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When Do Our Desires Go Awry?

Greg E. Gifford, PhD, CBC



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James 1:12-15

I want pose a question to get your mind thinking in a certain direction. When do your good desires go awry? When do your ambitions go south? At what point do your preferences become negative? For instance, when does watching the football game become a wrong desire? Or women, when does going shopping become a wrong desire? James is beginning to expose some of how our desires operate and give us a few pointers to understand when our desires go awry. Look with me in verse 12 of chapter 1. 

James and Its Context


James is the earliest New Testament manuscript, written around 40 AD by Jesus’ half-brother (Gal. 1:19). He is writing to Jews, primarily, as seen in its Jewish over-tones. (1) Monotheism: you believe in one God, you do well (2:19), (2) Re-emphasis of the Mosaic Law (2:8-13), or even the assumption that the readers would know who the prophets, Job and Elijah were (5:7-18). Now, specifically in chapter 1, James has dealt much with temptations and trials. In fact, I would say the majority of the chapter, so far, has been dedicated to trials:

  1. Count it joy in your trials—vv. 2-4
  2. Ask for wisdom in your trials—vv. 5-8
  3. Boasting in your humiliation—vv. 9-11

Now, James wants to bolster why it is that the readers need to appreciate their trials and what is the origination of those trials. Look at verse 12-15 of James chapter 1: “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him. 13 Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: 14 But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. 15 Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:12-15).

Fruit of Trials

Without ignoring verse 12, we have to at least point out as we move to verse 13 that God will reward those who are faithful during trials. Paul also says in 2 Timothy 4:8 that he has a crown of righteousness laid up for him and for those who love His appearing. Perhaps at some point we come work through what this looks like but suffice it to say that our trials and our perseverance in those trials are of paramount importance. Trials are not neutral or disconnected from our walk with Christ but intimately connected with those trials.

Temptation vs. Trial

The next thing to note is the way that James uses the terms temptation, tempted, and trial. The biggest distinction we can draw with temptation and trials is that God does in fact put his people through trials. John 6:6 says Jesus put them to the test to see how they would respond. Hebrews 11:17 says that Abraham was put to the test with Isaac and Exodus 20:20 says that God tested the people of Israel. God does test us to “discover our nature and character.”[1]

However, God never entices us to sin as James states here. That is why verse 13 is true because God cannot be tempted to evil and He doesn’t prompt anyone to commit evil. Then James adds a layer of complexity to the discussion: we are prompted to sin by our own desires. Look at verse 14: “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.” An easy way to think of the difference is envisioning a balloon. God does squeeze and try the balloon yet He never over-inflates the balloon. God will try us and put us through trials but He never coaxes us to sin—we do that.

Your Own Desires

Idiosyncratic Desires

James says that it is our desires that entice us to sin but he says something interesting: look back in verse 14. “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust” (v. 14a). The word in Greek for “his own” is where we get the English word idiosyncratic. It simply means that we do not have the same desires. For instance, I have never been tempted to become a farmer. You know, leave the suburban setting and live off the land and the produce of the land. That is not something that I want to do or a desire that I have but you know what? Many people aspire to own land and live a quiet life on that land: gardening, farming, crafting and so on. When I hear that it sounds more like a prison sentence than a temptation.

James is showing us that our desires are all different. Maybe your desires are towards new cars, or scrapbooking, or fishing, or remodeling your home. Whatever that looks like, James is saying that we each have our own set of individual desires. And even though they are not the same desires, they are same in that they are desires.

When Do They Go Awry?

Are all desires wrong? The Bible is clear in that all desires are not wrong or inherently sinful. Turn in your Bible to Luke 22 and we are going to look at verse 15. In this verse we are going to see the same word used as in James 1:15. Jesus says that, “With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” Same word, same usage, same meaning. This is one of the biggest reasons that we know desires are not inherently wrong because we know that Jesus had them—and He was sinless! C.S. Lewis is famous for saying that “are desires are not too strong, but too weak.” We are desiring creatures by God’s design.

So no, all desires are not sinful, yet when do they go awry? Here is what I want you to write down; sere it into your brain, etch it into the margin of your Bible: our desires go awry when they become demands. Simply put, when you worship your desires more than God. Our desires conceive when they produce offspring, to use the vernacular of James 1:15, and that conception often occurs when we let our good desires morph into sinful demands.

I counseled with a family who had three boys and the oldest boy was in 8th grade. They were a very straight-laced family with the dad being retired military. And one of the reasons they were meeting with me for counseling was because their son was becoming increasingly rebellious. Well, it all came to a head one afternoon as the son refused to listen to his parents and a verbal altercation led to a physical altercation. The verbal fight began with the mother prompting the son to complete his homework and then it spiraled downward from there. Is it wrong to want your son to complete his homework? Absolutely not! Is it wrong to desire for your children to be obedient? No! However, is it wrong to sinfully demand your son to complete his homework? Yes, absolutely!


How Do I Know My Desire Has Gone Awry?

What is a litmus test of our desires to help us sort out when they have gone awry? How can I know if my desire has slowly morphed into a sinful demand? Here is one, over-arching principle: When I am willing to dishonor God to get my desire. When I am willing to sin to get what I want, I know my desire has gone awry. For instance, when I am willing to be rude to my wife and kids because I want some quiet time, my desire for quiet time has gone awry. When I am willing to flatter others to get them to help me, my desires have done awry. When I am willing to ‘stretch the truth’ to avoid a confrontation, my desires have gone awry. When I am willing over-spend to get that new device, my desires have gone awry. When do our desires go awry? When they become demands in which I am willing to sin to obtain their fulfillment.

O that God would save us from ourselves and give us grace to desire Him more than we desire anything else (cf. Ps. 73).[2]

[1] Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[2] I have a debt of gratitude to Steve Viars who helped me see what James was teaching in this passage a few years ago. You can find out more about Steve at http://www.faithlafayette.org/

"God may be looked upon in an absolute consideration, as he is in himself the best and most excellent being, wherein we behold the concurrence of all perfections, the most amiable and beauteous excellences, to an intellectual eye, that it can have an apprehension of." --John Howe, On Delighting in God
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