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Humility is usually learned through hardship and made evident to all when it is tested. James writes in 1:12,
12 Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial [peirasmos]; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
James makes it clear that the character, faith, and holiness of believers are tested, and when they pass such stress tests, they are worthy of “the crown of life.” The Greek word for “trial” is peirasmos, and it has to do with seeing if someone is capable of enduring a test—that is, by remaining humble rather than being irritated. How could anyone trust an instrument that is untested?
This shows the distinction between believers and overcomers. A believer is eligible for such testing, but an overcomer is one who has been proven through testing. Believers may have to endure many such tests until they have been purified seven times in the fire for the work that God has called them to do.
It was self-evident that the Israelites in dispersion were in a wilderness test, much the same as when their forefathers were tested in the wilderness under Moses. Most of them failed. The real question is who is it that tests the believers? Does God do it directly, or does He hire an agent to do this work? James deals with this next:
13 Let no one say when he is tempted [peirazo], “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted [apeirastos, “is untestable”], and He Himself does not tempt [peirazo] anyone. 14 But each one is tempted [pereizo] when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.
Virtually all believers are tested. The word “tempt” usually gives us the wrong sense of the word. Temptation projects a specific moral connotation that is not usually the point of the discussion. It is probably for this reason that the NASB uses the term “tested,” rather than the old English word “tempt,” as found in the KJV. Paul uses the term in Galatians 6:1, where he says,
1 Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted [peirazo].
In using the passive tense, Paul does not attribute the temptation to God or anyone other than the person “caught in any trespass.” The sovereignty of God would indicate that God intended for men to be tested, for that is His way of proving the hearts of the believers. Yet James says that we are not to attribute the test or temptation to God, for that is an incorrect way to view it. James was not commenting on the sovereignty of God, but on the specific entity that tests us.
The test, James says, is caused by our own lust—that is the desires of the flesh. The test proves successful when those desires of the flesh are overcome by the desires of the Spirit. When the New Creation Man in us becomes stronger than the old Adamic man, then it can be said that the believer has overcome or has passed the test.
Paul also attributes temptation to “the tempter” in 1 Thess. 3:5, no doubt a reference to the tempter in Genesis 3. Again, in Hebrews 2:18 we read,
18 For since He Himself was tempted [peirazo] in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted [peirazo] .
The wording is again in the passive tense, “those who are tempted,” and it does not directly attribute the temptation to God. Likewise, in Heb. 11:37 we read that men of faith “were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted. . .” The author does not directly attribute the test or temptation to God Himself.
We do find men tempting God many times from their lack of faith (Deut. 6:16; Num. 14:22). Yet in Mal. 3:10 God challenges the people to “prove” (bachan) Him in the area of tithes and offerings, to see if God is faithful to keep His word.
The New Testament writers were careful not to attribute these tests to God personally. The difficulty comes when we compare the Old Testament and find that God often takes the credit for testing the Israelites, especially in the wilderness. Deut. 8:2 says,
2 And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing [nasah] you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.
Likewise, God told them in Judges 2:21, 22,
21 I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died, 22 in order to test [nasah] Israel by them, whether they will keep the way of the Lord to walk in it as their fathers did, or not.
In both of these passages, the word nasah is translated into Greek in the Septuagint by the word peirazo. This shows that peirazo was the standard Greek word to convey the Hebrew meaning of nasah.
In these and many other passages, God takes credit for testing Israel. These are passages that are meant to stress the sovereignty of God. In Judges 2:22 above, we see that God did it, but He used the Canaanites as His agents of testing. This establishes the same principle as what we find with the tempter in the garden, as well as any other test that we undergo in the course of life.
Our conclusion, then, is that James is correct in saying that God tests no man (directly); but Moses is also correct in attributing Israel's tests to God Himself. The resolution of this apparent conflict is to say that God is sovereign enough to use tempters—and all evil in the world—to test the hearts of men.
This may seem like a picky point, but it is actually similar to another issue that James raises—the idea of works being a part of our justification. Both Paul and James quote Gen. 15:6 but appear to come to opposite conclusions in regard to faith and works. This has caused many to pit Paul against James, even to the point of discarding one or the other. But when we understand that the two authors were emphasizing two different truths, we can see that they were actually in agreement.
So also in this apparent dispute between Moses and the New Testament writers. We must see the truth from both viewpoints. God is, indeed, sovereign as Moses says, and therefore God has the absolute right to prove or test His people in the wilderness, using manna (Ex. 16:4), water (Deut. 33:8), the fiery law (Deut. 33:2 KJV), or other nations (Judges 3:1).
Yet in each case, God has only tested them indirectly, using these other natural elements and people. Hence, we must recognize the sovereignty of God in all things, while at the same time recognize that the carnal desires of our old Adamic nature are the things that tempt us, as James says. There is no reason for us to use James to deny God's sovereignty, nor should we use Moses to contradict what James has written. Each has a distinct emphasis.
It is important to reconcile these two viewpoints in order to be able to recognize God's sovereignty without begrudging Him. Many have questioned God in regard to their own trials in life, wondering how a good God would allow bad things to happen to them, or why He did not protect them from such adversity.
But it really comes back to the first instruction that James gave in 1:2, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” One can hardly be joyful in the midst of trials unless one has some grasp of the sovereignty of God. Certainly James understood that all such trials would work out for their good, as Paul says in Rom. 8:28.
We are indeed fortunate that God is sovereign, not so that He might be blamed in a negative manner, but so that we can have faith that nothing can happen to us that can take God by surprise or that is beyond His power to control.