Is This a Trial or a Temptation? (Some Further Reflections on James 1:9-15)

Sunday I preached on James 1:9-15, and I put in some of the hardest work I’ve ever done on a sermon.

From the late hours spent in prep to the physical exertion of actually preaching it, I wrestled with this passage. But like Jacob, after he had wrestled with God, out of my grappling I received a blessing. The Lord spoke to me through this passage, convicting me about my own responses to difficult situations.

When faced with a challenge, do I turn to him for help, or do I first try to rely on my own resources? That is one of the key questions arising from this text, and it is really the the key to unlocking one of this passage’s greatest difficulties.

The Challenge

In this passage, James talks a lot about trials and temptations. These are not the same. Trials are painful circumstances that test one’s faith. Temptations are enticing opportunities to pursue sin. The former leads to life whereas the latter “brings forth death.” Here is the difficult: James uses almost identical words to describe both trials and temptations.

He uses a the noun πειρασμός (peirasmos) for trial, and he uses πειράζω (peirazo), a verb, for tempt. Because these words are so identical (“tempt” is really just the verb form of “trial”), it is hard to figure out which one James is talking about. 

I brought up this difficulty at last week’s teaching meeting with the other pastors, and Jason LaLonde wisely said something like, “What a great pastoral insight. Life is the same way. It can be difficult in life to determine whether the situation we’re in is a trial or a temptation.” So true.

Telling the Difference

So how can we tell whether a circumstance we find ourselves in is a trial or a temptation?

According to James, a trial is a situation that is painful but that ultimately results in joy through perseverance. A trial is an opportunity to take our eyes off of this world, and ourselves, and to lift our gaze to heaven, where God is holding our eternal life in deposit for us (Rom. 8:23; 2 Cor. 1:22, 5:5). A trial build’s one faith, leads to joy, and prepares one for eternal life. Even if it results in death, it has a happy ending.

It’s interesting that James always uses the verb form to talk about temptation. Whereas a trial is something we go through, being tempted is what happens when we respond the wrong way. Rather than trusting in the Lord, we take our eyes off him and turn to sin. We look for a way out that short-circuits the trial.

It’s like this: a trial is like taking the SAT. It’s long, it’s boring, it’s frustrating, but it’s an important step toward a brighter future.

Temptation is what happens when we start fantasizing about how much easier it would be to slip a smartphone out and just Google a few of the answers. That way lies failure.

When We Miss the Mark

There is not a single one of us who has always handled trials well. We have all given into temptation at various times. And because a life of giving into sinful temptation is one that leads to death, we are in desperate need of a rescue. Jesus, is the one man who was “in every respect… tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Yet he died. For us. Taking the consequence we had earned for pursuing temptation.

When a person repents and trusts in Jesus, God forgives all their sins. The slate is wiped clean, and Jesus’s perfect righteousness is credited to their account (2 Cor. 5:21).

Jesus gives his people strength to withstand every trial, and mercy when we don’t measure up.

Progress Over Time

Over time, as we face more trials and come through with faith intact, we grow in spiritual strength. These trials are preparing us for an eternity with God.

The dividing line between trial and temptation runs right through the center of the human heart. If you are going through a difficult time right now, do not lose faith. Remember that the same God who promises life to those who love him, has given you his love by sending you his Son (John 3:16).

This trial is not the end. And the next one won’t be the end either. For those who love God, Romans 8:28 says, “all things work together for good.”


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