I confess that I have had a lifelong struggle with temptation. By this point in my life, I recognize that I will never get over it. I will never reach a point at which I will be free of every temptation. The best I can hope for is to endure temptation without giving in—which is actually what Scripture calls us to do. James 1:12 states, “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
One of the major problems with temptation is that it leads us astray from where we should be.
In Huelvo, on the southern coast of Spain, is buried the body of Major William Martin, a British officer who played an important role in the Allied success in World War II—without his knowledge. After the Allies invaded North Africa, the next logical step was to invade Sicily. The problem was that the German army was planning for such an attack. The Allies needed to outfox the Germans. This is where Major William Martin comes in. Major Martin actually died of pneumonia in the foggy dampness of England without ever engaging in battle. But the Germans didn’t know that. One dark night, an Allied submarine surfaced off the coast of Spain just long enough to put Martin’s body out to sea in a rubber raft with an oar. In his pocket were placed “secret documents” indicating that the Allied forces would strike next in Greece and Sardinia. When Martin’s body washed ashore, German intelligence operatives assumed he had crashed at sea. They passed the secret documents through Axis hands all the way to Hitler’s headquarters. While Allied forces moved toward Sicily, thousands and thousands of German troops moved to Greece and Sardinia where the battle was not.
That’s what temptation does to us. But instead of needing a dead British officer, temptation simply plays on the desires that are already in us. Temptation intensifies those desires and distorts them until we become obsessed with them. Then we end up being led astray. James 1:14-15 offers this explanation: “But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.”
The Greek word deleazomenos, translated here as “enticed,” is an old fishing term. It had to do with baiting a hook so as to catch a fish. In the same way one would attach a juicy worm to a hook or tie a colorful fly to a hook, Satan holds out to us something that looks appealing. But like a fishing hook hidden in a piece of chocolate cake, when we bite into that chocolate cake we get hooked. Satan’s desire is to ensnare us in what will keep up away from God, and will keep us away from spiritual growth, and will keep us away from doing anything meaningful with our lives, and will keep us away from the peace God intends for our souls.
No wonder James stresses, “Blessed in anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
The 13th century Persian poet Rumi observed, “Greed makes man blind and foolish, and makes him an easy prey for death.” Erich Fromm adds, “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” No wonder the God who knows us intimately and who loves us deeply repeatedly calls us away from greed and calls us to generosity.
In the opening chapter of his Biblical letter, James shares two significant reasons why we should practice generosity rather than greed.
In verses 9-11, James writes, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.”
What I hear James telling me here is that wealth is merely an illusion of stability. It’s what we imagine will provide us with a foundation we can stand on. But in reality, it is better to be lifted up by the God who is lasting than by wealth which is fleeting. What wealth fills our souls with evaporates, but what God fills our souls with brings lasting hope and contentment.
Henrik Ibsen remarks, “Money may be the husk of many things, but not the kernel. It brings you food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; acquaintances, but not friends; servants, but not loyalty; days of joy, but not peace or happiness.” We are foolish to try to find in money what can only be provided by God.
Morrie Schwartz shared with Mitch Albom, “Wherever I went in my life, I met people wanting to gobble up something new. Gobble up a new car. Gobble up a new piece of property. Gobble up the latest toy. And then they wanted to tell you about it. ‘Guess what I got?’ You know how I always interpreted that? These were people so hungry for love that they were accepting substitutes. They were embracing material things and expecting a sort of hug back. But it never works. You can’t substitute material things for love or for gentleness or for tenderness or for a sense of comradeship. Money is not a substitute for tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness. I can tell you, as I’m sitting here dying, when you most need it, neither money nor power will give you the feeling you’re looking for, no matter how much of them you have.” (Tuesdays with Morrie, p. 125)
Money provides no lasting value to our souls. Therefore, we do well when we take steps to free ourselves from the misleading illusion of money as our stability. The practice of generosity is the appropriate step for us to take.
In verses 17-18, James writes, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
What I hear James telling me here is that generosity comes from above and keeps us in step with how God wants to grow his own likeness in us.
In his book Run with the Horses, Eugene Peterson tells of his experience watching an adult swallow teach its young to fly: “One adult swallow got alongside the chicks and started shoving them out toward the end of the branch—pushing, pushing, pushing. The end one fell off. Somewhere between the branch and the water four feet below, the wings started working, and the fledgling was off on his own. Then the second one. The third was not to be bullied. At the last possible moment his grip on the branch loosened just enough so that he swung downward, then tightened again, bulldog tenacious. The parent was without sentiment. He pecked at the desperately clinging talons until it was more painful for the poor chick to hang on than risk the insecurities of flying. The grip was released, and the inexperienced wings began pumping. The mature swallow knew what the chick did not—that it would fly—that there was no danger in making it do what it was perfectly designed to do.”
Then Peterson makes this application: “Birds have feet and can walk. Birds have talons and can grasp a branch securely. They can walk; they can cling. But flying is their characteristic action, and not until they fly are they living at their best, gracefully and beautifully. Giving is what we do best. It is the air into which we were born. It is the action that was designed into us before our birth…. Some of us try desperately to hold on to ourselves, to live for ourselves. We look so bedraggled and pathetic doing it, hanging on to the dead branch of a bank account for dear life, afraid to risk ourselves on the untried wings of giving. We don’t think we can live generously because we have never tried. But the sooner we start, the better, for we are going to have to give up our lives finally, and the longer we wait, the less time we have for the soaring and swooping life of grace.”
Generosity comes from God. We do best when we keep in step with how God is growing his likeness in us.