“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” – James 1:12-15
There’s nothing to do here but dive right in. “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial.” James is big on our being grateful for our own suffering. And with good reason. Whatever trial comes our way is set to teach us something. There are some trials that are not at all our fault. There are times in which we are innocent. There are other times that we are reaping what we sow. There are times that we can borrow a term from Hinduism; Karma. Cause and effect, reaping and sowing, karma, whatever you want to call the principle, it is not as simple as “I do this, and such-and-such results.” It is more like ripples on a pond. Sometimes I through a pebble in the pond and the ripples make their way back directly to me. Often I’m caught up in the ripples of those all around me as well.
If I’m standing in the middle of a pond with ripples and waves crashing all around, how can I stop it? Can I splash the waves back? Can I fight against the ripples and make them be still? Of course not, neither can I struggle against my own suffering and trials with any success. The way to stop the ripples is to stand still. Let them wash over you. Absorb them. This is what Christ did for us perfectly on the Cross. He took all of the waves that we kick up with our sin and our selfishness. He took every tsunami sized wave, and every tiny pebble-tossed ripple, stretched out his arms, and absorbed them all by refusing to fight back. This, like it or not, is what we are called to do as well. We cannot do it perfectly as Christ did, but we have to try. Our ability to do so will not be what saves us. Only resting in the completed work of Christ will save us. But the “crown of life” is promised to us when we are able to persevere.
When we persevere it will not be by our ability to “cowboy up” and “take it like a man.” Like so many aspects of Christian life (gain life by losing it, meek shall inherit, first shall be last, etc) the way to overcome is to be soft. Lao Tzu, although not a Christian (he probably lived about 4 to 5 hundred years before Christ), phrases this idea beautifully. He says, “Learn to yield and be soft if you want to survive. Learn to bow and you will stand your full height.” This is what Jesus teaches us. We are at our fullest strength when we willingly become servants. He goes even further to say, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” We will persevere through our trials by being able to bend. A stiff and brittle plant breaks in the wind, but a supple and weak blade of grass will bend, and therefore survive. When we learn this, then we will persevere and we will recieve the crown of life. There is some argument over what exactly the “crown of life” is. I do not know for sure, so I won’t make an attempt at an answer. I do know this, the way to get it is to persevere under trial. The way to persevere under trial is to be “shrewd as snakes, and harmless as doves.”
As I mentioned earlier there are times that our trials are the result of thing that are out of our control. We are still best able to deal with this by accepting the things we cannot change, and avoiding the things we can avoid. But the vast majority of our trials are the direct result of our own selfish desires. We are all tempted in the precise place where our desires have us captive. “For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.” The Bible warns us again and again against desire. We are told in the 10 commandments that we are not to covet. We are told to mind where our treasure is. We are told here in James that we are tempted by our desire, which leads to sin, which leads to death.
We are also warned by James not to blame our temptations on God. James understands our first impulse is to blame someone else. It started in the Garden of Eden. God called Adam out, and Adam replied, “It’s that woman you gave me.” In other words, “Don’t blame me, it’s your fault and that woman’s fault.” C.S. Lewis talks about this very thing. In Mere Christianity, Lewis gives a description of two people arguing. One person appeals to a certain standard of conduct that they each seem to agree upon, “…the other man very seldom replies: “To hell with your standard.” Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise.” You see this over and over when people are called out on their actions. They make excuses as to why they are special. Tim Melton calls this “specialme-itis.” There is always someone or something else to blame. James is aware of this, and warns us to keep in mind that our temptation comes from our own desires. James knows the root of excuses, and the root of our desire is Lucifer’s pride.
I love the imagry James uses in these verses. Desire becomes pregnant and gives birth to sin. Sin grows up, and when it is fully grown it sneaks up behind you and cuts your throat. How many deaths have I died in my own life that, looking back, I can see the moment when desire conceived sin? How many more could I see if I allowed the Holy Spirit to open my eyes to them? And that is the point, I think, of these verses. We are to open our eyes to the desires of our heart before they have had time to conceive. Allow the Spirit to show us where our treasure truly lies. In the movie “Luther” there is a conversation between Cardinal Cajetan and Aleandar. The Cardinal asks, “What is it you seek, Aleandar?” Aleandar replies, “To serve God. To serve Him with all my heart.” The Cardinal replies, “And that is how you will be tempted.” Proverbs 20:5 teaches us, “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters. But a man of understanding draws them out.” Without drawing out these purposes, and without the perspective offered by the Spirit, even our desire to serve God will be a chink in our armor in which the Enemy impregnates our desire with sin.
The good news of the Gospel is that we have hope and help. The great news of the Gospel is that Jesus did the hard part for us, and then sent His Spirit into the world to comfort us, and guide us. Our job is to take hold of the justification that Jesus won, and to submit to the sanctification of His Spirit.