Q. Can God tempt someone?
God certainly doesn’t tempt people the way that evil forces do, trying to get them to commit sin. The New Testament book of James explains this quite clearly: “Remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, ‘God is tempting me.’ God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away.”
However, the Bible does describe places where God “tests” people; some translations actually use the word “tempt” in these contexts. For example, we read in Genesis that God “tested” Abraham (this is the reading of the NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, etc.) by telling him to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. (I discuss that episode more fully in this post.) The KJV and a few other translations say that God “tempted” Abraham, while others say that God “proved” him (ASV, ERV, Jubliee Bible).
Whatever the translation, this was testing with the expectation of success, not testing designed to expose a person’s weaknesses and inadequacies and “flunk them out.” Abraham not only proved his absolute loyalty and obedience (“Now I know that you fear God,” the Lord told him), God was able to use the occasion to offer a polemic against human sacrifice (which was supposed to be the takeaway from the episode for the later Israelites who would be tempted to adopt this pagan practice).
So while God may sometimes “test” people so that the virtues they are developing can be vindicated and displayed, God never “tempts” people to do wrong. Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” that is, we should ask God to keep us away from temptation. Paul writes in several of his letters that we should “flee” from things that would lead us to do wrong. Since God does not want us even to get close to things that might lead us to sin, but to move actively away from them, God would not actively tempt us to sin.
How, then, do we explain the statement in Matthew’s gospel that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”? (Luke says similarly that Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”)
Once again we should recognize that from God’s perspective, this was intended as a “test.” It was meant to show that Jesus, who had just been identified at his baptism as the “Son of God” (that is, the Messiah), would choose to be the right kind of Messiah when the devil—trying instead to “tempt” him to make the wrong choice—tried to get him to present himself as some kind of magician, or a world ruler, or someone who would primarily meet material needs. By continually answering the devil’s temptations from the Scriptures (“it is written,” Jesus said over and over again), Jesus demonstrated his godly learning, character and priorities.
This “test,” from God’s perspective, showed that He was right to say confidently, at Jesus’ baptism just earlier, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” But the “temptation,” from the devil’s perspective, failed—Jesus was not sidetracked into becoming the wrong kind of Messiah. (This dual significance is present in the Greek verb that is used; as the NIV translators’ note explains, “The Greek for tempted can also mean tested.”)
We see that in a typical situation, God has one plan, while evil forces have another plan. In his first epistle, Peter explains God’s purpose in trials or tests: “These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” In the gospel of John, Jesus explains the devil’s plan and how it contrasts with his own mission: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
So it is important to recognize that any situation can be a temptation that we might fail, if evil plans succeed, or a test that validates and strengthens our Christian character, if God’s plan succeeds. The important thing is to recognize God’s plan in the situation and follow it. As Paul explains, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
So if you ever feel as if God might be tempting you, recognize instead that you are actually in a situation where your devotion and loyalty to God can be proven afresh, if you seek to discern God’s plans and purposes for the situation and join in with them.