Though I never saw it, there once was a TV show in which the main character, Flip Wilson, used to routinely justify his mischief by saying, “The devil made me do it.”
The devil never makes anyone do anything. There is not a single act of sin we may commit which we can blame on the devil. That’s not to say he isn’t involved–the Holy Spirit tells us through the Apostle Peter that he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 PET 5.8b)
So, who is actually to blame for our high crimes and misdemeanors, then? James tells us who in James 1.13-15, and then reminds us in verse 16, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.” While some translations (my ESV, for one) place this verse in the next paragraph, it seems to make far more sense as a summary warning for verses 13-15, in which it is clear that some of the apostle’s readers were deceived about who is responsible for acts of sin:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by 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 fully grown brings forth death.
THE THEOLOGICAL REASON
James first offers a theological rebuttal to the accusation that God tempts people to sin. The fact that sin is possible and available in the world God created does not constitute divine temptation. God was not sadistically using reverse psychology in Eden when He instructed Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. James reminds his readers of two critical theological facts about God: His separateness from sin Himself and his hatred of sin in us. These two facts serve as the backdrop for what he says next. If sin is never God’s fault, whose fault is it?
THE PHYSIOLOGICAL ILLUSTRATION
To allow James to illustrate his point, the Holy Spirit uses an illustration about human reproduction–conception, to be exact–by comparing an act of sin to the process by which life is formed in the womb. He makes it clear that this is what He is doing when he says, “…desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin,” in the first part of verse 15.
Just as two things are required for conception, an egg from the female and sperm from the male, two things are required for an act of sin to occur–desire and enticement, or opportunity. The devil cannot provide the desire–he doesn’t have to. James says that desire is our “own desire,” the cell we provide. Satan can certainly point out opportunities, though–he did that in Eden and has been doing it ever since. When desire and opportunity come together, an act of sin is often conceived. We sin when we allow our desire to dwell on and seriously consider the opportunity. This is what James means when he talks about being “lured and enticed.”
Let me illustrate. If I am an alcoholic and stumble upon (sic) an unopened bottle of whiskey on a table in an abandoned building, I have a problem. Desire and opportunity have met, and they’re climbing into bed. My best strategy is to turn around and run–or stumble–out of the building as fast as my legs can take me! If I have an aversion to alcohol, a bottle of the very best Scotch would not tempt me, even if I knew nobody would see me drink it. On the other hand, if that bottle is empty, I won’t take a drink no matter how badly I want one. I can’t drink what isn’t there.
So it all comes back to us. What are we to do, since the desire to sin is part of our makeup as fallen people, and the opportunity to sin is ubiquitous in our fallen world? Until God removes the desire, we need to run from the opportunity, just as Joseph ran from Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, leaving his blazer in her hands in his haste to escape.
If we know the Lord, we can be reassured that God “predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son. ” (ROM 8.29) One of the things conformity to Christ involves is the removal of sinful desires from the heart of the believer. (Remember, Jesus never had any.) Sometimes this removal is immediate and dramatic. Sometimes it is more gradual, a constant struggle to evade the lion who is always on the prowl.
James grew up with Jesus, who, ironically, was not conceived in this way. Nor did He ever have the desire to sin, though He was “in every respect tempted as we are.” (HEB 4.15) James could never convince him to participate in neighbourhood shenanigans with the other the kids in Nazareth, or to lie to their parents, or to steal matzoh from the matzoh jar. Imagine growing up with a sibling who never once had the desire to do wrong–never!
When you sin, James says–and you will–don’t deceive yourself by saying, as Adam did in the garden, that it’s God’s fault. It isn’t.
Don’t forget about that lion, and don’t forget about the birds and the bees.