The letter of St. James holds an interesting place in the Bible. Martin Luther could not quite reconcile it with his understanding of the New Testament and considered it as less important than the rest of the writings in it. Today, it can also be a stumbling block for those who say that all is needed for salvation is to pray a prayer like the sinner’s prayer, or to confess Jesus Christ as the savior. The reading for this past Wednesday in the Paschal-cycle lectionary includes another difficult passage.
St. James says, “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am 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” (Jas. 1:13-14?).
The first difficulty lies in the fact that we have become accustomed to thinking of blessings as ‘getting those things we want.’ In particular, when we hear someone say, ‘I’ve been blessed,’ it is most often in referencing success: financial, professional, athletic, or personal. This does not match very well with the idea that trials are means of blessing.
The second difficulty is that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” A common understanding of temptation is “a suggestion from the devil, enticing man into sin” (Philokalia v.1, p.365). The Church teaches us that the suggestion itself is not a sin. We cannot prevent someone else from acting. What we are responsible for is our reaction to that suggestion: we are free to accept or reject it.
We are unlikely to accept something that does not seem appealing to us. Conversely, we are likely to accept something that we like, that we covet, that is dear to us. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be delivered from the evil one. The Greek work is πονηρός –malicious, knavish, wicked. In Romanian it is at times translated as ‘cunning,’ or ‘wily.’ The devil, therefore, tries to pray on our weaknesses, to push our buttons. Temptations then, come from those areas which we hold dearest; so dear, perhaps, that they have become, as we mentioned last week, passions.
This is where prayer, ascetic toils, self-knowledge, and vigilance come into play. These are our weapons in the “struggle […] against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12) . They allow us to see our weaknesses, to learn where our desires are misdirected and to turn these desires towards that which is good and godly, for indeed, when all that we desire is good, there is no place left for sin to take a hold within us.
With love in