In the 1950s we frequently sang in Sunday school:’ Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin …’ The hymn continues by promising victory upon victory if you resist temptation: ‘Dark passions subdue’ and ‘Look ever to Jesus’ for ‘He will carry you through.’
James warns of the dangers of yielding, and details the stages of decline into a dead end:
‘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 bring forth death’ (James 1:13-15).
Stage 1 – the cause of temptation
The source of temptation is not God but one’s own desire. Although the Greek word was originally translated as ‘lust’, in itself the strong desire can be neutral, neither a virtue nor a vice. We are naturally equipped with many strong desires: hunger for food, longing for love, thirst for knowledge, and even one’s fear could be a wholesome ‘fear of God’, or it can develop into a neurotic dread of imagined, unmanageable troubles around every blind corner up ahead. These motivating desires urge us to seek pleasure and to avoid pain.
Stage 2 – the conceiving of sin
Conception requires the contribution of two parents. For instance, ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ can only be produced in me when I choose to ‘look ever to Jesus’. God made that plain when he told Israel, ‘From me comes your fruit’ (Hosea 14:8) – the words me and your designating the ‘parents’; the word fruit being the resulting ‘child’. Similarly, sin is the child conceived when a person yields to any evil spirit offering temptation. For example: if I admire someone’s Rollex gold watch, that is not a sin. If, when I see one lying unattended on a wash basin in a public toilet, I visualise it on my own wrist being admired by everyone who sees it, I am now tempted. But if I yield not to temptation and instead report my find, no sin has been committed. However, if I decide to pocket it when I have dried my hands, I have already committed theft in my heart (Matthew 5:22-30).
Stage 3 – the chain of bondage
When fully grown sin ‘brings forth death’. (In Matthew 5:19-20 this death in one’s fellowship with God is described as ‘wandering from the truth’ and in 1 Timothy 5:5-15 as habitual idleness and trouble-making gossip). If I ‘successively’ stole the watch and went on to pick up anything else of worth that I ever found unattended I would become an addicted kleptomaniac. But your deadly habit could be more sophisticated: persistent ‘white lies’, secretive promiscuous sex, implosive anger, sentimental religiosity or ethnic vanity.
Deliverance from bondage
James devotes almost his entire letter to the very practical ways to be set free and stay free from such spiritual death. You must (a) wholeheartedly desire to be free (James 1:5-8), (b) decide to be free (James 4:8-10), and (c) do something about it (James 2:18-26), namely, (d) replace old habits with new ones (James 1:19-25; 3:13-18), (e) resist temptation to stay as you are (James 1:2-4; 4:7; 5:1-11) and (f) retrain with a teachable attitude of meekness to your mentors (James 1:21; 4:6,10), making yourself accountable to them (James 5:16, 19-20).