1:13-15 Let no man say when he is tempted, "My temptation comes from God." For God himself is untemptable by evil and tempts no man. But temptation comes to every man, because he is lured on and seduced by his own desire; then desire conceives and begets sin; and, when sin has reached its full development, it spawns death.
At the back of this passage lies a Jewish way of belief to which all of us are to some extent prone. James is here rebuking the man who puts the blame for temptation on God.
Jewish thought was haunted by the inner division that is in every man. It was the problem which haunted Paul: "I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members" ( Romans 7:22-23 ). Every man was pulled in two directions. Purely as an interpretation of experience the Jews arrived at the doctrine that in every man there were two tendencies. They called them the Yetser ( Hebrew #3336 ) Hatob ( Hebrew #2896 ), the good tendency, and the Yetser ( Hebrew #3336 ) Hara' ( Hebrew #7451 ), the evil tendency. This simply stated the problem; it did not explain it. In particular, it did not say where the evil tendency came from. So Jewish thought set out to try to explain that.
The writer of Ecclesiasticus was deeply impressed with the havoc that the evil tendency causes. "O Yetser ( Hebrew #3336 ) Hara' ( Hebrew #7451 ), why wast thou made to fill the earth with thy deceit?" ( Sirach 37:3 ). In his view the evil tendency came from Satan, and man's defence against it was his own will. "God made man from the beginning and he delivered him into the hand of him who took him for a prey. He left him in the power of his will. If thou willest, thou wilt observe the commandments, and faithfulness is a matter of thy good pleasure" ( Sirach 15:14-15 ).
There were Jewish writers who traced this evil tendency right back to the Garden of Eden. In the apocryphal work, The Life of Adam and Eve, the story is told. Satan took the form of an angel and, speaking through the serpent, put into Eve the desire for the forbidden fruit and made her swear that she would give the fruit to Adam as well. "When he had made me swear," says Eve, "he ascended up into the tree. But in the fruit he gave me to eat he placed the poison of his malice, that is, of his lust. For lust is the beginning of all sin. And he bent down the bough to the earth, and I took of the fruit and ate it." In this conception it was Satan himself who succeeded in inserting the evil tendency into man; and that evil tendency is identified with the lust of the flesh. A later development of this story was that the beginning of all sin was in fact Satan's lust for Eve.
The Book of Enoch has two theories. One is that the fallen angels are responsible for sin (85). The other is that man himself is responsible for it. "Sin has not been sent upon the earth, but man himself created it" (98: 4).
But every one of these theories simply pushes the problem one step further back. Satan may have put the evil tendency into man; the fallen angels may have put it into man; man may have put it into himself. But where did it ultimately come from?
To meet this problem, certain of the Rabbis took a bold and dangerous step. They argued that, since God has created everything, he must have created the evil tendency also. So we get Rabbinic sayings such as the following. "God said, It repents me that I created the evil tendency in man; for had I not done so, he would not have rebelled against me. I created the evil tendency; I created the law as a means of healing. If you occupy yourself with the law, you will not fall into the power of it. God placed the good tendency on a man's right hand, and the evil on his left." The danger is obvious. It means that in the last analysis a man can blame God for his own sin. He can say, as Paul said, "It is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me" ( Romans 7:15-24 ). Of all strange doctrines surely the strangest is that God is ultimately responsible for sin.
From the beginning of time it has been man's first instinct to blame others for his own sin. The ancient writer who wrote the story of the first sin in the Garden of Eden was a first-rate psychologist with a deep knowledge of the human heart. When God challenged Adam with his sin, Adam's reply was, "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate." And when God challenged Eve with her action, her answer was, "The serpent beguiled me, and I ate." Adam said, "Don't blame me; blame Eve." Eve said, "Don't blame me; blame the serpent" ( Genesis 3:12-13 ).
Man has always been an expert in evasion.
Robert Burns wrote:
Thou know'st that Thou hast formed me
With passions wild and strong;
And list'ning to their witching voice
Has often led me wrong.
In effect, he is saying that his conduct was as it was because God made him as he was. The blame is laid on God. So men blame their fellows, they blame their circumstances, they blame the way in which they are made, for the sin of which they are guilty.
James sternly rebukes that view. To him what is responsible for sin is man's own evil desire. Sin would be helpless if there was nothing in man to which it could appeal. Desire is something which can be nourished or stifled. A man can control and even, by the grace of God, eliminate it if he deals with it at once. But he can allow his thoughts to follow certain tracks, and his steps to take him into certain places and his eyes to linger on certain things; and so foment desire. He can so hand himself over to Christ and be so engaged on good things that there is no time or place left for evil desire. It is idle hands for which Satan finds mischief to do; it is the unexercised mind and the uncommitted heart which are vulnerable.
If a man encourages desire long enough, there is an inevitable consequence. Desire becomes action.
Further, it was the Jewish teaching that sin produced death. The life of Adam and Eve says that the moment Eve ate of the fruit she caught a glimpse of death. The word which James uses in James 1:15 , and which the King James and the Revised Standard Versions translate brings forth death, is an animal word for birth; and it means that sin spawns death. Mastered by desire, man becomes less than a man and sinks to the level of the brute creation.
The great value of this passage is that it urges upon man his personal responsibility for sin. No man was ever born without desire for some wrong thing. And, if a man deliberately encourages and nourishes that desire until it becomes full-grown and monstrously strong, it will inevitably issue in the action which is sin--and that is the way to death. Such a thought--and all human experience admits it to be true--must drive us to that grace of God which alone can make and keep us clean, and which is available to all.