Resisting Temptations


James, using the appropriate Greek words, shifts his discussion from temptations in the sense of trials to temptations in the sense of enticements to sin. He warns the reader against blaming God for them. Holding Him responsible is wrong for two reasons (v. 13). First, God Himself cannot be tempted. Second, He tempts no man.

This is the only time that Scripture states the obvious fact that God is immune to evil. There is no chink in His armor, no soft spot in His underbelly, no Achilles heel where evil can penetrate and poison the Almighty’s thoughts.

His absolute righteousness is the first guarantee that He is no man’s tempter, for to solicit evil is in itself evil. But lest we fail to draw out this implication, James states explicitly that God tempts no man. Yes, He allows His children to suffer temptation. They must struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. But all these sources of temptation are enemies of God’s righteous order. God permits them to exist because His children grow stronger in divine character as they struggle against corruption. They emerge from life in this world with a practical righteousness that is battle-hardened.

There must have been people in James’s time who reasoned that since God is sovereign, He is the true source of all that happens, both good and evil; further, that the evil He ordains includes the many temptations lining the path of a man’s life. So, in a lame effort to excuse their sin they said, "I am tempted of God."

In our day, we seldom hear this excuse in exactly the same words. We are more accustomed to people saying, "I sin because I just can’t help myself—that’s the way I am—I was born with this problem—it’s part of my nature—etc." Or, "I sin because I am the victim of my circumstances—I had a terrible home life and a rotten education—I was raised in poverty—and besides all this, I am saddled with physical and emotional handicaps." Or even, "The devil made me do it." But all these excuses are equivalent to blaming God.

How can that be? Because God is sovereign. He did not create evil. But as a result of creating moral beings with a capacity for choice, He allowed evil to enter the universe, and He suffers it to continue for a season. Furthermore, He is the direct author of everything good. Therefore, your character, your personality, your environment—all the parameters and dimensions of your life—exist by either His permission or His design. It follows that to throw blame for sin off yourself onto anything else is ultimately to blame God and to say, "I am tempted of God."

Blame-shifting is as old as the world itself. When the Lord questioned Adam and Eve after they had taken of the forbidden fruit, Adam blamed both the woman and God, and the woman blamed the serpent (Gen. 3:12-13).

The true culprit in sin

James provides the final rebuttal of all man’s ingenious attempts to escape responsibility. A man sins for one reason only, because he chooses to sin.

Resorting to figurative language, he compares sin to something born as a result of an unholy alliance between lust and man’s consent. In other words, sin occurs when lust tugs on a man’s heart until he yields and commits sin. Then, as James says, when sin is full-grown and capable of having its own children, it brings forth death (vv. 14–15). Paul agrees: "For the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23).

Notice that James carefully distinguishes between lust and sin. It is not sin to have lust. The word "lust" can translated simply as "desire," and here it clearly connotes a desire for something unlawful, but as James uses the term, lust refers to a desire arising in a man’s heart as an evil suggestion that he can refuse. Lust is a step toward sin, but a step where it is still possible to turn around.

Three kinds of lust

The Bible teaches that we must cope with three kinds of lust—"the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" (1 John 2:16). There are three kinds because man is a composite being, with a soul and a spirit besides a body. All three parts of man carry the inherited stigma of the Fall. All three are depraved. The body generates wrong desires rooted in biological drives such as gluttony and sexual lust ("lust of the flesh"). The soul generates wrong desires to possess things perceived through the eyes or the other senses ("lust of the eyes"). You obey this kind of lust when you look at what your neighbor has and want it for yourself. And lastly, the spirit generates wrong desires to put self in the place of God ("pride of life"). This kind of lust becomes your master when God says to follow a certain road and you defiantly choose a different road.

It must be understood that every lust is the perversion of a desire for something good. For example, the desire for the nourishment necessary to sustain life is hardly sinful, but in excess the same desire swells to gluttony, a form of lust. Likewise, the desire for sexual fulfillment in marriage is wholesome in itself, but is easily twisted into the desire for immoral sex, another form of lust.

Paul said, "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing" (Rom. 7:18). What Paul means by the flesh is the whole motivation of man in his mortal state, whether arising from body, soul, or spirit. The flesh is the sum total of all of our natural desires. The "no good thing" that dwells in the flesh is the tendency of every natural desire in a fallen world to go to extremes and seek outcomes that would hurt self or others. This lustful tendency of the human heart is one component of the sin nature that we have all inherited from Adam. It is the component that creates the potential for sin.

