Temptations and Good Gifts (1:13-18)

In the very midst of a trial, when I am feeling fear and sorrow and pain, if I am asked by a friend, "What danger or threat is there in your life now, that I may pray for you?" I would probably answer, "Pray for the deadly disease to be healed, or for my financial needs to be met, or for the people to stop doing the things that are injuring me." In other words, I would think of the chief injury being inflicted by the trial, and my foremost concern would be for the trial to be stopped. Now, in 1:13-18, comes a word of God that requires a radical change in our thinking. The Bible says that the trial itself is not the most seriously life-threatening factor. The greatest danger to me is not the wrong being done to me, but the wrong that may be done by me. The real threat is that when wrong is done to me, I may be tempted to fall into sin myself.

This central emphasis by James sometimes is obscured in the debate over the meaning of James's terms and the relationship between 1:12 and 1:13. Some accentuate a distinction between James's terms for "trial" and "temptation." Dibelius would separate them to such extreme that "the seduction by lusts in vv 13-15 has nothing whatsoever to do with the afflictions in v 12" (1976:90). Moo is more moderate in language but still puts the emphasis on a transition in subject: "Thus, despite the fact that the same Greek root (peira-) is used for both the outer trial and the inner temptation, it is crucial to distinguish them" (1985:72). Yet in the next sentence Moo admits that James makes so little mention of such a distinction that Moo is left guessing: "It is probably within verse 13 that James makes the transition from one to the other." Others make the opposite emphasis on the commonality of the two terms and verses. Davids, for example, proposes that "both verses refer to testing" and translates the middle of 1:13 "God ought not to be tested by evil persons" (1982:81-82). Moo is right to reject this as "a very poorly attested meaning" (1985:72), but Davids is driven to this by his failure to observe fully enough the flow of James's thought in logic and vocabulary.

The noun trial (peirasmos) in 1:12 and the participial verb tempted (peirazo) in 1:13 share a common root, and the primary contrast is not between these two terms. This does not mean that trials and temptations are identical and interchangeable concepts. But it does have two implications for our understanding of the text. First, James is continuing the line of thought about the spiritual dynamics of trials. The temptations he has in mind now are especially those that come in the context of his readers' trials—for example, the temptation to harbor hatred or to take revenge toward those who have persecuted them, or the temptation to be covetous and jealous in their economic hardship. This focuses our understanding of the passage so that we will be able to apply it honestly. Societal values might lead us to think of temptation in terms of our appetite for food or sexual pleasure. James wants us to apply the text to our temptations toward hatred and greed and envy.

Second, the really decisive point of contrast to the idea of temptation in 1:13 is the completely different term (dokimion) for "test" or "testing" in 1:12 and 1:3. By using 1:12 so firmly as the start of a new segment united to 1:13-15 (instead of a reference back to 1:2-4 by way of summary as I have suggested), Davids interprets James as dissociating God from the test and "denying that God actively tests anyone" (1982:79-81). There is no debate over the fact that James is warning Christians not to blame God for temptation and sin. However, James does want us to see the testing as a divinely used and positive alternative that stands in direct contrast to the temptation.

James has told us already that God desires the trial to become a test for the development of perseverance leading to maturity. The alternative possibility is now considered: that the trial may become a temptation for sin leading to death. That alternative is emphatically not God's will for the Christian, for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone. James is describing another dimension to the spiritual dynamic, one that stands in contrast to the one already presented in 1:2-4. We can compare the two parallel patterns now in the following way.

TRIAL => TESTING => PERSEVERANCE => MATURITY

TRIAL => TEMPTATION => SIN => DEATH

James will now warn against this second pattern (in 1:13-15) and then encourage a following of the first pattern (in 1:16-18). That these two paragraphs should be so compared will be evident in the parallelism in the outline of their content.

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