Introduction: Something Small Can Be Deadly
How many of you have ever wanted a snake as a pet? Probably not many of you. Most of us do not like snakes because we recognize how deadly they are, don’t we? Not very long ago, I was researching the world’s most deadliest snakes, and I came across many of the familiar ones: the rattlesnake, the viper, and finally the black mamba.
The feared Black Mamba is found throughout many parts of the African continent. They are known to be highly aggressive, and strike with deadly precision. They are also the fastest land snake in the world, capable of reaching speeds of up to 12 mph. These fearsome snakes can strike up to 12 times in a row. A single bite is capable of killing anywhere from 10-25 adults. The venom is a fast acting neurotoxin. The victim experiences a tingling sensation in the mouth and extremities, double vision, tunnel vision, severe confusion, fever, foaming at the mouth and nose, and depending on the nature of the bite, death can result at any time between 15 minutes and 3 hours.¹
But they are so small. People who die from their bites are not expecting to die from their bites. People go into areas their not supposed to, and unknowingly, BAM! They get bitten. It’s ironic how something so small can be so deadly. In our passage tonight, James the brother of Jesus, warns us about something very small that can be very deadly—our own desires. We probably don’t think about our desires very often, but it is our very desires that cause our temptations. Our desires are the source of our temptations, and if nothing is done about them, there are deadly consequences.
The Text: James 1:13-15, ESV
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
I. The Goodness of God During Temptations (v. 13)
You’ve probably noticed that I have not included verse 12 in with this passage. In your translation, it is likely that v. 12 is part of the paragraph containing verses 13-15 also. I haven’t included it in this part of the passage because it is a verse that serves as a pause or reflection on James’ previous thought. He had just finished talking about enduring trials (1:2-11), and now he is beginning to talk about temptation and personal sin. So for this sermon, it is better to start where James starts his new thought, and that is in v. 13.
I want us to notice first that James talks about the goodness of God during our temptations in v. 13. And the idea here is that God cannot be responsible for our temptations because He is a good God. James writes first a word of warning and of comfort: “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”
James presents a scenario of a man who is being tempted and blames God for his temptation. But James says that nobody has the right to say that, or to blame God for temptation because “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” God cannot tempt and entice you to sin because He Himself cannot be tempted with evil—He doesn’t face temptations. He doesn’t have the impulse or desire to sin, He’s perfect and completely holy. So then, James says, because God is good and cannot be tempted with evil, “he himself tempts no one.”
Not once have your temptations ever come from God. Not a single time in the history of humanity has God ever tempted any person to sin. All that comes from God is completely and entirely good, because He is good. James writes about that in the next passage: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (vv. 16-17).
God cannot be tempted with evil and tempts no one because He is a holy God. The Scriptures testify:
“For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:45)
“Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy!” (Psalm 99:9)
“And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8)
I think we realize at this point that God is good, but why would James feel like it’s necessary to tell us that God is good? Why does James feel the need to remind us that we can’t blame God for our temptations because He is a good God? I think he has a twofold purpose in mind:
1) So that we understand who is truly responsible for temptations. He is going to spell out later in this passage that we are ultimately responsible for the temptations that we face. But notice how James is eliminating the possibilities of who could be responsible for temptation. Already, he has excluded Satan—he’s not even listed. And he has just said that God cannot be responsible for them. This serves a great purpose: the only one left on the list for being responsible for sin is us.
2) So that we understand that God is good—He wants to help us through temptation, not cause us to stumble into them. Adam tried blaming God and refusing to take responsibility didn’t he? God inquired of Adam and Eve for why they ate from the tree which God commanded them not to—and their response? “The main said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (v. 12). Adam blamed the woman. Listen to Eve’s excuse: “The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (v. 13). Eve blamed Satan. For once in the history of the universe a woman was wrong, can you believe that? I saw a sign once that said “ALL MEN GO TO THE LEFT, BECAUSE THE WOMEN ARE ALWAYS RIGHT.” Just joking of course, but only a little.
