Lesson Focus: James longs for us to have the wisdom to know from where our temptations come and to know from which direction help at overcoming them might arrive.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:
Understand the general aim of James’ letter.
Be encouraged to seek God’s wisdom in knowing where temptation comes from.
Be encouraged to seek God’s wisdom in overcoming the temptations that come from our disordered desires.
Catch Up on the Story There has been much debate about who is the writer of James. There are several options, and to lay them out all before you would be tedious, so I am not going to do that. It will suffice to say that the author of James, and we’ll call him James, is someone with authority and credibility within the early church movement.
Additionally, we don’t know much about the occasion for this letter. Unlike most of Paul’s letters, we only get a short description of who the letter is to, “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” James intends that this letter be read wherever there might be gatherings of those who believe. At this time in the ancient world, Jews were living all over the known world as a lasting consequence of the Exile. Christians were also forced to de-centralize due to persecution from both Jewish religious leaders and civil authorities. There is also significant debate on the style and form of James’ letter. Some believe that it isn’t a letter at all.
At the same time, others see the letter as a collection of disjointed wisdom sayings. Though, many will argue for an inner coherence to the letter. This is the view I will take as we explore what James has to say. To choose to focus on only one of the themes that present itself in James’ letter would be too restrictive. So, as we move through the letter over the next few weeks, we’ll curiously examine all of what James has to say.
This week, we’ll jump ahead to verse 12 in chapter 1. To this point, James has offered a greeting, encouraged the faithful to find joy in the trials that they will inevitably face, ask God for wisdom, deeply contemplating who they are in the light of what Jesus had done for and in them.
This week’s text will be split up into two sections, verses 12-18 and verses 19-27
Trial and Temptation At the beginning of the letter, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it but joy… (1:2). James makes it clear that trials and persecutions are simply a given in the Christian life. It is not a question of if but when. These trials aren’t meaningless. However, they produce in the one suffering endurance that will soon result in growth and maturity. At the beginning of verse 12, James reiterates his earlier statement through the use of a beatitude. “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation.”
While trials, suffering, and the like, aren’t the same as “temptations,” the ideas are the same. Both persecutions and the temptations of everyday life offer opportunities to live in faithful obedience to Jesus Christ. Persevering in both situations will bring growth, maturity, and wisdom. James must have been hearing from the various places Christians could be found, that some began to believe that those trials, and the temptation that Christians face, were caused by God. James will have none of this. “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.”
There’s a brand of theology out there, and it is popularized on tv and radio that everything happens for a purpose, and, consequently, when bad things happen to us, or when we are tempted to sin, that this is God’s doing. Some will say that temptation to sin is God testing us to see if we will be faithful.
What a revolting thought! At least it is for me. I’ll admit, this line of thinking has caused me some grief and anxiety over the years. What kind of God would sit up in heaven thinking, “Let’s throw some drugs in front of Jason and see how he does! If he passes this test, great, I’ll reward him handsomely. If not, well, he’ll just have to miss out on some of my blessings!” Now, I have to admit that in the Old Testament, there are some stories where we are told that God tests a particular character. We don’t have time to look at how we should probably read those stories, but I’m convinced that we shouldn’t read them and project God’s behavior in those situations into our current world.
We have to remember that while the Old Testament is important, it doesn’t have the benefit of God’s fullest and best revelation to us, Jesus. So, we have to read the Old Testament through Jesus’ life.
At the very least, thinking that God tests or tempts us places the blame on God and relieves us of our responsibility for our behavior. Our responsibility in living faithful and obedient lives is exactly James’ point in this section of the letter. “…for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself is tempted by no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.” (1:13-15). Here, James uses a conception/birth metaphor. Temptation comes our way through our uncontrolled selfish desires. When we let those desires linger and focus on them, we become enticed even more by them. Before long, our desires conceive, and something begins to grow, the beginnings of sin.
Now, I’m not sure it’s too late. The birth of sin can be avoided. But that’s not James’ point. Just like when a mother has carried her baby to term, the time comes to its fullness, and new life is created. Only in James’ metaphor, it is sin that is brought into the world. Little baby sin, produced of the union of ourselves and our disordered desires. Again, I’m not sure it’s too late for the new parent to escape what that sin will become when it is fully grown. God always provides a way for us to change courses. But if we don’t do anything about the little baby sin, and then the child sin, and then the adolescent sin, the sin becomes fully grown, becoming what it was always going to become, death itself. Maybe not actual physical death, but at least spiritual death, the death of relationships, health, goodness, and well-being, the death of peace, or God’s shalom.
