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“The Source of Good and Evil”

James 1:9-18
Bob DeGray
January 21, 2001

Key Sentence

Blessing in trial comes when we look to God for all our good.


I. Discount worldly prestige
II. Evil comes from inside
III. Good comes from God


        There is a epidemic loose on our land, a disease that devastates lives, ruins families, undermines business and weakens churches. This disease is as pervasive as the flu, as deadly as AIDS, as debilitating as Alzheimer’s but it is none of these. This dread epidemic is little mentioned, and research into it is woefully underfunded. It is the horrendous affliction known as ‘Responsibility Deficit Syndrome,’ or RDS.

        Gail and I used to think we had made this disorder up. We observed it in such a clear way in Alex, our foster son, that we became sensitized to it, and soon we were seeing responsibility issues in all kinds of people. Symptoms of the malady are easy to spot: the affected person simply cannot take responsibility for their actions, cannot admit they are wrong, constructs elaborate arguments to shift the blame for any failure to someone else, and considers themselves the victim in any circumstance. If none of this works, their psychologist comes up with a new disease or disorder to explain away their irresponsible or hurtful behavior.

        We later found, however, that a related malady, Responsibility Deficit Disorder is fairly well known. An internet search found at least one sociologist - Paul E. Olson, M.S. who is preparing a book about this whining killer. Olson says “Although R.D.D. is not a true psychological diagnosis, no matter what diagnosis a person has been given, there are usually areas in their lives where they are capable of being more responsible. Surely it would be remiss to expect someone to act in a responsible fashion who cannot do so, but it is equally remiss to excuse someone who can act responsibly, but has chosen not to. It seems we are asking less and less of people because of their tormented past or difficult circumstances. We need to remember that regardless of who we are, each decision we make has consequences.

        What Olson doesn’t know is that RDS has been effectively treated for a long time. Even before the book of James was written, people were encouraged in the Old Testament to accept responsibility for their actions. But James in particular will not tolerate any shifting of blame: he insists his readers recognize that the evil they do comes from within, while the good they receive comes from outside - from God. Today we’ll see that blessing in times of trial comes when we look to God for all our good.
I. Discount worldly prestige

        The context in James chapter 1 is trials or testing which we looked at last week. Today’s section discusses additional aspects of trials, and focuses on a few key questions that trials can bring to the surface. Let’s begin with verses 9 to 11, where we see that even those in difficulty have a reason to rejoice over their spiritual position. James 1:9 The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. 10But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. 11For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.

        The poor man, the brother in humble circumstances, has more reason to rejoice spiritually, than the rich man. This is not simply because he is economically poor, but because his poverty has produced in him a poverty of spirit which keeps him open to God. Poverty does not ensure spiritual riches. It is easy to be poor and yet self-focused, consumed not with protecting what you have or spending it, but consumed with acquiring what you need, plotting and scheming and scamming to survive.

        The kind of poverty James praises here is the kind Jesus talked about: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To enter the kingdom of heaven you must first recognize your spiritual bankruptcy, your lack of assets by which you might move or influence or demand something from God. Those who recognize this are freely given a high position by God. They literally ‘glory in their exaltation’, the present enjoyment of redemption as well as the hope of the glorious eternal kingdom of Christ. James amplifies on this later in the letter: ‘has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?’

        There is a benefit in material need, if it allows you to see your spiritual need and more easily depend on God. In the same way there is a danger in material prosperity - and by New Testament standards all of us are prosperous. James says to us: ‘the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wildflower.’ The danger of riches is that they insulate us not only from material needs, but from our spiritual needs. And not only riches, of course, but also things like intellect, education, power, position, or fame. The presence of these things makes it harder for people to recognize their spiritual bankruptcy, because it has no analog in their daily lives. This is why Jesus said that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

        When we lived in Camino South, our next door neighbor was Pinky Nelson, who was an astronaut. Pinky was someone who was insulated from his spiritual bankruptcy by all of his accomplishments. He had two Ph.D.’s, had been drafted by the Minnesota Twins as a pitcher, played bass in the astronaut band, was well respected as an astronaut, and he was a thoroughly nice guy. Gail and I tried many times to talk to Pinky and his wife Susie about the gospel, but they couldn’t see it. It was okay for us, but Pinky didn’t think he had any need for what we were offering.

