The devil made me do it…?

Among psychologists, one of the most solidly established truisms of human nature is what’s known as attribution bias, a concept to which I alluded in a recent post. The basic idea is that we have an intrinsic need to explain why we or others have behaved in a particular way. Broadly, there are two kinds of reasons. First, there is the matter of character: people do what they do in part because of who they are. But second, there is also the matter of circumstances: behavior is a response to the immediate situation.

We all understand this. But how much do we attribute to character as opposed to circumstances? It turns out that our attributions are often biased. When we see someone else make a mistake or do something wrong, we often automatically attribute the behavior to personal characteristics: they’re incompetent, unethical, etc. But when we err, we’re biased toward situational explanations: It’s not my fault. Just about anyone in my circumstances would have done the same thing.

The existence of attribution bias is one of the most robust findings of psychological research. That doesn’t mean, however, that everyone engages in it all the time and in the same way. There are people, for example, whose thinking seems biased in the opposite direction. It’s all my fault, they think, while most everyone else gets a pass.

The apostle James, it seems, was more concerned about the former kind of bias than the latter. Here, the question is: when we sin, who gets the blame?

James counsels believers away from blaming temptation upon God. One reason for this, as we’ve seen, is that it impugns God’s character. Even though temptation is a test of our faith, God has nothing to do with temptation. He is light and the Father of lights, and in him there is neither darkness nor shadow.

All right, then: is the alternative to blame sin and temptation on the devil?

. . .

Back in the 1970s, the Black stand-up comic Flip Wilson popularized the phrase “The devil made me do it” in his sketches. In one routine, a preacher demands to know why his wife has bought an expensive dress. “I didn’t want to buy this dress,” she insists. “The devil made me buy this dress.” Wilson won a Grammy award for a comedy album with the same title, and the album eventually went gold.

Biblically speaking, Satan is indeed portrayed as a tempter, right from the opening pages of both the Old and New Testaments: Adam is tempted in the garden; Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. As many theologians would insist, this is what makes Jesus the “second Adam” who can represent us on the cross: he passed the test, and can bear the punishment for our sins rather than his own.

But the humor of Wilson’s routines is that it pokes fun at a particularly human foible: even when it seems clear to everyone else that we’ve been indulging our own desires, we insist on blaming our behavior on someone else. James puts it this way:

Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death. (James 1:14-15, CEB)

This, then, is the second reason why we shouldn’t blame temptation on God, or for that matter, on the devil: even if Satan is involved, all he is doing is capitalizing on the cravings and desires we already have. The problem isn’t outside of us. It stems from the inside, and wisdom demands that we take responsibility for how we respond to our own desires.

Or to put the matter differently: we really don’t need Satan’s help to be carried away by our own desires.

Let it be said, however, that the problem is not desire in itself. It is a wonder of creation that pleasure is part of life, and we are built to enjoy it. But legitimate desires can become distorted. Pleasure becomes an end in itself or even an addiction, something not just to be enjoyed but actively pursued to the exclusion of other goods.

There’s nothing wrong, for example, with enjoying a nice piece of chocolate; there is something wrong with letting it crowd out the other foods you need to take care of the body God gave you. So enjoy your (responsibly sourced?) chocolate, with God’s blessing. Just don’t forget: God has given you the stewardship of your body, and you are responsible for deciding what you put in it. In this as with all matters of desire, make good and wise decisions!

And as we’ll see next week, there is yet a third reason to be wise in the matter of temptation: whatever the short-term benefits of a behavior, we need to recognize the long-term consequences as well.