As you’re being seated, please take your Bibles and turn to the book of James, a New Testament book. It’s found on page 1011 if you’re using a pew Bible. Again, good to see you; glad you’re here. We’re continuing our studies in James this evening and we’ll be looking at verses 13 to 16 together, and again, that’s found on page 1011. Before we listen to God’s Word, let us pray and ask His blessing on it. Let’s pray together.
Father, right now in our hearts tonight there are some dear idols and they’ve promised us so much and yet we come here tonight weary, disappointed; they’ve let us down. And so what we need is to have them torn away from the thrones of our hearts and have Jesus reign supreme. Would You use Your Word to do that and would You speak to us by it so that Christ may be all in all and we might see Him as more beautiful and believable than the dearest idols we have known, for we pray in His name. Amen.
James chapter 1, beginning at verse 13 to verse 16. This is God’s Word:
“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death.
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.”
Thus ends the reading of God’s Word. May He add His blessing to it!
One of the things we’ve been doing in our home is reading The Chronicles of Narnia together. Many of you have read that book; C.S. Lewis’ classic. And Lewis was a profound writer in so many ways and one of the things he got right a lot of the time was a profound analysis of the human condition. And if you’ve read the book you know a little bit of what happens. Lucy, the youngest daughter, finds this secret land called Narnia through the wardrobe and her brother, Edmund, wanders in. And Edmund is not a very nice boy at this point and so he wanders in and runs into the ruler of Narnia, the White Witch. And she knows exactly how to get Edmund. She tempts him with his favorite dessert, Turkish delight. My girls have been asking what that is, and I have to confess I’m not sure what it is; don’t know that I’ve ever had it! But he loves it! And so he keeps eating this Turkish delight while she’s talking to him. And the more he eats, the more he wants. And then he finds himself getting really annoyed that it’s run out. And she knows what she’s doing. She’s tricking him, she’s tempting him so that he’ll go and get her his brother and sisters so that she can kill them all and rule Narnia.
But here’s what Lewis writes at the end of this little episode where he’s eating Turkish delight. He writes, “At last the Turkish delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably the queen knew quite well what he was thinking, for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it until they killed themselves.” Now that last sentence, “They would go on eating it until they killed themselves,” captures, in a nutshell, the point of the passage before us tonight. James is talking to us about desires. He’s going to return to this theme again in chapter 3, but he’s going to focus in here on the fact that we desire certain things so much that we are willing to do anything to get them. And if that thing that we’re willing to do anything for is anything other than God, those desires eventually lead to death. That’s what he’s getting at tonight and he has good news for those of us who have wrong and disordered desires.
Just again to set the context for you, we’ve been dealing with trials. That started there in verse 2. “Count it all joy when you face various trials.” And James has been giving us responses to trials – face versus doubt; steadfastness; trials that come in the form of wealth. He takes a different turn this evening and says there’s another response to trials that we can have and that is to blame God, that is to get angry at God. That’s the focus of what he’s dealing with here tonight and he gets at that response by looking at it through the lens of why we do that. And so he goes straight to the heart of our condition, talking to us about our desires. And so what I want us to see from this passage this evening is this. James teaches us that we will either serve our desires or we will serve God, and therefore our sinful desires are our biggest problem. We’ll either serve God or our desires and therefore our sinful desires are our biggest problem. And so we’ll look at this text under two headings. In the first place, in verse 13, the God we serve. The God we serve, verse 13. And then in verses 14 through 16, the desires we serve. The desires we serve.
- The God We Serve
Look with me there again at verse 13. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one,” James tells us that our natural response when trials come – I don’t know if this happens to you; it happens to me – the first thing that happens when bad things happen in our lives, our natural response, is to question God. Very rarely do we just run to Him and say, “Thank You. I’m counting this all joy, Lord.” No, the first thing we usually ask is, “Why me?” and “Why now?” And why does that happen? Well it’s interesting that it’s part of the human condition, isn’t it? Every other world religion teaches you that if you do enough good, God will reward you. So you do good things, you do good works to put God in your debt, and therefore you think of God as owing you something. The Gospel has nothing to do with that. The Gospel teaches us that Jesus does all the good that God requires, keeps His Law perfectly, and because of His faithfulness and His obedience we go to heaven, and therefore ultimately everything turns out well for us. But in the meantime, as we talked a little bit about this morning, we’re going to have trials. And so if you believe that God owes you something for the way you live – we’ve heard Christians speak like that; maybe you’ve said that. “I’ve done all this, God.” Maybe you’ve never verbalized this but you’re thinking this way, “I do all this for You and this is what I get.” We can subtly fall into that mindset, “You owe me, God.” And when we fall into that mindset, the moment bad things happen in our lives we are going to despise God for those trials. We’re not going to count it all joy. We’re going to blame Him. We’re going to say, “You’re a bad God. You’re not doing Your part.”
