What Tempts God?

A very bright younger friend of mine, an up-and-coming pastoral intern, asked me a really good question yesterday and I thought it was good fodder for a blog post. Perhaps others have asked this and not found a satisfactory answer? I hope this helps. Here’s the question: How can James say God tempts no one (Jas 1:13) when in fact God, in 2 Samuel 24:1, incited David to take a census of Israel—a sin for which David repented in verse 10?

"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." (Jam 1:13 ESV)

There are several points that have to be considered when trying to resolve this question.

  1. In James 1, the context concerns the way that God tests His people to refine them and reward them with eternal life. So, verse 2 refers to the “testing of your faith” as producing “steadfastness”, and God’s more ultimate goal is not merely steadfastness but that His people be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (verse 4). Keep in mind here that when God tests His people His goal is to perfect them. Then in verses 5-8 James teaches that faith in God amounts to trust that God will supply in us what we lack when we ask Him (e.g., “if any of you lack wisdom”) in order to accomplish His purpose of perfecting His people. Verses 9-11 can be understood to teach that God’s people should be content with their circumstances, even trials like poverty, as instruments of God toward the accomplishment of His purposes: whether rich or poor, one’s boasting ought not to be in poverty or wealth, but in what God is accomplishing as He refines us (e.g., uplifting the poor man, teaching humility to the rich man). Verse 12 reiterates God’s ultimate purpose in testing His people—to reward those who love and trust Him with eternal life. To paraphrase verse 13 then with this context in mind, we could render it, “No one should think that when God is testing someone for a good purpose that He is tempting that person for an evil purpose, since evil is not attractive to God and He doesn’t intend evil for anyone.”
  2. Taking this context from James 1 into account, then, we could hypothesize that on one level, the ultimate difference between good and evil is not a bare act but the motivation or purpose behind the act. So someone can do a thing that by itself seems good and actually be guilty of evil (e.g., praying or giving money to the poor in order to impress onlookers, c.f. Mat 6:5). Conversely, when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery they were guilty of evil since they intended evil, but God is worthy of praise because in their actions God intended good (c.f. Gen 50:20). Back to James’ point then, God cannot be said to tempt to evil since God always intends purposes that are ultimately good.
  3. Considering now the incident recorded in 2 Samuel 24:1, we read that God “incited” David to do a thing which was later recognized as a sin. The first thing to observe about this incident is that the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 21:1 reads, “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” So the Bible, one the one hand says it was Satan who incited David to sin and on the other hand that it was God who incited David to sin. Given the sovereignty of God, there is no problem in understanding that Satan did incited David to this sin because God decreed that Satan do so. An obvious precedent for reading these parallel passages this way is found in the book of Job where we read, in Job 1:12, 2:6 and that God turned Job over to Satan’s hand, with certain conditions, implying both that God uses Satan according to His divine purposes, but also that Satan remains under God’s rule and authority. In fact, Job significantly utters this prophetic insight in Job 42:2, when he says to God that “no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” One could object that this is just Job’s point of view, in which he might be mistaken since the Scripture is only recording his opinion here and not offering his statement as divinely inspired objective truth. However, this objection falls apart when we consider the objective statement of the narrator of the book of Job, in Job 42:11, which says that it was ultimately not Satan, but God who brought all the foregoing evil upon Job. So in the same actions, Satan did evil because he intended Job harm but God did good because He intended to… what? At least it’s safe to say that one of the chief purposes of God in the account of Job is to display His own glory. And that’s an ultimately good thing!
  4. The precise wording of the two passages in question, 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1, allow for this interpretation. 2 Sam says that God incited David “against Israel” because God was angry with Israel. 1 Chron says that Satan incited David to “number Israel” which was a sinful thing to do because of the pride at the heart of David’s motivation and also because in the way in which he conducted the census of Israel he disobeyed the commandment in Exodus 30:12. So in the same taking of the census, Satan was inciting David to sin but God was punishing Israel’s sin. The event serves to glorify God for His justice without excusing David’s guilt.

In conclusion, the word “tempt”, in James 1:13, is used four times in that verse alone, all with the same Greek root word, “peirazo” (to test, to tempt). Yet the verse just prior to this (Jas 1:12) refers to “testing” as a good thing using the same root word, “peirazo”! Likewise, in Jas 1:2, “trials” which James’ readers are exhorted to regard with joy is also the same Greek root, “peirazo”. Verse 3 credits these joyous “trials” as benevolent tests from God for our good. So in verse 13, James is not saying that God never instigates a “test/trial/temptation” (Gk: peirazo), since clearly in verses 2-3 (and perhaps 12) He does! Rather, the reason most translations render word forms from the root peirazo, “trials” in verse 2 but “tempt” in verse 13, is that in verse 2, the trials are intended by God for good, but in verse 13, the hypothetical temptations James is referring to were wrongly believed by some to be for the purpose of evil. This all amounts to saying that when something happens to me that is a test or temptation or trial, I am not to suppose that God is trying to make me sin, but rather than God is intending to perfect me and accomplish in me His purposes of eternal life and His own glory. Sin and evil do not tempt God. Though it seems foolish to use the idea of peirazo in this sense when applying it to God, the only thing that “tempts” God (so to speak) is ultimate goodness accomplishing His own glory.