Trials or temptations?

Here’s a riddle for you: how is an ear of corn like a stream?

Give up?

Answer: there’s one word in Hebrew that means both. Obviously.

If that’s a bit befuddling, consider this: the same word can also mean “branch.” That’s what corn and a stream have in common: they both branch. There’s a lot of imagery in Hebrew: words can have multiple meanings that have an underlying commonality that may be far from obvious at first.

It’s confusing because in English “corn” and “stream” have nothing in common. Having said that, however, English words have multiple meanings as well, and we have to pay attention to the context to know which meaning is appropriate.

Something similar can be said about the single Greek word that can be translated either as “trial” or “temptation,” depending on its context. And that word is important to our understanding of the teaching of the book of James.

We’ve already seen, for example, how James opens his letter with the counsel that believers should rejoice in the face of every kind of “trial” because it provides the opportunity to develop endurance and grow in spiritual maturity (James 1:2-4). Then later, in verse 12, we read this:

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. (James 1:12, NRSV)

As you’ve already guessed, the word “temptation” here is the same as the one translated “trial” in verse 2. But hang on: unlike the New Revised Standard, both the New American Standard and the New International Version continue to translate the word as “trial” in verse 12, while the Common English Bible speaks of those who “stand firm during testing.”

What gives?

Everyone agrees in translating the verses that follow immediately after this one as being about temptation. Here, for example, is the NRSV:

No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 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. (James 1:13-15, NRSV)

We should note one exception here. While the CEB agrees that James is teaching about temptation, the translators render verse 13 as “No one who is tested should say ‘God is tempting me!'” Thus, all four translations agree that verses 2 to 4 are about enduring trials, and verses 13b to 15 are about understanding temptation. The question is what to do with 12 and 13a.

Essentially, some translators look backward: they take 12 and 13a as reiterations of what’s already been said — Endure trials! — before transitioning to the matter of temptation. Other translators look forward: they take the same verses as already beginning the new but related discussion of temptation. Either way, James is bridging from larger concern about how our faith is tested to more specific concerns.

Whatever translation one chooses, the main point is this: Temptation is a test of our faith, and we are called to stand firm against temptation every bit as much as we are called to endure trials.

We don’t know, of course, what James is seeing in the church that prompts him to write these words; were people actually saying, “I’m being tempted by God”? From a psychological point of view, that smacks of what is known as attribution bias, in which people routinely ascribe their own mistakes and bad behavior to external rather than internal causes. Rather than take responsibility, we sometimes blame our behavior on our circumstances or on other people, and in this case, possibly even God.

Nope, says James. Don’t go there. He gives us at least three related reasons why we shouldn’t. And as we’ll see in the next post, the first is this: ascribing temptation to God impugns his character and distorts our understanding of who he is.