God Cannot be Tempted
And what’s happened when we’ve fallen into this mindset is simply this. We’ve made God like us! We’ve made Him an idol. We’re worshiping and serving what we want, not what God has for us. We are saying to God, “I know better than You do how to run my life.” That’s what happens every time we get disappointed in trials. And what James does, he’s a good pastor; I love this about this letter. He doesn’t just say, “Well, stop doing that!” Now he points us to why we shouldn’t do that. Look what he says. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God.’” He points us to the character of God. God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself tempts no one. So to turn us away from wrong views of God, he recalibrates our vision of God. So James is telling us far from God ever doing evil to us, it’s not even within Him to do evil. He’s perfect goodness. He’s perfect truth. He’s perfect beauty. He never can be charged with doing evil. Never does it enter His mind to do evil.
Now there’s a sub-point we need to address very quickly. People will say, “Well if God can’t be tempted and Jesus was God, was He really tempted when He became a human being?” And it tells us in the gospels that He was tempted. Yes, He’s really God, and yes, He was tempted, truly so. But that’s not the point of what James is saying. Again, James is focusing on why God can’t be blamed for our trials. God does not do bad things to us. He never brings us trials for harm. We need to be clear on that. That’s what somebody’s doing here. They’re saying, “God is doing this for my harm.” James says that can never enter into God’s character. He never sends tests or trials for harm, but only for His wise purposes. So in one sense, we can say the essence of true faith, which is what James is so concerned about in this letter, is that we trust God’s goodness enough to be content, no matter what happens in our lives. That is hard to do. When bad things happen, faith holds on to the goodness and character of God. He can’t be tempted with evil. He Himself does not tempt us. He does not have it in His character to do evil to us. And when life is hard, true faith holds on to that, holds on to who God is and is content with that, even when we don’t have all the answers. That’s the sticking point for me. I can endure things so much better if I know why they’re happening, right? And that’s what James says doesn’t happen so often in this life. We just have to trust God for who He is.
Notice what else; he says something there too. He says God never tempts us. Let me put it this way. God doesn’t have any trick questions on the tests He sends us. We can begin to think like that. “You’re just against me, God. You’re doing this.” It’s almost, you feel like Job, “Are You mocking me, God, with all of this stuff You’re sending my way?” Here’s what James is concerned to communicate. God is not against us. He is not against us. He is not trying His hardest to make you fail when He sends trials and tests Your way. God is not making it difficult for us to trust Him. He’s not a cunning adversary, doing His best to see if we can really stand up. No, when God sends difficulties into our lives we may never know why. What James says we have to hold onto is – He’s not against us and He’s good. Everything He does is wise and holy and perfect and right and you can trust Him. That’s where James wants us to land. Now again, there’s a role that Satan plays in temptation James is going to talk about in chapter 4, but he says, “Remember, when you’re tempted to blame God when bad things happen, remember who He is. He is good and He is on your side.”
- The Desires we Serve
The second thing James shows us besides the God we serve are the desires we serve. Look at verse 14. Notice the contrast. “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death.” See what James is saying? Our problem is not God. He’s just established that for us. We’re the problem. Our hearts. Our desires. And that’s hard to hear. We talked a little bit about this, this morning. The Gospel will never seem beautiful to you, Jesus will never seem beautiful to you until you can come to the point of admitting that the biggest problem you have is right here inside you. It’s our sinful desires after things that are not God, after idols. Those desires are what lead us astray. It’s the Turkish delight dilemma of all of our lives. What do we want more than God? What do we love more than Him? We’ll talk about that more in a moment.
