“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God;’ for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (James 1:13-15, RSV).
By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.
PERHAPS YOU’VE HEARD IT SAID “sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” There is a basic concept at work here which involves obsession and compulsion. Watchman Nee (1903-1972) was a Christian leader and teacher who worked in China during the 20th century, helping to establish numerous churches in that region of the world. Nee wrote, “It is a pitiful and tragic thing to be obsessed. Those who are obsessed are in a very abnormal condition.” He said obsession encompasses lying and deception. The obsessed Christian lies to himself, pretending there is no problem with his behavior. This self-deception becomes thick like fog, making it nearly impossible to see beyond obsessive thought and habitual action.
What is Obsession?
I have been prone to obsessions throughout my life. Psychology teaches us that obsessions are “recurring thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced as intrusive and unwanted and, for most people, cause anxiety or distress. The individual tries to ignore them, suppress them, or neutralize them with a different thought or action.” The specific details of obsessions can vary widely. For example, they might include thoughts about contamination, a desire for order, taboo thoughts related to sex or religion, or a compulsion to harm oneself or others. Obsessions can revolve around activities that provide pleasure or escape, especially relative to alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, watching pornography, or eating.
At this stage, the brain is typically focused on the so-called benefits of a particular action or habit rather than the negative consequences. One hallmark of an obsession involves what some addictions counselors refer to as euphoric recall. At first blush, this might sound “warm and fuzzy.” Relative to substance abuse, however, this is associated with remembering past drinking and drugging experiences in a positive light, while overlooking negative experiences associated with it. I heard someone at a 12-step meeting say, “Play the tape all the way through.” Huh? He expounded: “Look past the high and the fun and the escape, seeing the eventual consequences of taking that first drink or drug.” In other words, remember the ugly results.
What is Compulsion?
Compulsions are “repetitive behaviors or mental acts that one feels compelled to do in response to an obsession or based on strict rules.” Typically, such behaviors are meant to counter anxiety or distress or to prevent a feared event or situation, but they are not realistically connected to these outcomes, or they are excessive. Although rare, obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions can lead to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). A person suffering from OCD is often plagued by obsessions or compulsions that take up more than one hour a day or cause clinically significant distress or impairment for the individual. In order for this diagnosis to stand, all other potential disorders involving similar symptoms must be ruled out. Psychiatrists and psychologists call this procedure differential diagnosis.
The Book of James
James 1:13-15 explains the process of obsessive thoughts in the believer that lead to temptation and sin. The apostle gives us a few key points to think about. We must remember that James said when we’re tempted, not if we’re tempted. It is inevitable that we’ll be coaxed or seduced (essentially “baited”) to disobey God’s Word. The foundation of such temptation can be demonic or fleshly. It can have physical or psychological roots, or, frankly, both. For example, the enticement to take a drug or to watch pornography has a physical component of pleasure and escape, but it might also have an emotional or psychological component. Depending on your circumstances, such as severe physical pain, the enticement can be nearly impossible to resist. From a psychological viewpoint, the inducement can be pride, anxiety, depression, or boredom. In my experience, both physical and psychological enticement can be equally compelling. The perfect storm, especially for me, is when both mechanisms are at play!
James is quick to tell us that temptation is a solicitation from the devil to do wrong, and is never directed by God (1:13). Satan doesn’t want us to think about the how of our temptation. Instead, he wants us to obsess over the temporary pleasure to be gained when we give in to what is baiting us. The devil will deceive us about the results of taking the bait. Perhaps we’ll buy into this action as having some type of relief or benefit. That’s why deception is his “go-to” device. Our habitual sin is rooted in automatic (compulsive) behavior, focused only on temporary pleasure or escape. Hand-in-hand with the thought that God does not tempt us to sin is the fact that temptation is strictly an individual matter (1:14).
Eugene Peterson places verses 2 through 18 under the heading “Faith Under Pressure.” In his translation The Message, he writes, “Don’t let anyone under pressure to give in to evil say, ‘God is trying to trip me up.’ God is impervious to evil, and puts evil in no one’s way. The temptation to give in to evil comes from us and only us. We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare-up of our own lust. Lust gets us pregnant, and has a baby: sin! Sin grows up to adulthood, and becomes a real killer.” It’s critical that we see what James is teaching us on temptation. He is saying we are lured away from God in the midst of trials by our own desires. It is my experience that temptation is specific to that which I personally find pleasurable. Not everyone is prone to finding relief at the bottom of a bottle or from a handful of opiate painkillers, as I have been. Not all men or women are enticed by pornography. These wiles are specific to each of us, which makes them harder to resist.