Yet if I sin, I cannot absolve myself by blaming my flesh, just as I cannot absolve myself by blaming God. The choice to sin resides in one place alone, in my will, a faculty of my conscious mind. The guilty party if I sin is not my flesh, but me, exercising my own power of choice. Any sin I commit is my own fault, period.

The secret to victory

In a fallen world, the will of man is weak in resisting the flesh. This weakness is the component of the sin nature that turns potential into fact. If a man resists the flesh, he is free of sin. As James says, sin is not born unless a man gives in to the lusts that tempt and entice him. Sin is always the result of yielding.

Yet before we are saved, our efforts to resist the flesh have limited success. In one way or another, sin gains the mastery over us. But at the moment of salvation, we become a new creature in Christ (Rom. 6:6; Eph. 4:22-24; 2 Cor. 5:17). Although we do not lose our sin nature, we escape from slavery to sin (Rom. 6:13-14).

Victory over sin may also be divided into potential and fact. The potential rests on the work of Christ, who defeated sin and Satan. It rests also on the indwelling presence of the all-powerful Holy Spirit, who offers us strength to resist temptation. The fact rests again upon man's will. We must decide to fulfill our potential for victory over sin. To make the right choice requires God’s grace, and to implement it requires conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit. If with divine help we set our faces against sinning, we will be able to overcome any temptation to sin. Sin will have no power over us (Rom. 6:13–14).

Jesus set us an example of victory by meeting and refusing every possible temptation. He had all the desires we have, yet He prevailed over every desire to do wrong (Heb. 4:15).


Here are some questions to evaluate whether you are guilty of blame-shifting.

1. Do I ever justify myself by claiming to be a victim? Do I say, "I know I’m mad, but who could stay cool after being so mistreated?"

Anger and wrath are frequently rooted in a sense that we have been wronged. Once we see ourselves as victims of mistreatment or abuse, we tend to think that we have a moral right to feel mad, or even to retaliate. We react just like a rat backed into a corner.

Many years ago when I was in the field of psychology, rats were often used as subjects in research on learning and memory. (As you might expect, that research shed little light on the workings of the human brain, which is not simply a larger version of a rat’s brain.) Many times while I myself was performing an experiment with rats, I had to retrieve one of these little beasts from a maze that it was unable to master. A rat is fairly slow on a straightaway, but when backed into a corner, it can attack with the speed of lightning. I always wore heavy gloves, but more than once, a cornered rat, who had spent its idle hours sharpening its teeth on the wire mesh of its cage, bit me so hard that its teeth went all the way through both the glove and my finger. Sad to say, we human beings have defensive instincts similar to a rat’s. When cornered, we lash out. Then we tell ourselves that our reaction was not our fault, but the fault of whoever victimized us. We shift blame off ourselves.

But the Bible is not sympathetic to such excuses. "If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:17-21).

2. Do I pretend that the flesh is too strong to control?

Although everyone above childhood is capable of sexual sin, the most vulnerable are teenagers, since they have the weakest internal controls. It is therefore wise to structure their lives so that before marriage, they will stay away from relationships involving affectionate touching. Some parents oppose strict standards on the grounds that God made the young incapable of wholly restraining their strong desires. I have often seen parents later regret such thinking. When their teenager became involved in impure romance, he or she lost an interest in spiritual things, and in many cases the backsliding led to personal tragedy.

When my sons were still fairly young, I learned that many of the young people I had grown up with in my church were no longer following Christ. What happened in my church was typical. The spiritual casualty rate for children of Christian homes seems to have risen sharply after World War II. In the ’50s and ’60s, when I was in my formative years, the church as a whole failed to retain maybe half of its young people. (Today, the casualty rate is even higher). What were the reasons for the declining success of Christian upbringing in those days? Doubtless one major reason was the growing moral looseness of teenage society. Dating standards had fallen to a new low after the advent of car dating in the ’30s and ’40s.

I was determined to protect my own sons from the dating trap, so in the early ’80s, when they were entering their teens, I wrote a book called With All Purity, which was published by Regular Baptist Press. Its thesis was that to uphold purity, the wise course for the young is to postpone dating until they are old enough to marry. For most, an appropriate time to begin going on dates is during college.

Over the years I have had many parents quarrel with my position. Their objection is usually some variation on the theme, "God did not expect young boys and girls to behave like monks and nuns." I understand that in modern society we have a unique problem. Young people are biologically ready for marriage long before marriage is prudent. As a result, Christian young people today must deny themselves any sexual fulfillment for many years. Is that unreasonable to expect? Are we adults being unfair if we insist on so much self-restraint? No, Christ was capable of all the passions we have, yet He never married and He never sinned. By the power of the Spirit, every teenager can live like Christ. It certainly makes the road smoother, however, if the young avoid premature dating and romance.