The point is, since the beginning of humanity we have not taken responsibility for our sin—but listen: do not doubt the goodness of God during your temptations. He is a good God that is for you, not against you, and wants to provide the “way of escape that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
II. The Source of Our Temptation (v. 14)
We’ve seen that God is a good God who cannot be responsible for our temptations, so what is it that causes our temptations? Why are we always slipping up on the same old sins? Why are we being tempted to sin all the time as believers? And why are temptations so frequent? James answers: “[But] each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (v. 14).
The source of our temptation is our own desire. James tells his readers, instead of God being responsible for temptation, “each person is tempted . . . by his own desire.” It’s desire. Desire is the culprit. Desire is problem. Desire is the root and the source of our temptations. The problem is within us—it’s not on the outside, but buried within our innermost beings.
Notice James says that “each person is tempted,” meaning that everyone faces temptations. You can bank on that—you will face temptations. If you didn’t, there’d be no need for this passage of Scripture whatsoever. James uses a fishing metaphor to describe what happens in temptation. Notice the language he uses here: “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.”
Desire is the problem, but what happens in temptation is that we are lured and enticed by our own desires. The Greek word for “lured” here is exelkó, literally meaning to be “dragged away.” It was used to describe when game (whether fishing or hunting) was lured away from its path to bait. So we have the picture of an animal that is dragged away from its usual path to bait that it thinks it needs. Similarly, the Greek word for “enticed” here means to “set a trap.”
So here you have these powerful Greek words that describe a man being dragged away and falling into the trap of sin. And why do we become lured into sin and fall into it’s trap? Well go back to the fishing metaphor that James is using. When you fish, you bait a hook. Before you drop the line in, you cover the hook with a jig and bait—it is so that the fish sees it as something he needs (food) and he goes after it, seeking satisfaction for his hunger. When he bites the bait, we jerk the pole and snag him—lift him out of the water where he dies and then he fries in fish grease so that we can eat him (if you like fried fish, that is).
It’s the same way with sin in our lives. It looks like something we need—it looks like something we need to satisfy us. Sin never appears to be dangerous, did you know that? Temptation never says, “Don’t do this. This will disgrace the name of God and hurt your witness. This will damage your relationship with God.” No, it sounds more like, “This will be fun! This won’t hurt! No one will ever know. Just do it.”
Our desires are deceptive, and it’s important to realize that our desires are the thing that pulls us in. It’s imperative to realize that the real problem is our own desires. Another Greek word for desire here is “lusts,” it is that passionate longing for sin that we sometimes experience. This is because we’ve been born into this world as sinners—naturally inclined to sinning against God. But if we’re born again, we have new natures and no excuse for continuing in the same sins.
But why has this been so important to know? Because we must recognize what the problem is before we can solve it or do anything about it. About a year ago, my office began to give off an awful odor. I looked everywhere for the source of smell. I cleaned the floors, took out the trash, and searched every corner—still nothing. Around this time we had recently been given a new puppy, and obviously he hadn’t been house trained, for I soon discovered the source of the smell. Behind a small guitar stand in my office lay a pile of hardened, old, dog droppings. That’s what the smell was! I cleaned it up, and soon my office was finally bearable. But you see, I couldn’t take care of the problem (the stench) without identifying it. And it is the same with our temptations—we can do nothing about our temptations until we discover what the real problem is: our own desires.
III. The Course of Our Temptations (v. 15)
We’ve already seen that God is a good God who doesn’t tempt us, and we’ve just seen what the source of our temptations are, but what’s the problem with letting our desires have their way? What is really at risk here, if anything? James answers again: “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (v. 15)
Our desires, if we welcome rather than resist them, lead to destruction. James uses another image here (as in v. 14) but one of birth. He pictures desire as conceiving and then giving birth, but then giving birth to death. Really, a horrifying image to think about. James has in mind the person who actively responds to his sinful desires. It is a person who has allowed his desires to conceive. And we understand this. It takes effort to conceive a child doesn’t it? It’s never, “Oops, how did that happen?” That’s what James has in mind here. He’s talking about somebody who does nothing about their desires. They welcome rather than resist those desires and then they conceive.