Notice the language James uses here. It’s interesting, in the 1st century if you read other great texts besides the New Testament those two verbs there are almost – “lured” and “enticed” – they’re used almost without exception in hunting terminology. Now I love to hunt, and I had the opportunity to do some turkey hunting this spring with a very experienced turkey hunter. Now I usually did birds and large animals, so I’ve not done much turkey hunting, which is a spring hunt, and you’re out there in the beautiful woods and the guy I was hunting with just really knew what he was doing and was calling the gobblers, had all the scratches, the sounds, everything. What was he doing? What does an experienced, skilled hunter do? He lures and entices for the kill. To provide delicious, smoked turkey in this case – that’s a good thing! What James is talking about here are the desires that wage war in all of our hearts and they are constantly seeking to lure us away from Jesus, to entice us. That’s what Satan does with his temptations. But that’s not James’ point here. His point is that our own hearts do this.
Desire Leads to Sin Which if Fully Conceived Leads to Death
This is a profound analysis of the human condition, my friends. As we’ve talked about before and said time and again you do what you do, I do what I do, because I love what I love and you love what you love. Desire is the key to understanding why we do what we do from our everyday behavior to the most hardened addict. Fundamentally, our lives are a tale of desires. And so our desires reveal our idols. We’ll come back to that; we’ll talk more about that in just a moment. But James, notice what he says here. If you walk down the path of desire for anything else besides God and that becomes what you live for, what’s the end of that? Death! Desire leads to sin which if fully conceived leads to death, eternally. It’s an eternal separation from the presence of God’s blessing and only awaiting judgment.
And we learn, let me put it this way; let me see if I can bring it home this way. If you want to learn how powerful desires are and how they can lead to these steps that James walks us through, think about going on a diet. Have you ever tried to diet? What happens if you try to give up something that maybe you’ve been indulging in too much? For me, it’s sugar. I am a hopeless sugar addict and have really had to watch that because of family history of heart conditions and stuff like that, so I’ve got to watch the sugar. But you let me go a few days without sugar and all of a sudden what consumes me? Ice cream. Snickers ice cream. Those kinds of things where you just can’t stop thinking about it. And the next thing you know, all the resolutions – you know you’re not supposed to be eating these things; you know it’s not good for you, and you’re right there after it. Well did one psychologist put it this way? He said, “If you ever want to understand the mind of an addict, try going on a diet.” So if you want to say, “I don’t know how I can empathize with an alcoholic,” try going on a diet. The thing you crave for, that you will do anything for that you begin to desire and you don’t care what anybody else says, this is what you’re going to have, that’s what happens in an addict’s mind and it ought to provide a whole lot of empathy with us for those who struggle with addiction. So James says these insatiable desires lead to death. All of us have them. All of us have these things that we want so badly that we’ll do anything to get them.
Do Not be Deceived
I want to look at a few of those in just a moment, but notice how James finishes. I love this! Verse 16, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.” That’s his tagline. He’s saying, “What is the root of wrong desire?” Deception. The thing, the object, the idol that causes us to desire is deceiving us. It’s telling us that everything is going to be okay, that it will bring us comfort, that it will bring us healing, that it will bring us stability and security; it will make all our dreams come true. And James says, “Don’t fall for it. You’re being hunted. This is the turkey call of a desire that is coming after your heart. Don’t be deceived by it.” And that’s what James is after here.
And he says, notice, that this is a daily battle. “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.” Why would he say that now? Because he knows it’s so easy to have that happen to us. Every day a war is raging in your heart and my heart. Which desires will win? For God and His ways or for everything else? The myriad, the so many things that come after our fickle hearts. That’s why I love the line we sang in our closing hymn this morning. This is why we can just shout that line out because we know it from experience. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” Why would we sing that? Because we know what James is saying is true. Deceptive desires bewitch our hearts daily, even sometimes minute by minute.
