The received wisdom of our day says that when things go well, real leaders praise others, and when things go poorly, they blame themselves. Of course, we often do just the opposite. Managers say, “The people who work for me just aren’t motivated,” rather than, “I can’t seem to motivate my people.” Pastors complain, “My elders have no commitment,” rather than, “I have not been effective at raising and training elders.” When athletes explain how they won a close contest, they rarely say, “We had a dose of dumb luck at the right time.” They say, “Good things happen when you keep competing.” We also tend to blame outside forces for misfortune and credit ourselves for success. The tendency to get angry at others, to shift blame, is part of the challenge of responding properly to the trials of life.
James 1 begins by telling us to rejoice in trials, since we advance to maturity through them (James 1:2–4). The next paragraph says we need faith and wisdom to advance (vv. 5–12). James tells us how to understand the phenomena of testing and failure (James 1:12–18). He says, “Don’t be deceived” (v. 16), for it is easy to be deceived. He says, “Know this” (v. 19 ESV), because we must know some things to understand testing correctly.
The overture to James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance …” (1:2–3). James rounds off the first section in 1:12 by declaring again that testing can bless us: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” Yet verse 12 also starts a new section by offering a deeper account of trials and growth.
Blessed Endurance and Life Eternal (1:12)
When James says, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial,” it reminds us of other Scriptures. Psalm 1 blesses the man who loves God’s law, who bears fruit and prospers, while the wicked perish. Matthew 5 blesses Jesus’ disciples in their poverty of spirit and their hunger for righteousness. The kingdom is theirs and they will be filled.
The Greek word for “blessed” is makarios, which means “happy” in ordinary speech. But the psalmist and Jesus and James have no ordinary happiness in mind. They think not of the fleeting pleasures of a satisfying meal or a good laugh. They have in mind the joy that comes from God. It lasts through persecution and trial, because God is in the trial.
James 1:2–4 describes the present benefits of trials. If we withstand our tests, they strengthen our character; they promote endurance and maturity. James 1:12 names the final result of trials: we receive the “crown of life.”
So God grants life and righteousness to all who endure, to all who seek Christ, to all who love him. Love may have an emotional component, but to love God means principally to confess his name and to keep his commandments (Ex. 20:5–6; Deut. 6:4–9; 1 John 5:2). James says that God intends trials to strengthen our love for God and our faithfulness to him. Sadly, trials do not always produce maturity. When facing trials, some doubt God’s goodness and turn away from him. Instead of growing deeper in faith and love, so that they long for the crown of life, they blame God for their troubles. James corrects this error in 1:13–15.
James knows that a test can be taken two ways. We can view it as a trial and turn to God for aid, so we persevere. Or we can read it as a tragedy, or as a senseless accident, or as a failure—on God’s part—to love and protect us. Worse yet, some who meet trials blame and attack God for them, accusing him of malice. They say he tests them too severely, pushing them toward sin so they will fall. When they face tests, they do not endure, but give up. Believing failure is inevitable, they do fail, and then seek someone to blame. “God is tempting me,” they say (James 1:13). “He is leading me to ruin.”
James says that this is preposterous. He writes: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (1:13). God never singles anyone out for impossible tests, tests they are bound to fail. God does not entice men and women to sin. To do so would be evil. Neither is God tempted to do evil, nor does he entice others to evil, for that would be evil, too.
God does test his people, of course. Genesis 22 says God tested Abraham when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac (v. 1). That is, God gave Abraham an opportunity to demonstrate the authenticity of his faith. He also tested Israel in the wilderness. He sent one day’s supply of manna each day and told them to gather nothing beyond their daily needs, but to trust God to rain down manna the next day. “The Lord said to Moses.… in this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions” (Ex. 16:4).
The test of Abraham revealed the strength of his faith, but the test of Israel revealed their lack of faith. So do God’s tests become temptations at some point? Yes and no.
By his design, tests provide the opportunity to endure in faith, to grow strong, and to receive a crown. Yet God knows and controls all things. He knows that some will face tests and fail. So the same event is a test from one perspective, for one person, and a temptation from another perspective, for another person.
In fact, in Greek the same noun peirasmos can mean “a test,” “a trial,” or “a temptation,” and the cognate verb peirazō can mean “test,”“try,” or “tempt.” The context determines what the author has in mind: a test that lets people prove themselves, or a temptation that leads them to sin. In James 1:12, the word means “test”; in verse 13, it means “tempt.” So, if the same event can be a test or a temptation, can the charge be valid? Does God lead people into temptation and sin?
No, says James. If a test becomes a temptation, it is sinful human nature that makes it so. God does not “tempt anyone; but each one is tempted … by his own evil desire” (1:13–14). Jesus teaches us to pray that we would not be led into temptation. That is, he tells us to petition the Father to spare us from tests we would be doomed to fail. If we do fail, it is because our desires lure and entice us. As James says, “… by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (1:14).
In biblical language, “desires” are not intrinsically evil. For example, in Luke 22:15, Jesus desires to eat the Last Supper with disciples; in 1 Thessalonians 2:17, Paul desires to see the Thessalonians. Yet if we simply count the uses of the term “desire,” most desires are sinful. This reminds us that our desires easily turn to evil, so that we can readily turn something that is good in itself to evil.
Testing and Temptation in the Old Testament
James says God intends trials to promote endurance, so that we who love him receive the crown of life (James 1:2–4, James 1:12). To endure in trials, we need wisdom and faith (James 1:5–6). If we fail to endure, we should not blame God. If we succumb to temptation, it is because we let our desires drag us into sin. We have no more right to blame God for our sin than the Israelites had a right to blame God for their wilderness grumblings. God had shown every sign of his covenant love. If they doubted him, the failure was theirs, not his. And so it is for us.
There are two potential paths in any test. Testing met with endurance makes us mature and complete; it leads to life (James 1:3–4, James 1:12). Or testing met with selfish desire leads to sin and death (1:14–15). “Death” is more than the death of the body, tragic as that is. Rather, just as faith and endurance lead to eternal life (1:12; cf. Matt. 10:22), so selfish desire and sin lead to eternal death (Rev. 20:14–15).
This is the worst possible result of testing, and an idea we might prefer to avoid. Therefore, James commands, “Do not to be deceived, my beloved brothers” (James 1:16 ESV). James warns his readers against blaming temptation and sin on God. He hopes his readers see the truth. Sin begins in our hearts, which are all too willing to follow evil desires. How foolish it is to succumb to temptation, then blame the results on God.
The Result, for God
By trusting in the gospel, believers become “a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (James 1:18). “Firstfruits” is language from the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. The firstfruits are the first product of field and flock. The Israelites offered them to God (Ex. 23:16–19; 34:19–26; Lev. 2:12; Num. 15:20–21; Deut. 18:4). The New Testament uses the term “firstfruits” metaphorically to describe new life in the Spirit in union with Christ (Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:20, 23). But James probably has three Old Testament principles touching firstfruits in mind:
- All the produce of flock and field come from God. But the firstfruits were especially his. The rest of the food was for daily use, but the firstfruits came to priest and tabernacle.
- The firstfruits were only the best (Ex. 23:19; 34:26).
- The firstfruits were an annual confession that God supplied the year’s bounty, that he was faithful to his covenant people yet another year.
James says God’s people are his firstfruits. We are the first and the best of his “produce.” He will prove faithful. He will care for us year by year, even as he cared for Israel in the wilderness. This is what the tests should teach us. If we fail, our failure teaches us to turn to God for mercy, as he offers it in the gospel. Then as we persevere with him in love, come what may, we will receive the crown of life that he has promised.