         This is the point James is making. Those who are successful at the worldly level have trouble recognizing their needs on a spiritual level. Thus James commands rich believers to take pride in their low position, to glory in the spiritual bankruptcy which allowed them to come in dependence to Christ for salvation. And in the church the rich should glory in their low position, their equality with women and men from every economic strata, from every walk of life, and their equal standing at the foot of the cross, where riches make no difference.

        In fact, riches are simply excess baggage when viewed from the perspective of eternity. Verse 11 ‘the sun rises with scorching wind and withers the grass; its flowers fall off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.’ Rich people, even rich believers, who become preoccupied with the pursuit of their riches, their education, their power, or their fame will find that none of these things continue beyond the grave. As Jesus said of the rich man in his parable ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ The danger of riches is that they give even believers a false security, a security that cannot last because life itself cannot last. Reliance on riches is literally a dead end. Only reliance on Jesus has eternal value.

II. Evil comes from within

        In verses 12 to 15, James warns us against uncertainty as to where our temptations come from. 12Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. 13When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Verse 12 is almost a summary statement of James’ teaching on the subject of trials. It is strikingly similar to verses 2 and 3. The word ‘trial’ occurs in both places, and ‘test’ in verse 12 picks up the ‘testing’ of verse 3. In the earlier paragraph James teaches that the testing of our faith produces endurance. Here he says that those who endure are blessed, which is the same word that Jesus used so often. In fact, verse 12 is in the form of a beatitude, and could almost have come from the lips of Jesus.

        James says the reward we receive for our endurance is the crown of life. In verse 3 he had said that endurance leads to completeness, perfection or maturity, so we expect that the crown of life is somewhat equivalent to these things. More specifically though, what we receive is probably the crown on which is written ‘life’. The character of this reward is life itself, eternal life. In Revelation when Jesus writes to the church in Smyrna, he says “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” It is a reward we can receive even after enduring to the point of physical death. It is eternal life together with Jesus.

        But having named this reward, James is quick to caution those who have the wrong attitude in trial. There are apparently some among his readers who under trial or testing, have begun to question the goodness of God and have begun to make the excuse that it is God himself who is tempting them beyond what they can bear. James teaches that no one should say when he is tempted ‘God is tempting me.” This is not the nature of God. In God there is only good, not evil, therefore he can not do the evil deed of tempting someone to sin. And yet he will and he does test his people.

        What is the distinction? Temptation and trial are the same Greek word, but they are different in context. A temptation takes place when someone is enticed into sin. A test or trial is not a lure to a specific sin, but is instead a situation which requires of us endurance and wisdom and leads to maturity. The temptation to sin is not from God, but the opportunity to endure is from God. Thus the literal translation of the Lord’s prayer is best:‘Let us not be led into temptation’. God will not tempt us, but he can intervene at times so that we avoid temptation, or to make a way of escape.

        It seems to me, however, that this brief comment on being tempted by God, opens the door to the whole larger issue of Responsibility Deficit Syndrome. The person who says “God is tempting me and therefore I cannot resist the temptation” is shifting the blame, the responsibility, for his sin from himself to God. In our culture similar blame shifting is not only common but is pervasive. We have become a culture of victims. No sin, no failure, no evil is anyone’s fault, but in each individual case someone else is responsible, some circumstance is responsible, some disease or defect is responsible for my sin, and I am not responsible. Wrong, says James.

        But if God is not the author of the temptation that plagues us, what is? James is quick to give the answer: temptation comes from within. Verse 14: “but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” The word translated evil desire does not always have a bad meaning, but that is its most common usage. In the New Testament it often refers to selfish, illicit desire, and is sometimes translated lust. However, this Greek word does not imply exclusively a sexual desire, whereas we use the word lust in a sexual sense most of the time.

