Download or listen to Lenten Midweek II: “Tempted or Tested” (James 1:12-18)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God, James says, tempts no one. Well, that’s a problem.
It is an immediate problem, since the Greek translation of Genesis 22:1, which we usually call the “testing” of Abraham, uses the exact same word: “God tempted Abraham.” Not to mention that we pray every day, “Leadus not into temptation.” Further, we heard in the Gospel reading for this past Sunday that the Spirit of God drove Jesus out into the wilderness, where He was tempted by Satan. So does God tempt people or not? Does it matter if we soften it to “test”? What is the difference?
The fact is, whether the word implies tempting (which has sin as its goal) or testing (which has endurance, strengthening, and purifying as its goal) depends on the outcome. What is the purpose of the particular test or trial? God’s is a “fatherly testing” (Luther, LW 4:132), and He wants only to purge you of your sin, to cause you to take refuge in Him. The devil and your own sinful flesh want to cause you to sin, to take refuge in yourself. James says: “Each one is tempted by his own desires, which drag him away and lure him. Then, when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). As one fifth-century Christian said, “The desires of sinners are the birth pangs of death” (Hesychius). Or, in other words, death is the grandchild of our sinful desires. Don’t blame God, James says, for your sinful desires, your sin, your death. Don’t say, “I can’t help it; I was born this way.” God tempts no one, and your unwillingness to own up to your own death-dealing desires is just more proof of your rebellion.
So is it testing or tempting for Abraham? The outcome proves that God tests him; tests him so that he will trust God’s own promise, not in what he can see or feel. As far as Abraham is concerned, God “leaves no hope but simply confronts Abraham with a contradiction” (Luther, ibid., 94). A contradiction between the promise that through Isaac God will make his descendants as numerous as the stars or sand, and the command to slay his son. That is not something that can be reasoned out. The only question is whether Abraham will believe the promise or his own understanding? In the end, his faith is firm; he believes the promise, even in the face of death as an undeniable command of the same God. If, however, Abraham had refused the command of God, not believing the promise, he would have sinned and his sin would have given birth to the death of the promise for him. Temptation or test. The outcome determines how we talk about it, but we cannot claim to know the source. Job doesn’t. Job’s test is directly caused by Satan, but Job doesn’t know that. And when we are in the midst of some suffering, some contradiction between what we see and what we believe, we cannot know that either. All we know is the command and the promise, and it is not for us to resolve the tension between them. Yahweh gives, and Yahweh takes away, blessed be the Name of Yahweh.
For James, the issue is not about the word “tempting” itself, but about what it produces for the life of the Christian. Does the trial result in testing and approval, which leads to life? Or does the temptation and desire result in sin, which leads to death? Pray for the first. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials, [temptations,] of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:3-5). Peter says the same thing: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13, ESV). For the Christian, all struggle, all suffering, all difficulty, all sadness, all the problems that come from the conflict between Christ and the world—all of it is testing that is meant to purify your faith, as fire purifies precious metal. The word purify comes, in fact, from the Greek word for fire. Testing gets rid of all the junk, all the dross that crowds out true faith.
But we know all too well how often testing becomes tempting. How often we use the test as an opportunity to exercise our own wills and our desires against God and His promises. We haven’t even resisted temptation to the point of shedding our blood, as so many Christians have; that, too, may be God’s mercy if we can’t yet handle being inconvenienced for the sake of Christ and His gifts, let alone real persecution and suffering.
So until that happens, Lent is a time to practice what James preaches, so that when real tests come, we know how to handle them. It is a time to kill our desires before they can give birth to sin; to drown them, cut them off, burn them down before they get the better of us. This is why we fast and this is why we give; because denying our desires does not come naturally; it is not spontaneous; we do not want to do it. So we begin with small luxuries like meat, coffee, sugar, tv, the internet. But these are only training wheels. In themselves, they only serve to train our sinful flesh and discipline our bodies; they cannot give us new hearts or minds or souls. And so we pray, because we do not have any spiritual strength of ourselves. We use Lent to practice “devoting ourselves” to the doctrine of the Apostles, the fellowship of the Church, the receiving of the Lord’s Body and Blood, and the Prayers of God’s people. Our weakness in all these things, our selfishness, our lack of control of our own desires, ought to drive us to Christ. Only He is tempted and remains without sin; only He is found forever and completely faithful in the face of testing; only He endures all things unto death, so that you may also be found faithful and steadfast, and receive the crown of life. Blessed are you in the Man who remained steadfast under testing, who earned the crown of life by the shedding of His blood and gives it to you without payment. In Him we pray the words of the Psalm: “Prove [dokimazw] me, O Yahweh, and try [peirazw] me; test [purow] my heart and my mind” (Psalm 26:2). Test me and find me faithful in Christ; but do not let me fall! Test me, but lead me not into temptation! Purify my heart and mind, and deliver me, now and forever, from evil! For Jesus’ sake, amen.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/28/12