One of our hopes as a church is to bring together two things which seem, in actual practice, to constantly repel one another. Bringing them together, holding them together is difficult, and many churches have fallen into one ditch or the other. The two things are practical help in living the Christian life and theological depth in understanding the character and works of God.
Theological Depth or Practical Help?
Some churches major on practical help in living the Christian life and minimize theological depth. Their pastors preach sermons that feel relevant to people and give concrete steps of what people should do to follow Jesus. But because they minimize theological depth, because they believe theological depth often hinders practical Christian living (by producing pride, divisiveness, ivory tower Christians), the practical help is often shallow and hollow. On the other hand, some churches major on theological depth and minimize practical, how-to Christian living. Their pastors love the depths of the Bible and preach the great and big things of God. And because they believe that theological depth and a great vision of God is the main thing that people need, they don’t spend a lot of time pressing into the details and getting concrete with how we are to faithfully live. Each side of this tension looks at the other with suspicion and uses the excesses of the other to justify their own tendencies. “We don’t want to be arrogant, irrelevant eggheads, so we focus on what it means to practically follow Jesus. We’re going to major on what God wants us to do.” “We don’t want to be shallow, rootless Christians, so we focus on the great truths of the gospel and trust that theology will produce whatever life-change is necessary. We’re going to focus on what God wants us to believe.”
If we were going to locate James along the spectrum of practical help and theological depth, I suspect that our inclination would be to place him on the practical help side. If we want theological depth, we need to read the letters of Paul or the discourses of Jesus in John’s gospel. But if we want to live out the gospel, we should read James. The book is often classified as a kind of New Testament wisdom literature, and wisdom is the art of living faithfully in God’s good but fallen world. Wisdom is practical; it focuses on our daily, lived experience. And this is precisely what James does. As Pastor David mentioned a few weeks ago, the book has over 50 imperatives in 108 verses. James is constantly telling us what to do and not do. “The abundance of commands is a signal that [James] has a practical bent and is interested in action rather than mere belief as the distinguishing characteristic of Christians.” And that’s true. James does have a practical bent. But one of my aims this morning is to show you how James brings together the practical bent with deep, profound, complex explanations of God and his relation to the world and to us.
Let me try to show you the theological depth of James by reflecting on what I found to be the most puzzling part of this passage. Verse 16: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.” When I read that, I thought, “Deceived about what? What lie or mistake or deception should I be on the lookout for? How does James’s discussion of facing trials and hardships, enduring temptation, and receiving good gifts help to undeceive us?” Before I try to answer that, I just want you to see that odd verse and its significance. James doesn’t want us to be deceived. He doesn’t want us to believe lies or make mistakes. Or, put it positively, the Christian life is first a fight to believe truth. Before we can do, we must believe, and we will find that, if we fail in believing, our doing will be difficult. Obedience to the 50 commands and exhortations in James will be hindered, if we do not have a clear, complex, careful sight of who God is and how he relates to us. If we reject the theological depths, we won’t get the practical help.
From Trials to Temptations
Let me begin by building from Pastor David’s message from two weeks ago. James teaches us that Christians should expect trials and own their pain while counting them all joy, and that God does his most important work in us through trials. Trials test our faith and produce steadfastness, leading to maturity. God grows us up into full and complete people through various trials, and promises a reward—a crown of life—if we endure through trials. We believe that God uses trials, even that God ordains trials for good and wise purposes, and promises to compensate us in the next life for the suffering and hardship that we endure in this one. As Paul says, “This light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). So don’t lose heart; instead, count it all joy.
Our Elder Affirmation of Faith, which is the teaching document that summarizes the convictions of the officers of this church, testifies to this big God theology:
We believe that God, from all eternity, in order to display the full extent of His glory for the eternal and ever-increasing enjoyment of all who love Him, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His will, freely and unchangeably ordain and foreknow whatever comes to pass.
“Whatever comes to pass.” All things, including trials, hardships, sufferings, are ordained by God for his glory and our joy. But this creates a danger, a potential deception, and James doesn’t want us to be deceived. The possible deception or mistake is this: We believe that God ordains trials, and therefore, we believe that God tempts us to evil.
This misunderstanding is enhanced by the fact that in Greek, the word for trial and for temptation is the same. Look in the passage.
Count it all joy when you face trials of various kinds. (1:2)
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial… (1:12)
Let no one say when he is tempted, I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. (1:13-14)
This is what I mean by theological depth. James is telling us that this is not simple. Yes, God sends trials to test our faith and mature us. No, God does not tempt you to do evil. All of a sudden we have to develop new categories of thought to make sense of this; otherwise, we’ll be deceived.
So what are these new categories? I find one key in comparing 1:13 to 1:17. Don’t say, “I’m being tempted by (apo) God.” “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from (apo) the Father of lights.” In other words, trials and temptations are not from God in the same way that gifts are from God. Gifts are, properly speaking, from God. Temptations are not. When you receive a good gift, God is the one doing the giving. When you are being tempted, God is not the one doing the tempting. If he was tempting you, that would mean he himself was drawn to evil, and that he wanted to lure you into evil as well. And that’s impossible.