        James seems to be thinking of man’s whole fallen nature, the innate tendency toward sin. Temptation springs from this fallen nature as it drags away and entices you. These words imply a forceful dragging out, or dragging away, almost against your own will, in response to the attraction of a well chosen bait. Douglas Moo says “both terms were used in a metaphorical sense to describe the attractive force of pleasure. But the words were originally associated with images of fishing: ‘desire’ is like the hook with its bait, that first entices its prey and then drags it away. If the superficial attractiveness of ‘desire’ is not strenuously resisted, a person can become ‘hooked’ on it, unable to escape from it’s all powerful lure.”

        R. Kent Hughes, who was the author of the fishing story I told the kids, goes on to say “James, in using these words, has graphically painted a picture of how we are tempted by our own illicit desires. When the temptation comes by, we are drawn away from the things which keep us safe. Soon they are far behind as we are wooed by the bright, deceitful temptation, and in a moment we forget who and what we are and bite. So it was for Eve and Adam and Samson and David, and so for us. Or as I say, ‘sin makes you stupid’, or better ‘temptation makes you stupid’.

        Bonhoeffer, in his book Temptation describes how this works: “desire seizes mastery over the flesh.... it makes no difference whether it is sexual desire, ambition, or vanity, the desire for revenge, love of fame and power, or greed for money.... Joy in God is extinguished in us and we seek all our joy in the creature. At this moment God is quite unreal to us, he loses all reality, and only desire for the creature is real;... Satan does not here fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God.... the lust thus aroused envelops the mind and will of man in deepest darkness. The powers of clear discrimination and decision are taken from us.”

        Sin makes us stupid. James could not be more explicit – the source of temptation is not God. He doesn’t even mention the devil here. It is man’s own sinful heart. Man is drawn away and lured and hooked by his own lust. He is accountable, responsible, and no one else is! If we are mastered by lust, the fault is ours and ours alone.

        In verse 15 James turns us from the source to the course of temptation: “then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.” Desire, in itself, is not sin. It is only when a person, by an act of the will, assents to its lure that sin results. James vividly describes the sequence: desire is pictured as the mother (the Greek word is feminine), giving birth to sin. And this child, if it is allowed to become full grown, gives birth in turn to death. It’s a graphic image: the birth process, which should bring life, instead brings death.

        If James is talking to believers, then the cross reference to Romans 6:23, ‘the wages of sin is death’ does not really apply here. For nonbelievers the eternal consequence of sin is death, just as Paul says. But for believers, the consequence James describes is not eternal death, but earthly or physical death. We do see this. The consequence of drug or alcohol abuse is often death. The consequence of adultery or fornication is often death in this age of AIDS. I have even known cases, though I have hesitated to label them this way, where someone who turned from the Christian life to a life of sin became mortally sick in what appeared to be a totally unrelated way. Desire unrestrained leads to sin unchecked leads to death uncomforted, and the believer becomes like that person described in Corinthians: “he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”

         What is the source of evil? Who do you blame when you sin? Do you blame God, who could have protected you from this temptation but didn’t? Do you blame others, who if they had just been a little more caring, a little more helpful, would have seen me through so I didn’t succumb to this temptation? Do you blame circumstances? “I couldn’t help myself, I just happened to stumble across it. I couldn’t tear myself away.” Or do you put the blame where it belongs, on yourself, and on the fallen, sinful nature that still battles in you even though you have now become a believer. Paul teaches us in Ephesians to “put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true holiness and righteousness.” It is the old self and it’s deceitful desires that lead to sin. Your own evil desires drag you away.

III. Good comes from God

        In the last verses James contrasts this evil with good. The source of evil is within. The source of good is God. James 1:16 16Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. 17Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

Verse 16 can be taken as a conclusion to the previous thought, as a preface to the present thought, or as a transition. James simply implores his readers, his beloved brothers, which he uses for the first time here, “Don’t be taken in by this” Don’t be deceived about the source of evil, and don’t be deceived about the source of good.

