Quit the excuses and resist temptation.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 February

James 1.12-15.

The letter of James moves from suffering to the related subject of temptation—’cause when we’re suffering, or even threatened with it, it’s easy to fall into temptation.

But when presented with quick ’n dirty ways out, a bothersome number of Christians shrug, and take the immoral and sinful option. Because it’s easier, and because of cheap grace: They figure God forgives all, so God’ll forgive that too. Sin some more, and there’ll be more grace, which’ll take care of it. Ro 6.1 Resisting temptation is just too hard.

Worse: Some of us will get downright fatalistic about it: “I couldn’t see any other way out.” Never mind the apostles telling us God always provides one; 1Co 10.13 they figured our fallen world is so twisted, they’ll find themselves in no-win scenarios, trapped with a tragic moral choice where there’s nothing but sinful decisions. (Pry a little and you’ll find there were moral options, but they just didn’t care for them.) Blame society. Blame biological urges beyond their control. They might even blame God.

Rubbish, James taught:

James 1.12-15 KWL
12 A man who survives temptation is awesome:
Being tested, he’ll get life’s crown, which God promised those who love him.
13 You who are tempted: Never say, “I’m tempted by God.”
God’s not tempted to do evil: He tempts nobody.
14 Each person is tempted, lured away, baited, by their own desires.
15 Then the desire conceives and gives birth to sin; the full-grown sin produces death.

Lots to unpack here.

Starting with the reminder God rewards people who do resist temptation. Some of ’em come in this life; some in the next. 2Ti 4.8, Rv 3.5, 12, 21 His kingdom, fully inaugurated once Jesus returns, is one of those rewards. It’s what we Christians are busy preparing ourselves, and our world, to exist in. Should be, anyway. Crowns, in the first century, meant you won, whether you won a footrace or a battle. If you haven’t personally defeated temptation… well, you may still inherit the kingdom, but you don’t merit any crown.

And possibly won’t inherit the kingdom. Jesus expects those who love him are gonna do as he tells us. Jn 14.15 Those who don’t, who figure Jesus’s instructions are merely nice hypothetical ideals, who deem God’s commands obsolete in the current dispensation, have no evidence, no fruit, of our love for Jesus. We’ve got bad fruit at best; we may not even know Jesus, nor have ever really trusted him to save us. If anything, we inherit outer darkness.

No, I’m not saying fruitlessness sends people to hell. Other way round: People on their way to hell are invariably gonna have rotten fruit, or no fruit. People who never resist temptation, who figure God’s unlimited forgiveness applies even to those who don’t love him at all, are setting themselves up for the worst surprise ever: They won’t receive the kingdom. Ga 5.21 Their whole lifestyle demonstrates otherwise.

As do their usual excuses for this lifestyle:

  • “I can’t be good like that. Nobody can. Total depravity has screwed humanity over. ‘All have sinned,’ and everybody’s just gonna keep right on sinning till Jesus returns and fixes us.”
  • “If God didn’t want me to sin, he should’ve kept that temptation away from me. He knew I’d fall right into it. I can’t help myself.”
  • “We’re not saved by good works anyway!”
  • “I’m not really to blame. The devil is. Society is. Or God—who permitted the devil to run amok, and for society to go astray—is.”

At their core, all these excuses have one thing in common: Determinism, the belief our circumstances are beyond our control, ’cause someone else has rigged the universe so we’ll follow a pre-planned path.

A universe where everything’s decided for us.

Determinism isn’t a Christian idea; it’s a human one.

That’s why every religion has determinists, who figure God (or the universe) rigged the universe to do as he wants, and we just do as we’ve always been predestined to. Even irreligious people, even nontheists, might believe in it: This molecule knocked that molecule, and like a row of dominoes falling over, these molecules randomly produced them and their condition. Nothing they could’ve done to prevent it.

Determinists are pretty sure that while it feels like we have free will, and can make free choices, that’s just an illusion. Life programmed us to think as we do. Programmed us to think we have free will, too. Or, in their case, programmed ’em to realize they don’t. (So it actually wasn’t all that clever of them to recognize and embrace their belief system. Why, then, do they feel so much pride for choosing to believe it?… Well anyway.) We think we have free choices; really we just stick to our programming.

