Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Internal Source and External Force - Part 3

James 1

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God.” - James 1:13

The earth’s crust is made up of at least fifteen geological plates. Most earthquakes occur along the seams where the plates meet. Interestingly, most of the earth’s volcanoes are located along those seams as well. The wide arc of fault lines that runs along the West Coast, across the ocean and upward along the Pacific Rim is thus popularly called the “ring of fire.”

We know that the great destructive geological disturbances around the “ring of fire” don’t just happen. They are caused by shifting tensions along the hidden faults there.

We know that moral earthquakes likewise are caused by secret faults. The question is: What actually causes those faults? From whence does temptation come?

Celebrated for his sharp wit and flamboyant manner, Oscar Wilde was a notable member of Victorian England’s artistic and social elite. He summed up the attitudes of millions of people in his famous line, “I can resist everything except temptation.”

Most of us can readily identify with that sentiment. It is easy to walk the straight and narrow when the opportunities to diverge are few and far between. But in this if-it-feels-good-do-it day of self-indulgence, resisting temptation is no mean feat. In this anything-goes day of ethical relativism, resisting temptation seems to require a kind of moral fortitude that is not only practically unheard of, it is certainly not aspired to. We can excuse almost anything and everything.

To an extraordinary degree, our times mirror those of Samson—when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Perhaps that is why so many have followed in the lamentable footsteps of that vanquished champion—footsteps that lead directly to the devastation and destruction of moral earthquakes.

In our culture there are no moral absolutes. The Ten Commandments are little more than a distant memory. There are no sure and secure restraints on human behavior. Why, even in the church, the idea of moral certainty—of right and wrong, of good and bad, of righteousness and wickedness—has all but disappeared.

In his remarkable book, The Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom of the University of Chicago, described the frightening effect that this kind of relativism has had on an entire generation of American students. He relates that he once asked an undergraduate class to identify an evil person. No one could. Not a single student could name someone they thought was evil. In fact, Bloom said, evil did not even exist as a category in their minds. They were even unclear about what he meant by the term. Thus he concluded that our inability to recognize evil and identify evil is a sign of grave danger to our society. Indeed it is.

Even those of us who reject the relativism of our day are too often unconsciously infected by its thinking in one way or another. When temptation comes along, for instance, our first inclination is to rationalize, justify, excuse, and accommodate. We inevitably attempt to blame someone or something else besides ourselves—in fact, we are prone to blame anyone or anything else besides ourselves. Yet in the end, we suffer the consequences of such moral malfeasance.

The blame game

The blame game is not a modern phenomenon. It has been going on since the time of the Fall. Have you ever noticed the excuses that Adam and Eve gave for their sin?

Adam said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). “Not me, Lord. It was her!”

Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Gen. 3:13). “Not me, Lord. It was him!”

In a round-about sort of way, of course, both of their excuses contained a kernel of truth. But they were just excuses, nonetheless. Both Adam and Eve refused to face up to the fact: They disobeyed God Almighty. They disobeyed of their own volition. They made the choice to reject the commands of God themselves. They fell into sin. In the end, they had no one to blame but themselves.

But blame they did. Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent. Neither one was willing to own up to what they had done. So they looked around for a scapegoat. They pointed their fingers and said, “Not me. Not me, Lord.”

Yet even that was not the worst of it. Both of them also blamed God. It was the woman God had given to him who was at fault, Adam complained. In other words, “God, You messed up. You placed me in a faulty environment. I was only responding to the situation You placed me in. I certainly can’t be expected to overcome those kind of circumstances, can I? Look, it’s not my fault, God. You picked her, not me. We were doing just fine around here until You decided to have her move in. It’s Your fault, Lord.”

Eve said about the same thing. “Look God, I was deceived. It wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t help myself. This serpent here is very shrewd. Devilish, even. He really tricked me. He seemed to know just how to get to the likes of me. So why did You have to let him into the garden? You should have known better than to let me be taken advantage of like that. Face it, Lord. It’s all Your fault.”

Sound familiar? It should. Every one of us falls into that same kind of erroneous thinking on a regular basis. In fact, that sort of argument reveals the essence of our sinful rebellion against God. We simply refuse to accept responsibility for our own foolish decisions and our own perverse insubordinations. We are loathe to admit that we ever did anything wrong. We go on the defensive. We look for someone or something else to pin the blame on. We’re quick to point our finger at anyone and everyone but ourselves. We become masters at blame shifting.

From the inside out

In fact, when we succumb to temptation, we have no one to blame but ourselves. What is the cause of temptation? Is it the devil? Is it our environment? Is it our biological or genetic makeup? Is it God Himself? No, according to the apostle James, none of these things cause temptation. Instead, he says, temptation has an internal source: “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’” (James 1:12–13).

Have you ever heard anyone say, “Well, God created me to be just the way I am. Since He gave me these feelings and urges, there is no sense resisting them,” or “I can’t help it. What you see is what you get,” or “Don’t blame me. God made me this way”? To that kind of blame shifting, James says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone” (James 1:13).