Union With Christ
So what do we do about it? James gives us the prescription here. When we’re faced with how often we give into temptations – does that describe you? That’s my story; give into temptations a lot. And that can become a huge source of discouragement. Because here’s what normally happens, right? Temptation presents itself, desires are kindled, and you know you shouldn’t be doing whatever it is – big sins, little sins, whatever; anything that God tells you, “You don’t need to be doing this,” and He tells us that because He loves us. And you begin to go down that road again and you say, “I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it,” and then you’ve done it. It can overwhelm us. It can discourage us to the point of despair. And yet, James is going to remind us, again and again, we belong to the one, the only one who’s ever perfectly said, “Thy will be done.” Jesus. By faith and by faith alone in Him, we are united to the one who says, “Thy will be done.” And that’s the only cure for the insatiable desires of our hearts which always shout at us, “My will be done!” No, we need Jesus, the one who never had unholy desires. Tempted, yes, in every way we are; never had unholy desires.
Why? You see, this takes us to the next level, as it were, of God’s love. It reveals even deeper chasms and beautiful depths of God’s love for us that He would know, and know us so well after the fall, know that our hearts are so easily prone to wander from Him that He would send Jesus to live in our place to perfectly fulfill His Law, to never desire something wrong. Let me put it this way. I said a moment ago God is for us. He’s not testing us to give us a trick question. God is so much for us that He’s willing to go against His Son on the cross. He’s willing to go against the one He loved from all eternity and put your sinful desires on that cross and my sinful desires and gives us the only way through and out of those sinful desires. You see, the Gospel unleashed by faith in our lives is the only way we begin to see our desires changed.
Think about it this way. Do you realize that Jesus is patiently working to woo you back to Himself? “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Here’s my heart, take and seal it.” That’s the business. That’s what Jesus is up to in your life. He’s wooing you back to Himself. He’s saying, “Don’t be deceived by false lovers. Come back to Me who loves you better than anybody else ever can. Don’t be deceived by the passing, fleeting pleasures of sin. Come back to Me,” He says, “where there’s only true and living water to be found.” What was the lament of the prophet Jeremiah when God is revealing to him what’s happened to His people? He says, “My people have committed two evils” – Jeremiah 2. “They’ve hewn out broken cisterns for themselves that can hold no water and they’ve forsaken me, the fountain of living water.” Jesus says, “Come back and drink good water. Stop drinking at the troughs of deceptive desire.” And you see, Jesus is the only one who can say, “If you die to yourself for Me, you will truly live. If you crucify your desires that are against Me, I will be there with you because I did the same thing when I walked this earth.” That’s what Jesus says to us!
We Desperately Want Control
Now let me close on this. Four characteristics of desire to think about this week. First, what James gives us here – desires reveal that we desperately want control. We desperately want control. I read a Wall Street Journal article recently that said the two virtues, as they’re called, that Americans value above everything else at this point – it was a survey that was conducted – were control and autonomy. “Let me do my thing and let me have as much control as I can.” How does that show up in our lives? I heard a friend put it this way recently. “We spent a lot of time and money trying to keep the effects of the fallout of our homes.” We buy better parenting books, better facial creams, more expensive security, better retirement accounts. Notice that some of these things are good things but we spend a lot of time and effort trying to control the effects of the fall and here’s the end game. It’s never going to succeed. This world is cursed. We’re never going to be perfectly fulfilled here. Our desires were never meant to be fulfilled by the things in this life. They’re only meant to be fulfilled by God Himself. And so every time we illegitimately grasp at control, what are our hearts saying? What are our desires saying? They’re saying, “Jesus is not Lord and I want to be Lord of my life.” But here’s the good news. Jesus is the only God who willingly divests Himself of all the control of the universe which is rightly His to die for you and therefore says, “You can trust Me to control your life.” That’s how He wins us back to Himself.
Do Not Make Good Things Ultimate
Second thing – sinful desires occur when we make good things, ultimate things. Is it a good thing to have a retirement account? It sure is. If it becomes what you live for, that which your heart’s desire is set upon, you can’t live without it, you’re checking it every day, you’re making sure it’s at the right level and you worry all the time about it, then it’s something that’s ultimate. It’s become a sinful desire. Think about wanting to become a good parent. That’s a good desire, right? It can become an ultimate thing. It’s a good thing that can become an ultimate thing when we’re willing to manipulate our children to behave a certain way when we’re willing to excuse their sin. All of these things happen to us because we’ve made a good thing an ultimate thing if it becomes something you can’t live without. And here’s the question to ask yourself, one I have to ask myself a lot. What, if I lost it today, would make me seriously consider giving up on life? That’s where our desire is. That’s what we’re functionally worshiping. Good things become ultimate things. And again, the only ultimate thing, person, who can meet our needs is Jesus. He’s the only one who’s ultimate enough to take our eyes off this world and have Him satisfy our deepest desires.