On one level, we simply want to sin. Paul taught us this in the seventh chapter of Romans. He says, “But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead” (7:8, NIV) [italics mine]. He reminds us that the law is spiritual, but at our core, that is in the flesh, we are not spiritual. We’re sold as a slave to sin (7:14). Prior to giving his life to the Way of Jesus, Paul was a “Pharisee among Pharisees,” well-educated at the feet of the renowned rabbi Gamaliel. He knew the Law front-to-back. He felt justified in persecuting and murdering Christians as members of a heretical sect of Judaism. No doubt he believed he was helping to protect Israel from the wrath of God.
It is important to note that Paul, a highly-educated Jew who was called to preach the Good News to the Gentiles, and had undergone spiritual conversion on the road to Damascus, still recognized his struggle in the flesh. Exasperated, he said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (7:15-18, NIV).
Be careful, though, for it is possible to allow Paul’s struggle to become a loophole with which you will excuse your own wilful sin. I’ve been there, thinking, If even Paul can’t resist the flesh, then how can I? (See my blog article Do You Look for Loopholes as a Christian?) Wilful sin, however, is anathema to repentance, which literally means “to turn away from.” To repent is to do a 180 and never look back.
So Now What?
Repentance involves having the will to change; to never be the same again. If temptation is so difficult to resist, then what is its purpose in the life of the Christian? We know that sin occurs when we yield to enticement and make a wrong decision regarding our behavior. The dynamics of that mental and emotional process is complex. Although we’ve been freed from being a slave to sin (see Romans 6), we haven’t completely lost our taste for sin. Desires will remain in our flesh for as long as we live in a physical body. What we cannot excuse, however, is the practice of sin. Paul notes this problem in Romans 1:32, using the Greek word prasso to describe wilful sin. This refers to performing sin repeatedly or habitually. One definition specifically states, “to exercise, practice, to be busy with, carry on.”
If we are aware of a particular desire personal to us that entices or lures us into sinful behavior, we are responsible for addressing that behavior. Instead, many of us (me included) agree to be tempted, and we get on with practicing the sin. Looking at it this closely truly exposes the mechanism (the “come-on” if you will) and the chronic, repeated behavior associated with that temptation. Let’s be real: We simply “give in” once again and fail to resist the devil.
Temptation that leads to sin always follows the same process. There are four steps involved in giving in to temptation: (1) the bait is dropped, (2) our inner desire is attracted to the bait, (3) sin occurs when we yield to temptation, and (4) sin results in tragic consequences. To be aware of these principles is to be armed in the face of struggling with temptation. But can a true Christian habitually sin? Many believers wrestle with this question, and often give up and give in, thinking they must not be saved if they cannot stop sinning. Some will even teach that if you have habitual sin in your life you are not really a Christian. One pastor put it to me this way a few years ago: “You don’t have God in your heart.” Ouch! But unfortunately we can have head knowledge about God and Jesus, yet not have the required heart knowledge needed to act according to our beliefs or our intention to do that which is right.
Thankfully, the Bible takes no steps in hiding the sins of key Old Testament figures. Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and David were not super heroes. They were normal men who sinned as Adam did. There is no question that David is one of the Bible’s more prominent figures. Jesus Christ came from the House of David. We are easily inspired by his youthful willingness to fight Goliath, his tender friendship with Jonathan, his worshipful Psalms, and his enduring patience under wicked King Saul. It’s almost hard to believe that this beloved character who’s spoken so highly of in more than half of the Bible’s books would also be guilty of breaking half of God’s commandments. David coveted Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2-3), committed adultery with her (11:4) effectively stealing her from Uriah (12:9), lying to him (11:12–13), and eventually having him murdered (12:9).
Others come to mind as well. Noah was a drunk (Genesis 9:20-21). Sarah doubted God and allowed Abraham to have sex with her maidservant in order to help fulfill God’s promise of a son (Genesis 16). Jacob was a pathological liar (Genesis 25, 27, 30). Moses had a bad temper (Exodus 2, 32:19; Numbers 20:11) and killed an Egyptian. Solomon was said to be the wisest man in the world, but he was a sex addict who took over 1,000 sexual partners (1 Kings 11). The prophets, even as they spoke for God, struggled with impurity, depression, unfaithful spouses and broken families. Looking to the New Testament men of God, we see Peter’s denial of Christ (John 18:13-27). Paul persecuted Christians, often sending them to death, before God chose him to lead the Gentile world to Christ (Acts 22:1-5).