The key for James here—and it is a deep, profound, complex theological truth—is that, while all things are from God, all things are not from God in the same way. We could say it like this: Good things are from God directly. Bad things, hard things, evil things (like trials and temptations) are from him indirectly. Or, God is the source, origin, and author of good things, because he is good; he is not the source, origin, and author of evil things in the same way, because he’s not evil or tempted to evil. In other words, there is a crucial asymmetry in God’s ordaining and sending of good and evil.
Now, if you’re like me, that distinction is still murky. But James actually may give us a helpful way of making the distinction, and it’s in the phrase, “Father of lights.” Think with me about light; for instance, the sun. The sun is responsible for both day and night, both light and darkness. Both light and darkness are “from the sun.” But they are not from the sun in the same way. The sun causes light by its presence; light comes from it directly. The sun causes darkness by its absence; darkness comes from it indirectly. You could say the same thing about the sun’s heat. The sun causes summer by giving heat. The sun causes winter by withholding heat. That’s what I mean by asymmetry. Darkness and light are not two equal things that flow from the sun, as though the sun contained both of them. Light flows from the sun directly, because the sun is full of light. Darkness is the result of the sun indirectly, because darkness is the absence of light. Heat flows from the sun directly, because the sun is hot. Cold is the result of the sun indirectly, because cold is the absence of heat.
So also with God as the source of good things and hard things. Isaiah 45 says, “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light, and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord who does all these things.” Light and darkness, well-being and calamity (or evil) come from God. God sends both good things, and he sends hardships and trials. But he is not the source of them in the same way. “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Light is from him, because he is light. Darkness is from him, not because he has darkness in him, but because when he withholds light, darkness results. Which means God gives good things directly; he sends trials indirectly. And this is important to James, lest we be deceived, and in our deception, be unable to endure trials faithfully and receive gifts gladly.
This is why the fact that we use two English words (trial and temptation) to translate the one Greek word (peirasmos) may help us. At first, I thought it might be a hindrance. But perhaps the two words accent the asymmetry. What direction do those two words point? Where are they headed? When we use the word “trial,” we accent the fact that the goal is to pass the test. The goal is to be approved. The direction is toward steadfastness, maturity, completion. In other words, the trial has a good, positive, fruitful purpose. When we use the word “temptation,” what’s the direction? Toward evil. When you tempt someone, you’re trying to lure them toward evil. So perhaps it’s good for us to say that God sends trials to test our faith (positive outcome), but God never tempts us to do evil (negative outcome). In other words, the same thing can be viewed from two different angles. Think about the hardship or trial or allurement in your life. From one angle, it’s pulling you towards anger, frustration, pain. It’s leading you that direction. But from another angle, it’s pushing you toward steadfastness, faith, maturity, and completion. From the first angle, it’s a temptation toward evil. From the second, it’s a trial towards good, and so you can count it all joy as you face it and endure it and wait for the reward.
Practical Help in our Vision of God
Now I said at the beginning that James brings together theological depth and practical help. We’ve explored the theological depth—all things, including hardships, are from God, but not all things are from God in the same way. Good things are gifts from him directly. Trials are from him indirectly. He sends trials; he gives gifts. How does that clarity—that avoidance of deception and error—help us to live? I’ve got two directions for help in this passage, one related to our view of God and one related to our view of sin. First, think about the practical results of losing that deep, complex theological vision of God’s relationship to gifts and trials. What happens if you flatten out those distinctions or deny one side of the truth?
You might deny that God sends trials to produce maturity in us. You might say that he doesn’t have anything to do with hardships, pains, sufferings. And so you face them believing that they are ultimately meaningless, that your pain is pointless, that God is powerless to help you. And so in the midst of trials, you despair. And if that’s you this morning, I want to encourage you to go listen to Pastor David’s sermon about the hope we have because we know that God sends trials for our ultimate good.
But let’s say that you believe that God sends trials, but that you don’t make the distinction between the way that he causes good and the way that he causes evil. You flatten out that distinction. What practical effect will that have? I see a few possibilities. On the one hand, you’ll try to deceive yourself into thinking that hard, painful things are good in themselves. “God is sending me this, so it must be good and pleasant and delightful in itself.” You’ll read “Count it all joy when you face trials” and take it to mean, “Pretend this isn’t hard and painful. Trick yourself, deceive yourself into thinking that trials are delightful in the way that pleasures are delightful.”
Another possibility is that in the trial, you’ll start to blame God. You’ll say, “God has sent this trial to test my faith. Therefore, if I fail, he is to blame.” Like Job’s wife, you’ll experience unbelievable pain and your attitude will be “Curse God and die.”
Another possibility is that you’ll begin to view God as a cruel sadist, as someone who delights in your pain. And therefore, you won’t run to him in your pain. You’ll run from him. You won’t rely on his strength and compassion to endure the trial; you’ll try to rely on your own (because that’s all you have) and you won’t make it for long.
But this deception won’t simply affect your experience of hardships. It will affect the good things in your life as well. Good things come into your life. God is kind and blesses you. But because you believe that he sends trials, you can’t really enjoy the goodness, because you’re terrified that “Behind a smiling providence, he hides a malicious face.” The goodness you have now is just God fattening you for the slaughter. This is what the gods of the ancient religions were like. As one person said, “We are their bubbles. They blow us big before they prick us.”
