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Today's Study

James 1:13: God Does Not Tempt Anyone?

When a person is suffering, it is always a temptation to blame God. After all, is God not sovereign? Doesn't everything in some sense come from him? Thus James 1:13 pictures a situation in which a person is suffering (being persecuted or experiencing disadvantage due to a commitment to Christ), and this suffering is testing the commitment to God. The question is, Will this person remain faithful to God or disobey him? (The Greek term that is translated "tempted" also can be translated "tested," so I will use the two terms interchangeably.) Precisely in such a situation the person might want to blame God. "God, you sent this situation, and it is too hard for me. It is your fault if I give in."

Paul speaks to just such a concern in 1 Corinthians 10:13. Yet the problem for modern readers is not the situation, but James's response. How can he say God does not tempt anyone when Genesis 22:1 says, "Some time later God tested [or tempted] Abraham"? Furthermore, if God cannot be tempted, how could the Scripture speak of Jesus' being tempted, assuming that the writers believed that he was God? Isn't this a clear situation of one scriptural author contradicting another?

These problems are related, for both the issue of whether God tests (tempts) anyone and the issue of whether God can be tested call upon the Old Testament testing (tempting) tradition. This tradition begins with Abraham, who is presented as one who is tested and passes the test, God concluding, "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son" (Gen 22:12). Later in the Pentateuch, however, Israel is presented as the group that when tested "disobeyed me and tested me ten times" (Num 14:22). This means that their response to the testing of God in the wilderness (Ex 15:25) was not that of trusting obedience, but that of blaming and demanding (this is what happened at Massah, a name that means "testing" or "tempting"; Ex 17:2, 7). This resulted in commands such as that in Deuteronomy 6:16, "Do not test the LORD your God as you did at Massah." (Ps 78, 95 and 106 reflect on this tradition.)

James sees the testing situation occurring in his community in these Old Testament terms. His concern is that the believers should be trusting like Abraham; they are not to be as Israel and fail the test by blaming God. James gives two reasons for not blaming God. We can translate the first reason "God ought not to be tested by sinful people," instead of the traditional translation "God cannot be tempted by evil." The Greek word apeirastos, translated "ought not to be tested" (or "cannot be tempted"), is found only once in the New Testament and nowhere else previously in Greek. Later it is found only a very few times in the church fathers. In those later contexts my translation fits as well as or better than the traditional translation. Furthermore, my translation makes better sense in the context in James. It would be hard to see why the fact that God cannot be tempted would make it wrong to claim that he is behind a test, but it is easy to see that "God ought not to be tested" meets the situation, for then the phrase paraphrases Deuteronomy 6:16 and tells them not to blame God as Israel did at Massah, which is the very thing James pictures them doing. This also solves the problem of Jesus' testing (or temptation), for he was in fact tested by an evil being, which this translation allows to be possible, even if it is a sinful act.

But what about "God does not tempt [test] anyone"? To deal with this problem we must consider the development of doctrine within and between the testaments. Old Testament Hebrews, at least in their earlier period, traced all events directly back to God. Whatever happened, God caused it. This level of revelation was quite appropriate, since God's first task with Israel was to convince them that there was only one God for them to worship. Beginning late in the Old Testament, however, and continuing into the intertestamental period, it became clear that other beings often actually caused the test. While God, since he is sovereign, could have prevented a given situation, he did not instigate every event. This development is seen clearly in Scripture by comparing preexilic (or early exilic) 2 Samuel 24:1, which reads, "[God] incited David against them," with the postexilic 1 Chronicles 21:1, which says, "Satan . . . incited David." The later book shows a more complex picture. It does not deny the previous model, but it admits that the model that traces all events directly to God leaves out details and complexities that later revelation fills in.

The Jews took their clue from such examples of development in Scripture and understood many other Old Testament Scriptures in this same way. For example, in Jubilees 17:15--18:16 the story of Abraham is retold in terms similar to Job. (Job is a later book that, with Chronicles, fits into the period when Judaism knew more about Satan than it did before the exile.) In Jubilees the Prince Mastema (Satan) comes to God and demands that he test Abraham (whom God knows has already proved faithful in many tests). The test, then, does not originate with God, but with Satan.

This appears to be James's position. In his concluding call to remain faithful to God under pressure, James says, "Resist the devil" (Jas 4:7). Satan is the one who is behind the test. This belief is simply stated, not argued. Even in his earlier passage (Jas 1:13) James does not have to explain this to his readers, for they share with him the same theology. So he can simply remind them of the fact in one line, "God does not test [or tempt] anyone." It is not God who wills ill to people and tries to make them fall; it is Satan. It was not God who wished to do evil to Abraham, but the devil. Therefore rather than blame God (who gives only good gifts, Jas 1:17), Christians should look within at their own desires, which make them vulnerable to the Satanic test and lure them to fall (Jas 1:14). Having seen this, they should stand firm, thus resisting the devil, the ultimate mastermind behind all temptation. Not only is this position good for James's day, but it warns against the same danger of blaming God and gives the same strategy for standing in the test that is appropriate for today.

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The Scripture never asks why God does not prevent certain situations, except in statements such as 2 Peter 3:9, which suggests that his desire for the salvation of as many as possible keeps him from intervening in a drastic way. We human beings, of course, do not know which events God does not prevent because he has some hidden purpose in them and which he does not prevent because to do so would mean to bring the end of the age prematurely. We can speculate on this, but Scripture does not enter into our speculation.

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