So then, where does temptation come from? What is its true origin? According to James we need look no further than ourselves. The devil doesn’t make us do it. Our situations and circumstances don’t make us do it. Certainly, God doesn’t make us do it. We fall into the clutches of temptation all on our own: “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren” (James 1:14–16).

Some of us desperately seek to prove that the things we do cannot be helped. We go to great lengths in an effort to convince ourselves and others that some temptations are just so great that no one can really be expected to resist them. We madly search for some kind of excuse or justification for our sinful inclinations.

All of us face temptations. Every one of us knows something of the temptation to get outside the plan and purpose of God for our lives. Some of us are tempted to sins of commission. Others of us are tempted to sins of omission. Some of us are especially prone to temptations of the flesh. Others may be more vulnerable to temptations of doubt, worry, or despair. Yet we all have one thing in common: We’re all subject to temptations of one kind or another.

When James tells us that “God cannot be tempted” (1:13), he makes it clear that this universal malady is entirely alien to the character and nature of God. In the original Greek text, there is an unusual grammatical construction—something called an alpha privative—that emphatically asserts: God is not temptable. Essentially this means that since He is not experienced in evil, He cannot tempt us toward it. Therefore, according to the Scriptures, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21), “Yet [He] was without sin” (Heb. 4:15), and again, “In him is no sin” (1 John 3:5, KJV).

James not only absolves God of any involvement in our temptation, he also puts to rest the evasive notion that it is the doing of the devil. It is interesting to note that in James’s entire discourse on the subject, Satan is never mentioned a single time. Why? Because he is not the cause of temptation. In the Garden, for instance, all he did was encourage the desires Adam and Eve already entertained in their own hearts. He simply reinforced the doubt that already existed in their minds concerning the certainty of God’s Word, and then slithered off to leave the resolution of the matter to them. Notice: After he had his say, Satan vanished from the scene. At the moment of the Fall, Adam and Eve were alone—acting on their own volition.

Each of our minds is like a hotel. We can’t really keep someone from coming into the lobby, but we can keep them from getting a room. Just because we are tempted does not necessarily mean that we have actually sinned. Just because something pops into our minds doesn’t mean that we have to let it lodge there. We sin when we allow those temptations to take root. When our selfish desires harbor temptation—that is when we fall into the grips of sin.

Of course, our desires are not necessarily evil. The word James uses literally means “a craving” or “a passion” for something. That something may be something good. For instance, Jesus used this same word to describe some of His own desires. In the Gospel of Luke He said that He had a “fervent desire” to eat the Passover with His disciples (22:15). So desires can be good. God gives us these desires. The problem comes when we try to satisfy these good desires in an inappropriate fashion—in a manner outside His perfect purpose and plan for us.

An appetite is commendable. It is good to desire to eat, but gluttony is sinful; it is a desire that has strayed from its appropriate boundaries. It is a perversion of God’s best intention for us. Likewise, sleep is essential, but laziness and slothfulness are perversions of that innately good desire. Enthusiastic ambition in the area of our calling is a good desire. God commands us to work hard and to strive for excellence and success in all that we put our hands to do, but greed, materialism and compulsive overwork are sinful perversions of that good desire. Even the desire for sex is a beautiful, holy and wholesome desire when it is placed inside the holy bounds of the marriage relationship. God gives us this pure and delightful desire, but when we attempt to satisfy the desire He has given us in any other manner or fashion, we pollute its sanctity.

There are many in our day—committed secularists, like the former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders—who point their fingers at us when we talk about moral absolutes and berate conservative Christians for some imagined offense of oppressive bigotry or narrow Victorianism. They charge that we don’t like sex enough for their taste. They accuse us of clutching at sundry arcane phobias and taboos. The fact is, we are simply realistic enough to admit that we are all too prone to twist and pervert the very good and natural desires God gives us.

According to James, when this internal source—this very good and natural desire—attaches itself to an evil object, then, and only then, is our temptation consummated. We are “drawn away” (James 1:14). In the original Greek text, this is a single compound word from the preposition meaning “out of” and the verb meaning “to be pulled away by some power.” Sin occurs when we are drawn out of our place of security by natural desires fixed upon some unnatural end.

Notice that James asserts that this is an entirely personal matter. He says “each one” is tempted when this sequence begins to unfold. We all know something of this internal source, these desires within us. Each of us is responsible. We cannot blame God. We cannot blame the devil. We cannot blame situations or circumstances. What draws us away are our own desires attempting to operate outside the boundaries God established for us in His Word. We are tempted when each of us allows our desires to draw us away.

Knowing this, David prayed: “Search me, oh God, and know my heart…and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23–24).

David was not so concerned about worldly entanglements or demonic deceptions. Instead, he knew that it was his own wickedness that would inevitably cause him the most difficulty. “In me,” that is where he looked for the root and cause of his temptation.

