In The Odyssey, Homer tells of Odysseus’s long journey home after the Trojan War. At one point, Odysseus sails past an island in the Aegean Sea, where there are sirens (mythological bird-women) who lure sailors toward their island with their beautiful song. But the island is encircled with jagged rocks that destroy all approaching ships. Odysseus wants to hear the sirens’ song, so he plugs the ears of his crew with wax while ordering them to tie him to the ship’s mast. He finds their music so alluring that he pleads with his men to release him. He almost goes mad as the sirens entice him. If free, he would have risked all to respond to their song.
That’s what temptation is like. It allures and entices us, yet ultimately leads to destruction. And this brings us to James’s main point in these verses.
The Origin of Temptation
“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” (v 13). Why would anyone blame God for temptation? The reason is simple: “All the ways of man are pure in his own eyes” (Prov 16:2). We don’t want to assume responsibility for our sin; therefore, we blame everyone and everything but ourselves. We even blame God. This is usually done in one of two ways. (1) We blame our sin on God’s power. We reason as follows: “God is Creator. He made me this way. It isn’t my fault. It’s God’s fault.” (2) We blame our sin on God’s providence. We reason as follows: “God is Governor. He decrees all things. It isn’t my fault. It’s God’s fault.”
The truth is, however, that God doesn’t tempt anyone to sin. As James makes clear, God doesn’t solicit to sin because he himself can’t be solicited to sin. So where does temptation come from?
The Deceitfulness of Desire (vv 14–15)
“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” According to James, temptation begins with “desire.” There’s nothing wrong with desire as created in the image of God. But what happened as a consequence of the fall? “Desire” came under the dominion of self-love. We now live “in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Eph 2:3). The desires of the body have become the “lusts” of the body: gluttony, sensuality, drunkenness, immorality, etc. The desires of the mind have become the “lusts” of the mind: envy, malice, pride, ambition, greed, etc.
This “desire” is the source of all temptation. It “lures” and “entices” us. The term “lure” is related to fishing. When I go fishing, I don’t simply throw a hook in the water. No fish is going to swallow a shiny hook. Instead, I disguise the hook with bait (a fishing lure), in order to deceive the fish. That’s the idea in our verse. The desires of the body and mind, governed by self-love, lure us. They deceive us into thinking something is what it isn’t. They tell us that the pleasure of sin outweighs the pain.
Let’s imagine, for example, a woman who struggles with anger. It’s destructive, abusive, offensive, and repulsive. It renders her out of control. It has detrimental consequences in the lives of others, culminating in verbal and physical abuse. She knows it, but “desire” tells her that the gratification of her anger will make her happy. Let’s imagine a different scenario: a man who struggles with pornography. It’s degrading to people, dishonoring to God, destructive to sexuality, detrimental to marriage, and so on. He knows it, but “desire” tells him that the gratification of his lust will make him happy.
In both cases, “desire” promises something — e.g., joy, control, power, pleasure. And it convinces the individual that surrendering to temptation is the means to attain what’s promised. It’s the siren’s song! But what does desire actually bring? James tells us: “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (v 15).
Our Response and Application
Given the life-cycle of “desire” (Conception → Birth → Growth → Death), we need to deal with it at the start: conception. This means that we need to deal with the motivational drives that give rise to it. How? The following list isn’t exhaustive, but representative — a good place to start.
- We devour the Word
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. … I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps 119:9–11). The Word of God is the means by which the Spirit of God works in our hearts, cultivating love for God and crushing love for self.
- We plead with God
“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt 6:13). Recognizing our vulnerabilities, we cry out to God for assistance. “I’m vulnerable to alcohol like Noah, so keep me from strong drink. I’m vulnerable to lust like David, so keep me from Bathsheba. I’m vulnerable to pride like Ananias and Sapphira, so keep me from man’s applause. I’m vulnerable to greed like Demas, so keep me from riches. I’m vulnerable to corruption like Diotrephes, so keep me from power.”
- We get involved in a local church
“Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24–25). We need encouragement and exhortation. Therefore, we must avail ourselves of what God has put at our disposal in the context of the local church.
- We keep busy
“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom 12:11). Do you recall David’s sin with Bathsheba? Instead of leading his army into battle, he was sitting idly at home. Inactivity is a perfect breeding ground for the desires of the body and of the mind.
- We see life as a battle
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things” (1 Cor 9:24). The term “self-control” is agonizomai, from which we derive our English word agony. We need to remember that the pursuit of holiness is a battleground, not a playground.
- We consider the consequences of sin
“All who hate me love death” (Prov 8:36). The consequences of sin are innumerable. The wages of sin are incalculable. This is true in this life and the one to come. We ought to take to heart John Owen’s famous dictum: “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.”
- We guard our mind
“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov 4:23). The mind is the gateway to the heart. The ways in which we use our mind will inevitably determine the condition of our heart, the direction of our life, and the bent of our character.
- We remember we’re dead
“You also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11). Upon the cross, Christ took our place. Because of our union with him through faith, his cross is made ours. We now have communion with him in his life, death, and burial. This means that God imputes these to us as if we had performed them in our own person. As a result, we’re “alive to God in Christ Jesus.” We need to act accordingly.
- We confess our sin
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). When we fail, we don’t need to wallow in our sin and shame. We can turn immediately to our heavenly Father, present our case before him, acknowledge our wrong-doing, and claim Christ’s merit.
- We look to Christ
“Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1). We must marvel at God’s redeeming love in Christ. This leads to poverty of spirit. A melted heart is gripped, enthralled, captivated, and overwhelmed, by the realization that, in Christ, God forgives us our open sins and secret sins. “Desire” can’t thrive in such a humble heart.
Dr. Yuille is Teaching Pastor/Elder of Grace CommunityChurch in Glen Rose, Texas. He has served the Lord as a missionary, preaching elder, and as a seminary professor at Toronto Baptist Seminary in Toronto. He is the author of several books including The Inner Sanctum of Puritan Piety: John Flavel’s Doctrine of Mystical Union with Christ and others.
Want content updates by email?
Visit our subscription page to select what type of content you would like to be notified about!