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April 10, 2021
Is it a trial? Or a temptation? How to tell the difference.
By Mike Adkins

Have you ever felt down and not known why? Whether it’s a general malaise or a deep sadness, King David could relate. Often in the Psalms, David looks inward and asks some variation of the question, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” (Psalm 42:5) Sometimes his despondence is the result of external circumstances – running for his life, being hunted like an animal (you know, everyday stressors). And sometimes his sorrow is a direct result of his own sin. 

The greatest distinction between a trial and a temptation lies within its source.

In his letter to the dispersed church, James differentiates between these forms of suffering by using two key terms: “trials” and “temptations.” This is a helpful distinction for diagnosing personal soul sickness. Are you experiencing a trial or a temptation? How do you distinguish between the two, and what next steps can you take in response?

The greatest distinction between a trial and a temptation lies within its source.
Temptation never comes from God. In fact, James writes, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone” (James 1:13). Temptations arise from one of three sources: our enemy the devil, who “prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8); love of the world and the things in the world (I John 2:15); and the desires of our own flesh, which war against the Spirit (Galatians 5:17).

In contrast, trials or “tests” often come from God for the sake of producing steadfastness and maturity. “Consider it pure joy,” James writes, “whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4). 

The testing of our faith is a painful, powerful gift from God, born out of His deepest love. Now I’ll be the first to admit, it never feels like love in the moment. Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Whether your trial is the result of a broken world, a test sent by God, or the discipline of a Father who fiercely loves you – ultimately it wields great potential for training and blessing.

If the purpose of a trial is to train and mature us, what then is the purpose of a temptation? The ultimate goal of any and all temptation is the destruction of the person being tempted, for “after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). For this reason, the biblical response to temptation is never to engage or linger, but always to resist and flee. James 4:7 urges us to “resist” the devil, and I Corinthians tells us to “flee,” promising that God will faithfully provide a way out (I Corinthians 6:18, 10:13). 

When it comes to tests, our response is a little bit different. Instead of thinking in terms of “resist” or “yield,” we must think in terms of “pass” or “fail.” Make no mistake, Christ longs for us to pass because He wants to develop godliness within us. Like any faithful teacher dedicated to the growth of his disciple, if you fail the test, He will administer it again. It may not come in the same form, but it will come again because Christ is committed to developing steadfastness within you and me. He is committed to our ultimate good because He is a good and faithful Shepherd. 

Temptations lead to death and tests lead to life. 2 Corinthians 7:10 talks about a similar principle using the terms “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow.” Paul writes, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” Is the sorrow in your life leading you toward Jesus or away from Him? That is the ultimate question because the answer is (quite literally) a matter of life or death. 

Let the sorrow in your life lead you to Jesus. Let it draw your heart close to His (James 4:8). Whether you come to Him for satisfaction so you may withstand temptation, or you come to Him for absolution because you’ve already given in – you will encounter the same Christ, One who welcomes and loves you regardless. So come to Him when the test is minor, and you think it’s too insignificant to mention. Come to Him when the test is more than you can possibly bear. Come when you pass and when you fail. What’s important is not why you come to Jesus, but that you come at all.


  1. Mokgadi

    Very informative, I learned a lot. I thank you I needed this.

  2. Mokgadi

    I read somewhere that when you are trailed are you do not use the word of God and remain obedient you will be trailed again at the same level because no growth has occurred. If one continues to remain at the same position does God look for someone else to do the work that you were ordained for? If yes, what will happen to you when you eventually build your spiritual capacity and grow?


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