Once conception takes place, then what’s the next step? Birth. So follows James picture here. Once desire has had its way, it gives birth to sin. It doesn’t give birth to satisfaction like you think it does, it doesn’t give birth to pleasure, or prestige, or power—it gives birth to sin. Once birth takes place, then what? Growth and death. And so follows James’ image. He says that once sin has “fully grown,” once it has matured, it brings forth death. That’s where sin ultimately leads—that’s what James is warning us about (Rom. 6:23).
If you do nothing about sin, it will only get worse and worse and ultimately lead to death. Do you know how an avalanche works? What causes one? An avalanche occurs when the snowpack — or the layers of accumulated snow — on the side of a mountain is in some way disturbed, leading to a fracturing of the top layer and a downward torrent of a large mass of the snow. Snow builds over time—it’s not moved, it just builds on top of more snow. Once it gets too heavy, if falls, sometimes killing many people each year.
That’s the way it is with our desires for sin. When our desires grow, when we do nothing about them and they just get worse and worse, then they give birth to sin and then sin brings “forth death.”
IV. How to Fight the Desires (selected Scriptures)
As we’ve unpacked this passage of Scripture verse by verse, James has taught us several things. First, God is a good God who cannot be responsible for our temptations. Second, our desires are—and always will be, the source of our temptations. Third, if our desires are welcomed rather than resisted, great destruction can take place—even death. But finally, I want us to look at a few practical ways we can fight those desires. If desires are the problem, then our desires need to change and they need to be fought. So how can we do this?
1) Study and know yourself. It’s good to take a long look in the mirror sometimes isn’t it? We need to know what desires we have a problem with and what situations or people cause us to enter into temptation. What desires do you have a problem with? Find out what situations, places, or people, cause you to have desires for sin. Study and know yourself well. Ask God to reveal that to you as well. Pray with David, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24).
2) Avoid tempting situations. Keep yourself away from the situations that cause you to sin against God and fall into temptations. You know it does no good to pray, “Lord deliver me from evil,” if we thrust ourselves into it. I heard an old preacher say, “You can’t pray “Deliver me, Lord, from temptation,” if you thrust yourself thither!” Avoid the situations that cause temptations. Don’t park a freshly washed car under a tree full of birds. In other words, don’t try to be clean when you willingly go into areas that will make you dirty! The writer of Proverbs presents a picturesque warning for us concerning flirting around with sin, “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and not be burned?” (Proverbs 6:27). Indeed not.
3) Submit to Christ. When we get saved, we make Jesus our Savior and Lord. He is our Savior because He saved us from death, hell, and the grave. He is our Lord because He takes control. But that’s the part that gets us sometimes. There may be areas of our heart that we haven’t submitted to Christ and made Him Lord over. But we must submit to His leadership and will and allow Him to take control of all the areas of our heart—including our desires. It is taking “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
4) Get satisfaction from God. Desires seek to be satisfied. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be desires. So since desire is the problem, then our desires need to change. How can that be done? By getting our satisfaction from God. If you don’t believe that God can satisfy you, David invites you to “Taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Psalm 34:8). Similarly David says to “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). It’s like eating your favorite food—you keep eating it because of the satisfaction it brings your belly! When you get hungry, don’t you desire your favorite food? Of course you do, because you have a mental remembrance of the satisfaction it brings. It works in a similar way with God. If we will get our satisfaction from Him, we will inevitably begin to desire Him.
Conclusion: Enchanting But Deadly
For years, workers and visitors flocked to the sight of silvery dust flakes that floated to the floor in a mill where steel strips rolled over pads in a tall cooling tower. There was a steelworker, Joe Gutierrez who wrote about it. He says that “the snow danced in August.” It was beautiful and enchanting, but it was soon discovered that it was asbestos floating in the air. “Everybody breathed it,” Joe writes. He now suffers from the slow, choking grip of asbestosis, as do many plant workers.
“Can’t walk too far now. I get tired real fast, and it hurts when I breathe sometimes. And to think we used to fight over that job,” he says. Sin is enchanting, sin is pretty and attractive, but it can be a killer. Are you taking the steps necessary to overcoming these desires? Are you avoiding tempting situations? Are you submitting totally to Jesus Christ?