In our Saturday evening study, we’ve started looking at the book of James. In our Monday evening studies, we’ve continued to look at David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. The most recent chapter (7) challenges us to question interpretations.The topics intertwined this week as we looked at the interpretation that the NIV translation brings to James 1.
James 1 starts off by discussing trials and temptations. James 1:2-3 tells us to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (NIV) One example of such a trial is that of Abraham and God’s command to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1: “God tested Abraham” (NIV)).
A little later in the chapter, James 1 (NIV) says the following:
“12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
These are words of comfort and challenge to those hearing them. Take comfort in God’s presence in the midst of trials and see the blessing of them; at the same time, do not blame God for your temptations, acting as if it is God’s fault you have sinned. Remembering the context and to whom this is written (James 1:1 says “To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations”), it is likely a text written to believers who have suffered hardship +persecution and who also struggle with what it means even to believe in Christ. Recognizing how those believers ought to have interpreted James’ words, the NIV translation makes a clear distinction between trials, which God does bring to his people (cf. Gen 22 and Abraham), and temptations (“enticement to commit an evil act”), which God can not bring to people (cf James 1:13). For more on this and the translation, see the Zondervan Bible Backgrounds Commentary.
While I think the NIV does a good job in translating this text in order to make clear James’ point that there is a difference between suffering caused by sin and falling into temptation and other suffering that God allows, it is still an interpretation. And it is an interpretation that takes away some of the questions that a reader might have when looking at the text. The word that the NIV translates as trials is a noun (πειρασμός peirasmos) that is derived from the (Greek) verb πειράζω (peirazō). This the same verb that is used in the Septuagint in talking about how God tested Abraham providing a clear example of how God sends trials/testing. James 1:12 once again reiterates the goodness of trials, and implicitly God’s role in this, by saying how blessed we are when we persevere under trials (πειρασμός peirasmos).
However, James 1:13, which points out that God does not tempt us, uses the exact same verb: πειράζω (peirazō). How is it possible that James can claim that God does not peirazo us when God did peirazo Abraham in Gen 22?!? The NIV translation provides a good answer to that question through their translation. Yet, by cleaning up this difficulty in the text, they remove some of the shock/surprise of the text for the reader. The reader is given an answer without being first forced to ask the question. Nor is the reader given the opportunity to recognize other dimensions of the text that this translation hides: that trials and temptations are often more closely linked than we’re comfortable with in much of our theology. And sin is messy (cf. James 1:14-15): can it be that God has made us in such a way that our wrong desires drag us into sin? But doesn’t that kind of put the blame on God? (see Ezekiel 3:20 and my own explanation of this text, albeit in Dutch).
While being forced to do more interpretation on our own can lead to poor or even distressing interpretations, I nonetheless believe that it is worth the risk. Because I believe that being forced to ask questions by the text increases our curiosity about the biblical text and Christianity. And in searching for the answers, we find space to ask more honest questions and discover more clearly who God is (and not just who we’ve been told God is).