Our Fears Reveal Our Desires
Third thing – what we fear, reveals what we desire. Two sides of the same coin as one author put it. So if you fear being poor, you’re going to do all you can to get rich and to stay wealthy and to stay comfortable and to keep the effects of the fall out of your life that way and that will become an ultimate thing; it will become an idol for you, which is just another name for an ultimate thing. So what do you fear? What are you most afraid of waking up and happening tomorrow? What are you doing to control that? Where have you turned away from the resources Jesus provides to handle these things and turned to yourself? Where have we begun to trust in something else besides Him because we want control because we’re afraid? Fear is a powerful motivating desire, isn’t it?
Think about fear of man. What will you do to get people’s approval? You know, if you’re in high school, think about what you do, how you dress, how you act to get people to like you. And here’s the bad news, I’m afraid. That doesn’t get any better when you’re older. All it becomes about is not what you wear so much as what exactly, how much did you spend, where did you vacation, what zip code do you live in, and what is the make and model of your car and year? It never changes. And the problem is this. If we fear people, if we desperately crave their approval, we will go into huge amounts of debt, we will do whatever we can to look a certain way, to have certain clothes, no matter if it’s honoring to the Lord or not, because we fear men and love their approval more than God. And I am someone who desperately loves the approval of people so this lands with me.
Our Desires Reveal What we Worship
Fourth thing and last thing – our desires reveal what we truly worship. How can you spot this? One theologian put it this way. He said, “Ask yourself this question, ‘I need __________ to be happy.’” What’s your “blank”? “I need _____________ to be happy.” Rest, power, control, sex, alcohol, whatever it is. “If I don’t have that, I won’t be happy.” That’s what you’re worshiping. That’s where your desires are.
The end of The Lord of the Rings, another Lord of the Rings reference. We’re doing 20th centuries authors here tonight at First Pres! The Lord of the Rings at the end, the movie captures this well. Frodo’s finally got the ring to Mount Doom, he’s going to destroy it, and then he just says, “No.” And Sam is going, “Please, please for the survival of all that is good and right and true, destroy the ring!” And what happens? Gollum, the creature who was once – the movie, again, portrays this so well – it shows him as a normal human being who’s fishing with his friend when he first comes across the ring and then he kills his friend to get the ring. Desire, desire, desire. Tolkien gets these verses well. And at the end you see Gollum is this shriveled creature, he’s a shell of a being, and all he wants is the ring and he finally gets it off Frodo’s finger as he’s falling into lava and the ring falls on his finger and he dies with a smile until it turns to horror when he realizes he’s melting.
And you see, our desires are just like the ring. That’s why Tolkien was a keen observer of our culture. They will destroy us and kill us unless and until their spell is broken. We would rather die clutching to what we have to the desires and things we’re going after than turn to the Lord. But you see, the beauty of what James has taught us here this evening is that God saves us when we don’t desire Him and God is so committed to us that He’s willing to do whatever it takes to change our desires, even to the point of killing His Son to change our desires. And that’s why we can go back to the Old Testament and look at somebody else who understood desires well. Jesus’ lesser father and He was his greater son, King David. And what did David write in Psalm 73? He said, “Whom have I in heaven but you and there’s nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” That’s the goal, friends. That’s where Jesus is moving you. This is where He wants you to be. This is why He says, “Don’t clutch at wrong desires. Let Me be your chief desire and I’ll bring everything else back into line.”
Let’s pray together!
Father, thank You for Your Word. Thank You that it tells us the truth when it’s hard to hear about our condition. Help us, Lord, to believe it, to live it this week. O Lord, we have wrong disordered desires. Would You bring us back to Yourself? Would You make Jesus our chief desire? Would we be able to pray in truth Psalm 73:25, “We have no one besides You.” We want to desire nothing besides You, God. Would You help us to do that this week? We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.