Again, we’re a hopeful bunch, and we must read this progression in the light of the rest of scripture. It is precisely in our sinful and deathly state that God in Jesus Christ died for us. No one is too far gone. But James isn’t necessarily talking about those who have not known Christ; he’s talking to believers who have already been freed from sin and the death that results from it. Believers were beginning to think that God was tempting them when in reality, they have no one to blame but themselves!
By the way, we can’t use the devil as a scapegoat either. While I’m not going to deny the existence of spiritual evil in the world, I’m going to affirm the fact that the devil doesn’t make you do anything. The devil plays on your disordered desires. It is entirely up to you what you, through the power of the Spirit, do with those temptations.
No, James says, tempting humans isn’t a part of God’s nature. That’s the very opposite of God’s character. As we see in verses 17-18, James makes the argument that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the father of lights…” (1:17).
The church’s confession has always been that all good things come from God. God’s desire for all of creation is that it be made whole, reconciled, restored to its original beauty. And the world doesn’t get that way if God is constantly throwing ugliness into the world. God has given us a new birth, as other New Testament writers will affirm. Our new birth is by the word of truth, the truth of God’s goodness and grace. And God has done this so that you and I might become what James calls the “first fruits of his creatures.”
In other words, God is not tempting or trying us. God is working toward our wholeness and our flourishing in the world. In doing so, we become those who take the wholeness and flourishing that God has gifted us into the world so that others might return to God as well. To shift the image, we are becoming the first citizens of the Kingdom of God, and our job is to help bring others into the Kingdom and helping them to become good citizens as well.
So What? One of the themes that run through the book of James is wisdom. Indeed, James touches on it at the beginning of chapter 1. Wisdom means different things to different people, and I’m not so sure there’s one universal definition to which we all might assent. But James isn’t concerned with a universal kind of wisdom. He’s concerned with a very particular type of wisdom.
To use the Apostle Paul’s language, James is concerned with the wisdom of the cross, not the wisdom of the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). If Paul is correct, and we can heartily agree that he is, God uses the wisdom of the cross, of self-sacrificial love to shame the wisdom of the world. James narrows the focus of wisdom to help the believer grow into mature believers who don’t just know right from wrong but dare do the right thing.
James’ world is not that much different than our own. Many things tempt us, and Christianity is one religion among many. And our sinful human natures have not changed much either.
Trials and suffering for the sake of Jesus Christ, for many, are a genuine reality. Though I dare say in America, Christians aren’t nearly as oppressed or persecuted as some would have us believe. The point is that it’s easy to get caught up in the temptations that surround us, and it’s easy to blame just about anyone or anything for our own failures, including God. Blaming God for our sinfulness is just something we cannot do. God is the giver of all good things. We confess that God is coming again to set all things right, to make all things good and true again, and God is not concerned with testing us to see if we’ll be faithful. If anything, God knows that we are weak, frail, insignificant and that we often fail miserably.
Remember, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Who we are deep down is known by God. God desires to see us liberated from sin and the death it produces, not tested by it. But what does this have to do with wisdom?
At least in this first chapter, the wisdom about which James speaks is of knowing where our trials and temptations come from, our disordered desires.
James wishes that we would be wise enough to see that we are our own worst enemies. We long for things, good things, but we long for them maybe a little too much. We’re lured and enticed by them, and soon enough, we give in, and sin is born. But James just doesn’t want us to focus on our own sinfulness. No James wants us to see how our very good God, the giver of every perfect gift, is giving us help so that we might not succumb to our sinfulness but that we might give birth to something else; faithfulness. Well, if we’re going to follow the text strictly, it is us who are born anew as the first fruits of a renewed and restored creation. God through Christ is working through us so that we might recognize temptation and sin, defeat it, and continue to be reborn and remade into a people who participate with God’s work of redemption in the world.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Why would James address his letter to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” Who are the twelve tribes, and to where have they been dispersed?
Do you think James is addressing those who already believe or those who might soon come to believe? What makes you believe this?
James states that we are to consider it a joyous occasion when we face trials of any kind. What do you think he means by that? What kind of trials might Jame’s readers have faced? What kind of trials might we face today?
What does James say is produced when we are tested? What’s the ultimate outcome of testing?
Have you ever heard someone say that God was testing them in a particular situation? Do you think God tests us? What makes you think that?
James is adamant that God does not test us. From where does James think our testing comes?
When desire conceives, it gives birth to sin. Do you think it’s too late for God to work in our lives? Is it too late when sin is born or when it’s fully grown?
James says that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above…” (1:17). How might this statement support James’ argument that God isn’t the one testing us?
One of the themes in James’ letter is wisdom. In the context of these first 18 verses, specifically 12-18, what do you think James hopes wisdom from God will help us see?
What do you think James means by “so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creation” (1:18).