to call some internal temptation voluntary such as looking with lustful intent, however.
I am not sure we can understand every piece of the puzzle. For those of us who experience temptation through our desires, we must pray, overcome temptation, and give God the glory for our victory over sin each time.