“Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” James 1:12
I find the Epistle of James to be one of the most practical portions of Scripture. It is believed that James was the brother (or really half brother) of Jesus and was an apostle and one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. The teachings found in his letter are very direct, addressing what James saw as flaws in Christian conduct, as well as the flaws in the underlying thinking. To illustrate this flawed thinking, James contrasts what he calls a “living” faith with a “dead” faith. He points out that a living faith will result in the appropriate actions, depending on the circumstances, whereas a dead faith will respond incorrectly.
James goes on to make a very bold and controversial statement. He says that if your faith does not result in the proper actions, then you are not justified by God. Wow! Not justified means not saved, or not a child of God; it means that you have been disqualified! In the J.B. Phillips translation of the Bible, in the introduction to the letter of James, Phillips writes this: “The emphasis in this letter on behavior has sometimes been supposed to contradict Paul’s teaching on ‘Justification by faith’. In fact, it does not contradict but complement. Paul says a man is ‘justified’ before God not by achievement but by a real faith: James says that the test of a real faith is whether it issues in appropriate behavior.”
Let’s be very clear here. The error of the Jews was their focus on their behavior, that is, the keeping of God’s rules and regulations, without an emphasis on faith. They disregarded the need for a true, living, real faith, like the faith that their father Abraham had. Therefore, they were unable to keep the law (that is, unable to walk in love and thus fulfill the law). Today we have the opposite of this. Some Christians place an emphasis on faith, with no regard for the resulting behavior that faith should produce. The result is a dead faith.
James is very explicit about this:
“You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” James 2:24
“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” James 2:26
James also makes it clear that a Christian can be deceived into thinking that their faith is sufficient, when in fact it is not. It is easy for us to be double-minded or to think that a simple belief in the existence of God is sufficient when it is not.
“You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble!” James 2:19
The bottom line is that we must make sure that our faith is real. We must make sure that we have not deceived ourselves, but that we have made the truths of the scriptures a reality in our lives. We must have a true, living faith that results in the appropriate “works” that confirm our justification before God.
The apostle Paul also supports this need:
“Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you – unless indeed you are disqualified.” 1 Cor. 13:5
And so, we must look at our actions to see if they confirm that we have a “living” faith. If there is a problem with our actions, then the root cause is that our faith is dead. We must therefore strengthen our faith and make it a real, living faith. James gives us some direction with this approach, but first we must recognize the problem.
The practical advice of James in his letter regarding our actions can be categorized into two areas. First, there is the need for a response of love in certain circumstances. One example he gives is seeing a brother in need. The response from seeing the need should be in meeting this need if you have the means to do so. In general, there are times that we should respond in action based on the reality of our faith, giving us the understanding and motive to do the proper thing. In these circumstances, a lack of action would be a problem; this would indicate a problem with our faith.
In the second category, there are situations when we are tempted to take some action, but we should restrain ourselves. In these circumstances, taking action would be a problem. It’s this second category that I want to examine more deeply.
Another way of looking at this second category is to recognize that temptation is the source of the issue. James says that we are tempted in life, and that we must endure the temptation. Where does this temptation come from? Do we wake up some day and out of nowhere suddenly have a temptation to kill someone, or to rob a bank, or destroy someone’s life? No. James sheds some light on this:
“But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.” James 1:14-16
We see from this scripture that temptation is a gradual process that over time will lead to sin, then death. I believe this is spiritual death, not physical, that James is referring to. At the root of the temptation is our desire. We must guard our desires. I believe that the battle against sin is won or lost at this early phase when our desires are trying to take root in our heart, when they are “incubating” and working towards the “conception” that gives birth to sin. We must nip the desire at the root.
Notice that our desires are directly associated with our faith, or lack thereof. If we are focused on the things of this world, the physical pleasures, or wealth, fame, success, the praises of men, or any other thing associated with earthly things, then our earthly desires will take root in our heart. (this indicates a lack of true faith) But if we have our focus in heaven and the spiritual things (true faith), our desires will not be of the type that will cause temptation leading to sin, but rather they will cause our desires to be aligned with God’s will and pleasing Him.
Remember that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction (or reality) of things not seen.” Faith will shift our focus to be on the hope we have of a future in heaven and on the promises that have been made real by the coming of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. This faith in the promises gives us the power to overcome any misdirected desire that will lead to temptation.
Let me relate a personal story that will illustrate this point. A few years back I had some major changes in my life. One major change was the loss of my home. I was laid off from a job and had trouble getting another job during the economic crisis in the US back in 2008. As a result, I lost my home to a foreclosure. It was a beautiful, 3 bedroom home on an acre of land, with a finished basement, 2 car garage, swimming pool, on a dead end street – it was a dream home, but it was gone. When the foreclosure happened, I was pretty much broke. Fortunately, the Lord made provision for me. A good friend allowed me to stay in a room attached to his office. It had a small kitchen, and I had to use the bathroom in his office, that fortunately had a shower. As nice as it was to have a place to stay, it was still a major change from the home I was accustomed to. One day I was helping this friend deliver some fire wood to someone who lived in a beautiful home out in the country. As we drove up to this home, it reminded me of the home that I lost. I could feel this desire for a home like this taking root in my heart. I felt also that I could have started feeding and supporting this desire with emotions, like feeling sorry for myself, or thinking that I deserved to have a nice house, or that this was the “American dream” that I should now start to work towards. But I also recognized that this desire was taking me in the wrong direction. I was coveting this house. I was envious of the person who owned the house. I felt that this desire could begin to grow into more improper feeling and deeper desires. I immediately began to turn around my thinking. I reminded myself that I had a permanent mansion in heaven that God was preparing for me, and that this home was temporary, and one day would be destroyed with the rest of this earth, if not before then. I also reminded myself that if God wanted me to have a house like this in the future, he would make it come to pass, but I did not have to let my desires for the house be a driving force to make it happen. I put these earthly desires to “death” by seeing the situation with the eyes of faith, knowing and convincing myself of the reality of a future in heaven that was the permanent reality that I should focus my desires on.
I am not saying that desiring a nice home is necessarily an evil thing, but we know when a desire is a fleshly one that will eventually produce sin. Our conscience will bear witness to this also. This is how we endure temptation and find approval with God. Some of these desires that produce temptation are “fiery darts” directly from the enemy, and they must be “extinguished” by the “shield of faith”.
“..above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.” Eph. 6:16
Sometimes these desires don’t go away so quickly. We need to persevere. We need to encourage ourselves in the Lord. We need to look to the Word of God to see how other men of God persevered. James suggests this also:
“My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord – that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.” James 5:10-11
To summarize, recognize that our faith is real, true and living if it results in the appropriate actions. These appropriate actions equate to love. We must make sure that our faith is producing a change in us, and more specifically, that we are responding in love to circumstances that we face in our life. Some circumstances will require action, like helping others in need. Other circumstances will require restraint of actions. The restraint of action starts with control of the desires that enter into our hearts. We must guard our hearts and make sure that we don’t allow strong, earthly or fleshly desires to take root and develop into sin. If we endure, we will be blessed with a “Crown of Life”. If we give in and falter, we face the threat of being disqualified. The source of any problems is our faith. We must constantly examine and test our faith, and correct our thinking to align with a real, living faith if need be.
I leave you with these words from Paul:
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” 1 Cor. 9:24-27