Knowing the internal source of our temptations, may we all pray with him, “Know my heart, examine me. See if there is anything in my desires that are outside Your perfect plan and purpose for my life.”

From the outside in

Temptation emanates from an internal source—from the desires that are within us. It must then connect with something outside us—an external force—for sin to be consummated.

There is an internal source—desire. “Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires.” But there is more. James says after we are drawn away, we are “enticed.” So there is both an internal source and an external force. When this internal force connects with the external force, “Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (1:15).

The word translated “enticed” here literally means “bait.” Have you ever heard the expression, “He is hooked on sex” or “She is hooked on drugs”? This is actually where it comes from. When we allow ourselves to be drawn away and enticed—when we take the bait—we inevitably get hooked.

At home in my study, I have a big-mouthed black bass mounted and hanging on the wall. Years ago when I went out on the lake with all of my fishing gear, I knew I wanted to hook a big bass; yet, I was shrewd enough to know that a bass would not be the least bit interested in a bare metal hook dropped into the water. Therefore, I disguised the hook. I put a lure on the end of my line—it looked just like a worm—and I deceived that bass. I fooled him. I let my line down in the lake right where I thought that the fish would be—in a hole near a bunch of brush. Then I just jiggled my lure there in front of the hole. All of a sudden that bass saw what appeared to be a beautiful, fat, delicious worm—right in front of him. He had an inward desire that drew him out of his place of security. Then, when this external force—my alluring deception—came along, it was more than the fish could handle.

He took the bait and was hooked. No one took the worm and the hook and put it in the fish’s mouth. Instead, he came out of the hole because of his own desire. When he saw that deception, he bit it.

Now realize, moral failure—the catastrophe of a moral earthquake—doesn’t start with the bait. It doesn’t start with the deception. It starts with desire. Before the external force can exert any potency, it must connect with an internal source.

There were an awful lot of bass in the lake the day I caught mine. I’d been fishing all day and had dropped that lure in front of scores, maybe even hundreds, of other fish. But only one took the bait. Only one was enticed and hooked.

That is always the way temptation works: in the Garden of Eden, during the time of Samson, throughout ancient Israel, during the time of Christ, and today in modern America. When we grab the hidden bait, the hook grabs us. The hook is not sin; it is sin’s penalty. Sin takes place when my desire and some deception connect. That is why the psalmist exhorted, “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). We are to make sure that the desires in our lives are lined up with the Word of God.

All of this has a very practical import. The fact is, we could shut down every den of iniquity in this land—the gambling casinos, the houses of prostitution, the lurid night clubs, the crack houses, the chop shops—and we still would not be able to eliminate temptation and sin. After all, Adam and Eve fell while living in a perfect environment—Eden. There were no porn shops, no corner bars, no bookie operations and no abortion clinics. They didn’t have cable television, rock music, or teen peer pressure to contend with. They lived in a perfect environment, yet they succumbed to temptation—they suffered a moral earthquake of monumental proportions. Why? Because temptation has an internal source. It comes from within. The external forces are only secondary enticements to sin. The problem begins in the human heart.

As important as reforming our neighborhoods, communities, and cities may be, such efforts only offer us temporary relief from the ravages of sin. Permanent solutions are found only as people have their hearts transformed by the power of Jesus Christ—as they are transformed from within.

The real problem is that man needs a new nature. We can close down everything that’s immoral, illicit and perverse, yet immorality, illicitness and perversity will still exist. The problem with man is still his heart.

It is not a sin to see the baited hook. It is not a sin to be tempted. In fact, even Jesus was tempted: He was “in all points tempted, as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Sin is born only when the internal source of desire and the external force of enticement draw us away from that which is good and right and true. Sin is conceived only when our hungers and appetites drive us to take the bait.

Two men were walking down the street, side by side. One of those men had risen that morning and fed on the Word of God. As a result, he lined up his day within the parameters of God’s will. The man walking next to him fed his mind over the previous weekend on pornography, filthy videos and perverse magazines. When the men passed a certain corner in the city, they both came face-to-face with an enticement, a baited hook—a hooker. She smiled at both men and gave them an unmistakable look. Both men saw the bait. One took it. The other walked by on the other side of the street. One suffered a horrific moral earthquake. The other escaped altogether.

What made the difference? It came from within. One man had the grace-provoked desire to stay within the purpose and plan of God for his life. The other had allowed his good desires to be perverted over time.

Which one are you?

Moral soundings

  • Have you been playing the blame game when it comes to sin and temptation in your life?
  • Have you allowed good and natural desires to be twisted out of their God-ordained boundaries?
  • Are your desires drawing you away from the will and way of God?
  • Have you made yourself vulnerable to the enticements of the world around you?
  • Are you, even now, laying the groundwork for a terrible moral earthquake?
ON A PERSONAL NOTE:

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