        The source of good is God. Literally “every good giving and every perfect gift is from above.” James emphasizes that the action of giving is good and all that God gives is perfect. This is the same word we studied last week and translated complete or mature. Whatever we receive from God’s hand these things are good. And as we think about trials, testing, stress or difficulty, this verse and others like it help us hold on to the fact that God is at work for good in our lives. The testing is to produce good in us, to produce endurance, and to make us complete, and give us the wisdom we ask for. God’s purposes are always good when he sends us trials.

        This also teaches us that all of God’s gifts are good. James calls attention especially to creation when he describes God as the Father of the heavenly lights. He is the one who made all the good and beautiful things we see, and the one who after making them pronounced them good. So all of the natural gifts that we have received, the provision of our food and clothing and shelter and families and care, all these things are good gifts coming from the one who created them.

        Even more than that however God’s spiritual gifts to us are good. In verse 18 James cites what may be the greatest of all the gifts this good God has given us: “birth through the Word of truth that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”

        God created everything, and pronounced it good, but when he re-created us through the Word of truth, the gospel we heard and received, then we became the firstfruits of a new creation, made in the Son’s image. We are firstfruits. In the Old Testament these were an offering, the perfect part of the harvest given to God for his purposes.

        Your salvation, your rescue from the evil within through believing the Gospel about Jesus is a good and perfect gift from God the Father. But salvation is not the only good gift he gives. A study of Scripture reveals things like the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus’s gift to us to be with us in this age until he comes. He has given the gift of eternal life, the crown of life which awaits us. He has given the gift of adoption so that we are no longer aliens and strangers but we are now sons and daughters of God, members of his family, and heirs of all that he has made. He has given us the gift of membership in the body of Christ where we find compassion, fellowship and strength for the race of life in this alien world. He has given us good and perfect gifts, and it is to our shame if we ignore or demean or belittle the gifts he has given. Rather we should receive them with gratitude and use them with joy.

        We look inside and we find evil inclinations. We look around and we find a world that is also fallen and that is also full of evil and difficulties. But if we look above to God the Father of the heavenly lights we find an unchanging good, a light for our lives in which there is no shadow, no eclipse, no cloud. God’s unchanging goodness toward us is what sustains us in times of trial when we don’t understand what he is doing, and sustains us in times of temptation when we long to give in to that evil desire, but the spirit of God within us battles that desire and ultimately God gets the victory. It is in looking to God and his goodness that we can endure in the face of trial and that we can blessedly receive the rewards of perseverance, the crown of eternal life which he has promised to those who love him.

        This is reality. It is a realistic and wise assessment of ourselves to look within and see the source of the evils we desire and do. It is a realistic and wise assessment of God to look at him and find in him a goodness which is the antidote for our evil.

        A bone marrow transplant is a recent development, which tragically does not always work to cure leukemia. But when it works the way it should, it provides a wonderful illustration of what we have been talking about. Leukemia is a cancer in which the body produces a huge number of defective white blood cells. Since blood cells are produced in the bone marrow, an extreme but effective treatment for leukemia is to kill all of the bone marrow in a particular patient through a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. Then healthy bone marrow can be introduced by the intravenous injection of stem cells, the seeds of bone marrow, from a donor with a matching marrow type. These stem cells take up residence and begin the production of new bone marrow - unless they are rejected by the patient’s body.

        Now what does this teach us? Evil is from within - we have a cancer inside us, a cancer called sin, a cancer called the fallen nature. Through its evil desires it brings forth an abundance of sin which leads in turn to death. But good comes from God - every good and perfect gift comes from God, but especially the word of truth, the message of the Gospel which he implants in us and which gives us new birth and new life. In the Gospel message we learn that out of his goodness God sent his Son to die the death we ought to have died. Unlike a bone marrow donor, he gave his very life to provide us with a new life and to rescue us from certain death.

         But for you and I even as believers there is a battle going on. Will we accept good from the Father and live, or will we reject the good that he gives, and continue to give in to the evil desires that wage war against our souls. We are blessed when we recognize that all good comes from God. Evil comes from within, but God is the source of good It is in him, and in Jesus that we find health and strength to endure in time of trial.