The result is that your view of God is constantly distorted. In hard times, he is a cruel sadist. In good times, he is a trickster waiting to spring his trap. It’s impossible to live the Christian life under such distortions and deceptions. And so James is adamant that good gifts come down from a loving Father, and there is no shadow of turning with him. He’s not playing a trick on you. Good gifts are from him and designed to lead you back to him, and hard painful things are not from him directly but are instead designed to produce steadfast faith and maturity.
Practical Help in Resisting Temptation and Fighting Sin
How then does James’s view of temptation and sin help us to live the Christian life? Notice again the complexity and depth of his exhortation. He’s just said, “When tempted, don’t say, ‘God is tempting me, God is enticing me to do evil.’” But if temptation doesn’t come from God directly, where does it come from?
But each person is tempted 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.
Stages of Sin
James describes the process of sin and temptation in terms of pregnancy. There are three stages: Enticing Desire, Willful Sin, and Spiritual Death. Technically, these are three generations. Desire gives birth to Sin. Sin grows up and gives birth to Death. Grandparent, Parent, Child.
Now I said that the first stage is “Enticing Desire,” but it might be more faithful to add a stage before it. While the word for desire here is most often used in the New Testament to refer to sinful desires, it can be used in a positive sense (“I desire to depart and be with Christ;” “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you.”) And when we add in 1:17 about the source of good things, I think we should add a fourth stage at the beginning.
Stage 1: God gives good gifts, which we desire to enjoy.
Stage 2: Those desires go astray, and we begin to want things at times or in ways or in degrees that God has forbidden. Desire is now enticing and luring us away from God and toward evil.
Stage 3: Desire conceives and gives birth to Sin. We pass from temptation to concrete, deliberate, willful disobedience to God.
Stage 4: That willful disobedience grows and becomes stronger until it gives birth to spiritual death. We have hardened our hearts.
Notice that this is deep, complex, nuanced view of sin and temptation. Desire and Temptation are not the same. Temptation and sin are not the same. Sin and death are not the same. There are distinctions that we must make if we’re to resist temptation and kill sin. And those distinctions, that theological depth, has practical, real-world effects.
Here’s one: this process of temptation and sin shows us the danger of little sins. We are so tempted to think that we can be a little bit pregnant with sin. We want to play with the lures, dabble in fantasies, nurse small grievances. We fondle our lusts or our pains or the wrongs done to us, and we think, because the sins seems so small in comparison to some, that it’s no big deal. Until it is a big deal. The reality is that giving in a little makes it harder to resist next time. Sin grows; it matures; it snowballs. Every small choice in Sin’s direction hardens the soul in that direction. Apart from repentance, the pressure builds and builds, until finally it blows, and we find ourselves amidst the wreck of our great evil, wondering how we got there.
Here’s another: if we fail to distinguish godly desire for God’s gifts from enticing desire and allurement, then we’ll treat the gifts of God like idol traps. He gives us good things, and we view them with suspicion and hostility because he’s dangling temptations in front of us. Or, every time we experience a desire for a gift, we feel guilt because we want something other than God.
Here’s another: if we fail to distinguish temptation from deliberate sin, then every experience of temptation brings the full weight of condemnation down on our head. We develop a hypersensitive and false conscience. We experience each temptation as though death was already born in our soul, and we despair. The slightest hint of a temptation kills all joy, all comfort, all security in the God’s promises. And this inevitably spirals into greater sin, because if you’re already beaten from the word “Go,” what’s the point of fighting?
Here’s another: if we fail to distinguish deliberate sin from its consequences in spiritual death, then we won’t believe that the gospel is for us. If we knowingly and willfully disobey God, we’ll think that we’ve gone too far, we’ve out-sinned his grace, and we’re doomed. But the reality is that in this life, we’re never doomed. There’s always a way back. The gospel is always good news. You may have been a prodigal. You may have willfully despised your Father and spent the good and perfect inheritance that he gave you on your own sinful pleasures. But it’s never wrong to be the prodigal coming home. You can still come home.
This brings us to the Table. This Table is a good and perfect gift, sent to us from the Father of Lights. This Table reminds us that it’s never too late to come home. You’re never too far gone. Don’t be deceived. The Father of Lights sent his Son to redeem us from sin and death. He was perfectly obedient, tempted in every way, yet without sin. He endured the greatest hardship—a sinner’s death, forsaken by God, and he did so for us and our salvation. And he received his reward. God raised him from the dead. And now his word—the word of truth—has been sent out into the world, and it is bearing fruit. Sin brings forth death. God, by his own will and desire, brings forth us, causing us to be born again, as a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. We’re resurrection people. We are forerunners of the new world that the Father of Lights is making. In baptism, we identify ourselves with that new world. We say, “We belong to Jesus.” And at this table, all those who have come into his family share in the family meal, and we say again, “We belong to Jesus. In good times, in hard times, when the gifts are perfect, when the trials are painful, when the temptations pull, we press into our God. We belong to him.”