Handling Temptation the Jesus Way
Paul said God intends for us to work out our salvation daily with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Unfortunately, the importance of this verse is lost on many Christians today. It is often used by certain teachers and preachers to instill fear into people, wrongly warning them that they can lose their salvation. (I am working on a blog article on this subject, which will be based on diligent exegesis, to be published at a later date.) Paul was certainly not encouraging believers to live in a continuous condition of nervousness and anxiety. That would contradict his many other exhortations of peace of mind, courage, and confidence in Jesus, the author of our salvation. The answer lies in the Greek word phobou (from phebomai) which Paul uses for the word fear, meaning “to be put to flight.” Paul was likely telling the believers at Philippi to work out their deliverance (salvation) from sin by fleeing from it or, in the alternative, by telling it to flee. This dovetails nicely with James’s admonition, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7, NIV).
The Greek verb for “work out” (katergazesthe) refers to continually working to bring something to completion or fruition. This sounds a lot like the ongoing process of sanctification by which we are “set apart” from our sinful nature for God. Paul describes himself as straining and pressing on toward the goal of becoming like Christ (Philippians 3:13-14). He teaches that the very essence of salvation is holiness—what he calls sanctification of the spirit. He says good works find their only root in salvation and sanctification. In other words, we are not saved by our good works, but rather we are saved for our good works. It is true that genuine Christians are identified by their fruits. Jesus reminds us that He is the Vine, and God is the Vinedresser (John 15:1). The Vinedresser cuts off every branch that bears no fruit, while pruning the ones that do, making them more fruitful (15:2). This is a great description of the process of sanctification through being pruned and made fruitful.
The means by which we are able to work out our salvation and resist temptation is grounded in Jesus. If we want to participate in the salvation and restoration of the world, we must live in a manner that works toward that end. We follow Jesus. This includes coming to understand the power in the Name of Jesus: power to break chains, heal minds and bodies, build the Body of Christ, and rely on the Holy Spirit to clarify the truth of the Gospel. Accordingly, we must not cherry-pick the Gospel. We cannot decide to follow Jesus in some aspects of our lives, but go our own way (or, worse, the way of the devil) in others. If we are going to follow Jesus, we must learn the ways in which He leads. Moreover, we need to examine His relationship with the Father. We have to lock on to these methods and follow them with consistency and completeness. Paul reminds us that this is not easy, and James tells us it can only be accomplished by resisting Satan.
The ways and the means promoted and carried out in the world today are designed to take God completely out of the equation. It is no coincidence that America is suffering at the hands of gun violence, murder, terrorism, hatred, bigotry, increased rates of abortion, brokenness (especially regarding the home), addiction, deception, selfishness, illness, and heartache. Surely, wars are fought and won, wealth is accumulated, elections are won, diseases are cured, and victories are posted, but at what cost? The means by which these ends are achieved leaves a hole in the soul of our country. Many people are killed, others are impoverished, marriages are failing apart, addicts are dying at an alarming rate, our schools and other venues have become soft targets for violence, children are being abandoned and neglected, and worldly churches are hawking their watered-down message in the name of Christ. As a result, we’re not moving toward spiritual maturity.
Simply stated, Jesus said, “I am.” He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the Word in the flesh. The salvation of the world. The Head of the Body of Christ. He said we must repent, believe, and follow Him. We repent by making a decision to turn away from everything we were in the flesh and walk toward Jesus. This must include a change of heart and mind, which is the first step in becoming a new creation in Him. This requires a personal, trusting participation in the reordering of our reality. Lastly, we must follow the Way of Jesus. This involves every aspect of our daily lives, including what we think, how we speak, the manner in which we behave, and how we pray and interact with Christ. To follow the Way of Jesus implies that we enter into a brand new reality that necessarily shapes our character. We cannot separate what Jesus says from what Jesus does and the manner by which He does it, nor can we fail to walk in that same manner.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013.
Nee, Watchman. The Holy Spirit and Reality. Hatfield, South Africa: Van Schaik Publishers, 2001.
Peterson, Eugene. The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus is the Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eeardmans Publishing, 2007.