Yet many parents do not agree with my standards. Many years ago, I talked to a father about his daughter. I believe other young people had told me that she was involved in a questionable relationship. When I shared this information to him, he did not want to hear it. He said that I was much too strict and that my sons would someday turn against me; also, that we should trust our children, and he trusted his daughter to do right. Sometime later, she was found to be pregnant out of wedlock. How did the father react? He ejected her from the home and disowned her, on the grounds that she had betrayed him. How often have I seen parents blame their children for misconduct the parents had failed to prevent. Here is another kind of blame-shifting. Children are but children. They are weak, naïve, untaught by experience. Parents must accept responsibility for standing in the gap. God has given them the job of protecting their children from life-ruining mistakes.

3. If I have sinned because I could not cope with the troubles of life, have I held God responsible?

Perhaps in desperation you have stolen or cheated to help yourself financially. Or perhaps you have sought to relieve loneliness through sexual sin. Or perhaps in response to an injustice you have sought revenge. And you have justified yourself by saying that God left you no alternative. But James rebukes such thinking when he says, "God tempts no man."

4. How do I handle criticism? Do I automatically rear back and defend myself?

How you should react depends on what kind of criticism it is.

  1. Perhaps it is false and malicious. It can be a shock to discover what others think about you. Some people are quick to pigeonhole you according to prejudice or evil gossip or selfish interest, and then they can always find another unjust person to agree with them. In response criticism of this kind, you are entitled to explain yourself in a reasonable and kind manner. But what if your critic refuses to hear you? You should turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39) and leave justice to God. He, the righteous Judge, will come quickly and settle the matter (Jas. 5:8–9). The only time when you need not turn the other cheek is when the attacker is under your authority. Then for the attacker’s sake you have a duty to undertake proper corrective measures.
  2. Another kind of criticism is false but well-intentioned. The wise response is to hear it graciously and then explain yourself as kindly as you can.
  3. But if someone addresses you with just criticism, your duty is to listen and learn (Ps. 141:5). You must be careful to accept responsibility for your faults, rather than denying they exist or putting the blame elsewhere. Do you know someone who is deaf to criticism? One sign of our fallen human nature is that such a person is often quick to criticize others—like the man who said to his wife, "Sometimes I think the whole world is wrong but me and you, and sometimes I have doubts about you." Why is the person impervious to criticism often so critical? It is a form of blame-shifting. You can maintain the illusion that you are always right only by convincing yourself that in conflicts or disagreements with other people, they are always wrong.

5. How do I react when people I love come under criticism?

Many parents are tragically blind to the faults of their children. But unless they stop living in denial about what their children are really like, they can do little to help them. Any effective strategy for correcting their faults must start with admission that they exist. Every school teacher must deal with parents who use blame-shifting to excuse the misbehavior of their children. Little Johnny is bad because he is going through a phase, or is handicapped by a medical or psychological disorder, or is just seeking attention, or is being picked on by the other kids, etc.

These are the leading excuses. From a teacher’s perspective, they constitute the familiar four. Also very familiar are the common excuses for not doing homework. The classic is, "The dog ate it." I have known teachers who actually received homework papers covered with paw prints. The most brazen excuse I ever heard came from a father who insisted that his son’s homework papers were missing because the teacher lost them.

6. Can I say, "I’m sorry?"

To live with someone who cannot let down his defensive wall and say he is sorry must be a sore trial. Stubbornness of this kind frequently arises from a habit of blaming others.

A teenager’s "I’m sorry" may not be sincere. It may mean I’m sorry because I don’t want you to probe deeper and find something worse. Or, I’m sorry because I want you to stop bothering me so I can get on with my life. Or, I’m sorry because I don’t want you to punish me. An adult dealing with the issue must persist in questioning and exhorting the teenager until he obtains a real "I’m sorry."

Study Questions

  1. Now what kind of temptation does James address?
  2. For what two reasons is it wrong to blame God?
  3. Why does God allow temptation in this sense?
  4. What are the common excuses for sin?
  5. Why are they equivalent to blaming God?
  6. What is the only reason a man sins?
  7. What is the difference between lust and sin?
  8. What are the three kinds of lust?
  9. What is the flesh in which dwells no good thing?
  10. In sinning, where lies the potential and what produces the fact?
  11. In victory over sin, where lies the potential and what produces the fact?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.