Fr’instance: Given a choice between white or black socks, the decision feels like it’s entirely mine. But determinists say it’s not really. My culture pre-programmed me to choose white for some occasions, black for others. Nine times out of ten, I’ll follow my programming. The one time I don’t is either ’cause someone suggested, “You claim you have free will, but you conform all the time,” so I rebelliously (but predictably) responded, “I’ll prove you wrong—in this minor, stupid way—by wearing white socks with this suit, and that’ll show you.” (That, or all my black socks just need washing.) Regardless of my reasoning, choice is an illusion. It’s all programming.

Here’s where it goes awry.

When it comes to temptation, determinists insist we still have no real choice. I’ll resist, or not, depending on how well I’ve been conditioned. If I was raised to resist sin, I will. If I wasn’t, I won’t. Either my “natural, innate tendencies,” which are really just the result of parental guidance, “naturally” resist temptation, or they don’t. Either I always give in, or I don’t. Humans are, again, predictable.

So let’s say I’m a horndog. (’Cause I was conditioned to be, by our oversexualized culture.) Say I have an opportunity to cheat on my wife. So, nine times out of ten, I will. ’Cause that’s my programming. That’s “just who I am.”

Might put up some token resistance at first, just because I know I should resist, or at least make a hypocritical show of it. Might make me feel better when I acted in some degree of self-control, rather than absolutely none. Might feel guilty later. Might not. But programming is programming; or as determinists put it, “all have sinned,” and all therefore are gonna sin. And keep right on sinning. ’Cause that’s “just who we are,” as humans.

And if it’s just who we are, it means sin’s not our fault. It’s someone else’s. Whose? Well, the most viable candidates would be the devil… or the LORD. And you’d be surprised how many Christian determinists are perfectly happy with pinning this one on the LORD. He created the universe, so he must’ve created us this way.

Calvinists believe God is so sovereign, so totally in control of the cosmos all the way down to the quantum strings, everything only does as God pre-decided. We’re running out a program God set into motion billions of years ago. He decided to create humans… and also decided we’d sin, Jesus would rescue people from this sin, and which specific people Jesus’d rescue. The rest? Not getting saved. Going to hell.

So when we get tempted, it’s not just with God’s disapproving non-interference. Like when God turned Satan loose to do horrible things to Job. Jb 1.11-12 It’s God’s plan. It’s not Satan choosing, in its free will, to test us; it’s God choosing—’cause he and only he has free will (sorta)—to arrange things so Satan would think it’s choosing to test us, and so we’d think it’s a legitimate test, but it’s not really, ’cause God already rigged the outcome.

Basically the universe just some simulation God’s running out.

And if that’s the case, we can relax about all this sin stuff. It, like everything else in the universe, is a simulation. We’ll commit ’em because it was predetermined we’d commit ’em, but it’s no big deal because it was also predetermined we’d go to heaven. So, live your life and relax about the moral consequences.

But doesn’t such a universe mean God’s ultimately the cause and source of all evil? I mean yeah, he’s using proxies like the devil, but he programmed the devil.

Now you see the problem.

God doesn’t do evil.

Christian determinists have gone to a lot of trouble to invent clever logical explanations for how God can totally program the system, yet somehow not be at all responsible for any of the bugs in it. Jewish determinists tried it too, which is why Jesus ben Sirach, one of the writers of the Old Testament apocrypha, called it hogwash.

Sirach 15.11-20 KWL
11 Don’t say, “I fell away because of the Lord”: He hates that, and won’t do it.
12 Don’t say, “He tricked me”: He never needs sinful men.
13 The Lord hates every nasty thing, and those who fear him, don’t love them.
14 He made humans in the beginning, and put free will in their hands.
15 You’ll keep the commands when you want,
and do acts of faith when you please.
16 He set fire and water before you, and you’ll hold out your hand for whichever you choose.
17 Life and death are before humans, and he’ll give you whichever you please.
18 The Lord’s wisdom is so great, strong, powerful, all-seeing—
19 his eyes on those who fear him; he’ll know everything humans did.
20 And he commanded no one to be ungodly.
He doesn’t give anyone a license to sin.

(If you ever wondered why Puritans got rid of the apocrypha in Protestant bibles, this is probably why.)

God is not such a weak being, he has to micromanage the universe. He can create beings with free will, and work with, through, and around us.

Determinism has no place in Christianity. God doesn’t need beings to do his dirty work so his eventual goals get accomplished. He’s not so desperate to have his kingdom, he’s willing to compromise his goodness, and suborn evil. It’s why James stated, “God’s not tempted to do evil.” Jm 1.13 He wants no part of it. He wants us to have no part of it.

Yeah, God “hardened the heart” of the pharaoh of the Exodus. Ex 4.21, 9.12, 10.20, 11.10, 14.8 In other words, he closed the pharaoh’s mind. Made it so the pharaoh didn’t care to listen to Moses, despite plague after plague of proof the LORD meant business. Determinists claim this proves God will suborn evil when it suits him. It does no such thing. A hard heart—a closed mind—isn’t sealed shut. Otherwise apostles and prophets needn’t bother to try to get through to such people. Is 46.12, Mt 19.8, Ro 2.5 Like a door, anyone can open a mind again. God closed the pharaoh’s mind, but the pharaoh was always free to reopen it, and didn’t. He hardened his own heart; Ex 7.13, 22, 8.15, 9.7, 34-35, 13.15 his stubbornness was really the result of his own free will. Not God’s programming.

God doesn’t tempt.

When the LORD let the devil cut loose on Job, it wasn’t because he wanted Job to fall into temptation. On the contrary: He knew Job would hold fast. Jb 2.3 Plenty of Christian determinists miss this point and insist, “But God did sic Satan on Job… which means God does sic Satan on us!” Yes, but it doesn’t at all prove God does this in every single circumstance. God had a crown waiting for those who resist temptation, Jm 1.12 like Job. God also knows there are plenty of us who’d immediately fall into such temptations, which is why Jesus instructed us to ask the Father: Pretty please don’t do that. Mt 6.13

James goes even further: “He tempts nobody” Jm 1.13 is kinda obvious. Jesus’s prayer request is for the Father to rescue us from evil, Mt 6.13 because that’s what the Father wants to do. Not drop us into the middle of it, and fight our way out. That’s what we’d do, if we’re stupid. Not how God works.

The word peirádzo/“tempt” tends to get translated “test.” Thing is, “test” implies there’s some doubt as to whether we’ll stand or fall. And while we humans will definitely doubt how we’ll do, there’s no doubt in God’s mind: He already knows the outcome. Already knew Job would never reject him, no matter what Satan pulled. Jb 1.8-12 Job’s sufferings proved nothing to God.

So why’d Job go through all that misery? Because God knew he’d overcome, and now we have an entire Spirit-inspired book about theodicy. (Too bad most Christians only bother with the beginning, the happy ending, and skip all the meat in the middle. But I digress.)

Testing isn’t part of God’s plan to bring order to the universe. Testing is chaos. God isn’t the creator of chaos; that’s an oxymoron. So where’d the chaos come from? Duh; us. We wanna be selfish, and violate God’s orderly universe so we can get our way, and the devil’s perfectly happy to egg us on. We wanna fulfill our idle lusts, get our wants accommodated… and if it breaks God’s commands and heart, inconveniences or even destroys others, we shrug and figure a little evil in the world isn’t so bad.

Testing isn’t good. The fact it “builds character,” as my dad loves to put it, doesn’t justify it. Testing sucks. Jesus told his students to pray against being put to it. Lk 11.4 There are far better ways to build character than being beset by enemies, or suffering hardship. Studying the scriptures, fr’instance. Fruit of the Spirit. Good deeds. These are the ways God wants to build character in us. Yeah, he can do it by redeeming us after we’ve been pressured to sin, and failed. But doesn’t it make way more sense to study his ways, and just do ’em? Ps 119

Finally, James uses a pregnancy metaphor to describe how lust produces sin, which produces death. Most commentators think it’s a really well-written line, but miss the point James tried to make. What sort of testing were his readers going through at the time? Persecution. Death. James was showing the connection between the death his readers suffered from, and the lusts which they weren’t resisting as much as they ought. And once again: We need to learn by studying this, and not the hard way by failing at temptation and suffering consequences and persecution.